Options for dealing with squatting

United Kingdom
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As the Metropolitan Police say, and this brilliant publication reveals, most buildings that squatters live in have been abandoned or are otherwise empty. When peoples’ only choice is criminalized, the legality of the law itself is discredited.’ – Danny Dorling (All That Is Solid: The Great Housing Disaster)

Almost everyone was against the criminalization of squatting. When the Ministry of Justice put out their consultation – Options for Dealing with Squatting – in July 2011, it's safe to assume they had not anticipated that 96 per cent of respondents would ask them not to change the law; they must have been surprised to discover that included people like the Metropolitan Police Force, the Law Society, their own Liberal Democrat partners in government, and various homeless charities, including Crisis and Shelter. Despite overwhelming opposition, the government ploughed ahead with their property protection plan; what was previously a private matter between property owners and occupiers is now a matter for the police – and can be punished by up to six months in prison or a $6,760.00 fine.

Take a closer look and it's not difficult to see why most were against criminalization. At the time squatting was criminalized in England and Wales, there were 1.2 million families on housing waiting-lists, while over 750,000 properties stood empty for six months or more. Despite Ministers and the media laying the groundwork for legislative change by carpet bombing public opinion with mistruths, the reality is that squatting is a relatively minor problem; however, one of the major causes of the UK housing crisis is property being kept deliberately unavailable and unused by wealthy speculators – often as a way of avoiding tax. It is speculation, not squatting, that causes most insecurity in the housing market.

And as the consultation responses revealed, not everyone sees squatting as a problem: most respondents to the consultation wrote in support of its many positives. One such response pointed out that squatting is only a problem for those who own multiple properties, and that it has traditionally been a solution for those who can’t call themselves owners:

The number of Interim Possession Orders indicates that this really is quite a small problem for society (although it can be a large problem for a small number of individuals). The “tradition” of squatting, traced back to the Diggers, has undoubtedly had benefits for society.’

All this begs the question: why would the government spend vast sums of public money to protect those who perpetuate the problems caused by empty properties? And why would it do so by criminalizing homeless people in the midst of a housing crisis? Many respondents to the consultation questioned the government's priorities: property protection for the rich and prison for the poor seemed an unfair proposition of almost Dickensian proportion. In their consultation response, Liberal Democrat think-tank Alter pointed out that those who benefit from criminalization – wealthy tax-avoiders – have the ear of government:

This change is contrary to the interests of UK taxpayers. It would provide a valuable state funded benefit to wealthy tax avoiders. This influential lobby has the ear of Conservative Justice Minister Crispin Blunt. If he were concerned about ordinary property owners who actually pay tax in the UK, there are far cheaper ways of protecting them from squatters.

During what little debate there was on criminalization, John McDonnell MP (now Shadow Chancellor) reminded the House of Commons that it should ask of all legislation: ‘Will it cause more problems than it seeks to prevent?’ After six months, not a single person arrested under Section 144 was found to be displacing a home-owner. The first person to be jailed under the new law was Alex Haigh, a 21-year-old brick layer who, struggling to find work during a housing crisis, was living in a property in Pimlico, London that had been otherwise empty for over a year at the time of his arrest, and was owned by property developers.

There is some hope that this obviously unjust law could be binned. These days, there’s significantly shorter shrift for wealthy tax-avoiders ploughing their ill-gotten gains into London property and leaving it empty, particularly in the midst of a housing crisis. Nobody could have predicted that John McDonnell – who campaigned against the criminalization of squatting both before and after the introduction of Section 144 – would one day become Shadow Chancellor. If a new-look Labour gain power, a repeal could well be on the cards – because, as McDonnell said six months after criminalization:

People are being made unnecessarily homeless and very vulnerable people are suffering as a consequence. This legislation was based upon prejudice and has only made matters worse.

Options for dealing with squatting is a short collection of responses to the consultation, published by Dog Section Press. You can read it online or pick up a print copy.

Vyvian Raoul is an editor at Dog Section Press.