This is a summary of the various responses to the Government consultation on squatting.
Residential property owners
The Local Government Group was at pains to express the view that it was crucial to make better use of the existing housing stock.
A number of local authorities and private providers of social housing wrote in support of tougher measures to tackle squatting. They were concerned about the time and money spent on evicting squatters from social housing and repairing damage to make the properties habitable for legitimate tenants. They acknowledged that the criminal law provided some degree of protection, for example where a legitimate council tenant was waiting to occupy a property, but they stated that some of the social houses that were occupied by squatters were those awaiting renovation or refurbishment where an intending occupier had not yet been identified.
The National Landlords Association (NLA), Residential Landlords Association (RLA) and the British Property Federation agreed that the current law is inadequate. The NLA did not necessarily believe that banning all types of squatting was the right answer, but would support new police powers to direct squatters to leave a building. However, the RLA and the BPF were supportive of a new offence and suggested that it should cover both residential and commercial buildings. Transport for London provided evidence of squatters occupying residential properties bordering road-widening schemes. They were supportive of proposals for a new offence and provided evidence of organised groups of squatters actively looking for empty TfL properties. A number of individual residential property owners said they had been victims of squatting and were supportive of proposals for a new offence.
Non-residential property owners
On the commercial side, Ballymore Group were concerned about ‘squatters’ parties’ being held in large, empty commercial units. Small business owners described the loss of income arising from squatters occupying commercial units. Network Rail provided evidence of squatters occupying buildings near railways, including premises under railway arches, but did not support an outright ban on squatting and queried whether the police would have the resources to deal with high numbers of squatters. They suggested that civil remedies should be made more efficient so that squatters could be evicted more quickly.
The British Property Federation said that most cases of squatting that had been reported to them related to residential property, but they recognised that commercial property was also susceptible to squatting and supported extending any new offence to all buildings.
Legal professionals, the police and the judiciary
The Criminal Bar Association and the Law Society strongly opposed the creation of a new criminal offence. They both argued that the current law was effective and that unnecessary new regulation should be avoided. The Law Society argued that squatting was a rare problem and introducing new offences when there was already a range of existing offences would be disproportionate and counterproductive. They queried whether the police would have the resources to enforce new offences when they appeared to be unwilling to enforce existing laws.
The Property Litigation Association took the opposite view. The Association reported that one of its members had recently dealt with the eviction of squatters from commercial premises in West London. This had cost the client a total of nearly £6,000 including fees, costs and VAT. In the event, the eviction was unopposed; it would have cost the client significantly more had the squatters opposed the eviction. Other members reported costs incurred of between £3,000 and £8,000 in respect of residential and commercial properties, but those figures ignored the cost of repairing any damage to the properties. The Association felt that both residential and commercial property owners needed greater protection from squatters.
A number of law firms which had represented commercial clients supported extending any new offence to all buildings. One firm said its clients were frustrated with the limited powers of the police, “particularly in relation to commercial premises where criminal damage is alleged”.
The Metropolitan Police considered that the law was broadly in the right place and that the existing offences allowed them to tackle the worst cases of squatting (e.g. where squatters cause the rightful homeowner to be displaced). If changes were made to legislation, however, they could see that there might be a case for widening existing offences to ensure that unoccupied residential properties were protected by any new offence, for example homes under renovation or second properties. They warned that new offences could have an impact on policing in terms of community relations, local policing objectives and cost. They said that many of the known squats in the London boroughs were occupied by foreign nationals and significant work would need to be undertaken with the communities affected, local councils and related third sector organisations, to ensure that enforcement was carried out in a proportionate and appropriate manner. High Court Enforcement Officers also questioned whether the police would have the resources to carry out difficult evictions. They pointed out that some squatters would go to extreme lengths to avoid being evicted and the police may not have the expertise to deal with them.
The CPS supported the creation of a new offence. They considered that the current law provided inadequate protection to homeowners who were not intent on immediate occupation of their property but who had not abandoned the property. They indicated that if any new offence were limited to residential property, the offence was unlikely to catch those who occupied non- residential buildings (e.g. academic buildings) for the purpose of protest. However, they were concerned about the impact on their resources and hoped that funds would be made available for extra prosecutions.
The Magistrates’ Association said it was generally reluctant to see new laws being created without proper analysis of why existing powers might not be working satisfactorily. They preferred the option of making any offence contingent upon a refusal to leave on request by the rightful owner, as this would ensure that any new law did not result, for example, in hikers taking shelter in a derelict outbuilding in the mountains or fells being prosecuted for squatting.
Homelessness charities and advisory services for squatters
Regional and national homelessness charities, including Crisis, Thames Reach, Shelter, Homeless Link, Housing Justice, St Mungo’s and the Squatters’ Advisory Service had serious concerns about any proposals to criminalise squatting. They argued that squatting was a symptom of the housing crisis, and that for many homeless and vulnerable people, squatting was the only way of avoiding rough sleeping. A campaign organised by Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes (SQUASH) which generated 1,990 individual responses to the consultation, echoed the views of the homelessness charities, but also described dilapidated buildings being brought back to life by squatters and the positive impact this could have on a neighbourhood.
Students and firefighters
The University and College Union and the National Union of Students were both strongly opposed to the creation of any new offence which might criminalise the unauthorised occupation of buildings in relation to student protests. Both organisations pointed to the effect that a criminal record might have on a young person’s future career prospects. The Fire and Rescue Services’ general view was that there was a need for a new criminal offence as squatters created problems for firemen who were sometimes unaware of their presence in the building. If a new offence deterred squatters from occupying hazardous buildings this would be welcomed by fire crews.