A halfway house on squatting

Since squatting in residential homes was outlawed, a commercial property has become the dropout des res 

Last September squatting in a residential property became a criminal offence punishable by up to six months in prison and/or a fine of up to £5,000. The result: an increase in squatting in commercial properties. Surely the legislature could have seen that one coming.

Squatters are generally pretty clued up on their rights and a quick Google search reveals many websites that provide detailed advice and support to them. Many of these sites advise that squatting in commercial premises is not caught by the change in the law.

While residential property owners are in a much better position than they were, the situation for owners of commercial property is worse.

As a consequence, justice secretary Chris Grayling is facing increasing pressure to extend anti-squatting laws to include commercial property. On 2 September three prominent Labour figures wrote to Grayling calling on him to widen the law.

In the letter Lib Peck (leader of Lambeth Council), Chuka Umunna (shadow business secretary) and Tessa Jowell MP state: “[…] unfortunately, the problem of squatters for commercial property owners has since worsened, and Lambeth has seen an increase in the number of squatters targeting non-residential buildings.

“At present, businesses with an empty property are concerned that they not only have to pay full business rates, but they also have to spend significant sums of money securing their premises and face lengthy and costly legal proceedings to evict squatters.”

They refer to two examples to highlight the extent of the problem and the costs to the owners which, in both cases, exceed £100,000.

The letter has not been well-received by squatters’ groups. Squatters Action for Secure Homes has written an open letter to Umunna, Jowell and Peck in which they refer to the “necessity” of squatting as a result of “one of the worst housing crises this country has ever seen”. They go on to say that “squatters have a proud history of taking over abandoned buildings and bringing them back into use to make homes”.

There are indeed many who feel strongly that the law on squatting criminalises the actions of those who are most needy and vulnerable, namely the homeless, and that rather than extend anti-squatting laws to commercial property the law as it stands should be scrapped so that no form of squatting is a criminal offence.

Justice minister Damian Green is said to be monitoring the situation but there is no commitment to extend anti-squatting laws to ensure there is a consistent approach to tackling the issue of squatters.

So, we are at a halfway house. Squatting is no more a problem in residential property than it is in commercial and it is difficult to see why the distinction was made when the law was introduced. 

The legislation has failed to eradicate the problem that Parliament intended to remedy and urgent reform is needed to establish a consistent approach to squatting.