Among the little noticed achievements of this government is a long overdue reform to make squatting a criminal offence in England and Wales (it has been one in Scotland since 1865). This change, which became law last year, is largely thanks to the efforts of Mike Weatherley, Conservative MP for Hove. His determination shows that a backbench MP can make a difference.
Yet the reform has not been implemented in full. For no very clear reason it only applies to residential buildings. This means that squatting remains merely a civil offence when other buildings are targeted.
Some try to justify squatting on the grounds that squatters have no alternative. But those who are working could pay rent while those on low pay or unemployed would be eligible for housing benefit. In any case, what basis can there be of taking something from somebody else on the basis that they have it and you want it? Would that principle be applied to stealing food or a car?
Squatting has long been as much about making a political statement as about a genuine housing need. Thus middle-class youths, who could probably afford to pay for their own housing, often seek the radical chic of an “alternative” lifestyle as their protest against capitalism.
That the law needs to be tightened is shown by a current case in Hammersmith and Fulham, where I am a councillor. Squatters have taken over a family centre in Shepherd’s Bush. As it is not designated a residential building, the police do not have the power to execute an eviction. It is a civil offence and there has been a long delay while the council obtains a court order. Council taxpayers’ money is diverted from providing services to paying for lawyers. The building is scheduled to be adapted as a specialist school for autistic children. The work is being delayed and disrupted by the squatters, whose presence is also intimidating to local residents.
Official inertia is a source of frustration. Last year the Police Federation complained that criminalising squatting would give them “more work to do”, a profoundly depressing mentality. Certainly it is always sensible for councils to keep the length of time a building is empty to the minimum, although in this case reasonable efforts were made to secure the site.
But the police and property owners still don’t have the law on their side when it comes to squatters in non-residential buildings. If this changed, removing squatters would be a far more rapid and straightforward process.
The government should be commended for tightening the law. Now it should complete the job and make squatting a criminal offence for all types of property.