One of the curious things about the Ministry of Justice’s advice on dealing with squatters in your home, published yesterday, is that it has a section called “How can I evict a tenant who won’t leave?” It then offers advice on the “difficult procedural requirements to be followed”.
Another is the starting point: “If you return from holiday or walking the dog to find squatters in your home and they refuse to leave, you can call the police and report a criminal offence”. Of course, this stirred the media juices and Grant Shapps got himself on the telly, where he denounced the Advisory Service for Squatters as a fully staffed organisation, whereas ASS say they are run entirely by unpaid volunteers and therefore must be part of the ‘Big Society’. ASS are adamant that they do not promote lawlessness. I suspect they will welcome the publicity and free advertising for what they do.
You may not like it but squatting, in defined circumstances, is still a legal activity. I suspect that the number of cases of people squatting other people’s homes while they are walking the dog is really quite small, and insignificant compared to the number of squatters in the country. It’s also insignificant compared to the number of homeless people and the number of empty properties, and there is the real issue.
That some squatters do some bad things is beyond doubt, and there has been an amount of difficult-to-justify squatter tourism in the past, but history tells us that squatting in this country has had a big impact on housing policy and pushing public authorities into tackling the waste of homes being kept empty. Historically, the occupation of the Centrepoint tower block, a political squat, raised awareness of homelessness more than any other single act, apart possibly from the screening of Cathy Come Home.
Big landlords and councils who kept homes empty deliberately awaiting development or sale, smashing facilities to make them uninhabitable, found themselves challenged by squatters who made them habitable again and showed that they could provide acceptable accommodation for people who needed it in the meanwhile. Many sought to come to an arrangement with the property owners, seeking licenses and agreements to occupy, leading to the creation of a self-help housing movement in short-life housing. In one of the biggest and longest squats, Elgin Avenue in West London, a terrace of large houses would have been left empty by the GLC for many years; instead an extraordinary community was formed and the GLC mended its ways, to the benefit of all concerned including the neighbours.
Attacking squatters for a cheap bit of publicity is one thing. But all of the political parties in the Election highlighted new initiatives to deal with empty homes, and they all denounced it as a scandal. Yet none acknowledged that it is down to the squatters of the past that this issue strikes such a chord with the public today.