Squatting- A Reply to Mike Weatherley MP

The debate on squatting has become highly polarised and increasingly bad tempered. Mr Weatherley’s salvo is merely the latest in a range of unhelpful comments that make for good newspaper sales but achieve little. It falls to me to open the NL team’s reply.

In fairness to Mr Weatherley squatters sometimes fail to do themselves any favours. It is hard to find sympathy for those who gloat in the media about the places they have managed to live in for free. However, the media portrayal of squatters as unwashed freeloading hippies or trainee rioters is grossly inaccurate.

I have spent many years dealing with squatters. Mostly, in fact, for the benefit of property owners although admittedly for fees so it is true to say that I have a vested interest in the development of the law in this area. However, that does not mean I am automatically interested in the status quo. As a lawyer who makes a lot of money from lecturing and writing I am always happy to see a change on the law. Whether I am an expert in the area or not is something that I will leave to others, I have certainly never proclaimed such expertise although it is certainly true that I believe I well understand the law in this area.

Anyway, my time dealing with the practical realities teaches me that squatting is about one word….desperation. The desperation of those who have nowhere to sleep other than a street corner. The desperation of landlords, tenants, and property owners who feel pressured by the economic situation, have been told by the Police that it is a “civil matter”, and feel aggrieved that they should have to pay money to recover what they already rightfully own. To this mix is added a new desperation, that of a government that has been forced to administer harsh economic medicine and is now searching for Mary Poppins’ spoonful of sugar to ease its passing with their core voters.

And this is the rub. Squatting a property rightly occupied by someone else is already a criminal offence. One the Police are generally reluctant to spend effort enforcing. Creating a new offence of squatting in general ignores the value of squatting in making efficient use of empty property and is not likely to make the Police change their enforcement priorities.

Populist comments by the likes of Mr Weatherly doubtless play well in certain sectors of the media and with some of his voters but they do little to actually tackle the problem. Trashing others to make yourself look better is an age old response to hard times. It is also a technique used by schoolboys to attract the opposite sex, one usually abandoned in puberty. The government needs to consider why squatting is occurring, measure the size of the problem, and consider how to tackle the homelessness, social exclusion, and wasteful use of valuable property that are at the heart of the issue instead of taking cheap shots at those who express legitimate disagreement. I am perfectly prepared, as I am sure are many others, to talk to the government and help them consider how to deal with those issues. Perhaps this would be a better gauntlet for Mr Weatherley to throw down.

Desperation….it’s hard to fix, but that is what governments are elected for and what the very best governments are remembered for.

Posted in FLW article, Housing law - All and tagged , .

About David Smith

David is a solicitor specialising in landlord and tenant matters with Anthony Gold Solicitors. He particularly specialises in newer legislation and has written widely on the Housing Act 2004.

15 Comments

  1. It would seem some people are unable to grasp the fact that people break the criminal law.

    It is already an offence but it happens. Therefore we must make it an offence in a slightly different way.

    The police don’t act on the existing law. So a slight change will make them act.

    As if a slight change will make a difference on the ground. If there is a dispute it’ll end up in Court, that takes time and is not some sort of magic wand.

    Ultimately the state and the courts power comes from the fact that they can apply force to get their way. The Courts apply that force after consideration of the law.

    What exactly in the proposals will change that?

    If there are squatters in my house and I can’t physically remove them and the Police wont remove them what do I do other than go to Court to get an Order (so I can use the forces of the state)?

    Remove all the defences you want it isn’t going to make the process any quicker.

    • “It is already an offence but it happens. Therefore we must make it an offence in a slightly different way.
      The police don’t act on the existing law. So a slight change will make them act.”

      The police don’t act on DROs because of two reasons:

      1. They are very rarely called since nobody in the right mind goes and occupies someone’s actual home. It’s a ridiculous idea made up by gutter-press.

      2. The DROs that are called are equally made up.

      To give example of the latter kind – I just spoke to a couple who are squatting in a council flat. They’d been living there for the past 5 months and when they moved in the flat was completely empty and secured with metal screens. Yesterday a council officer served them with a notice saying that there is a DRO and if they don’t move by Monday might be arrested. The squatters actually met the former tenants (who moved out because of the condition of the property) when they came to collect post.

      We are yet to see what the outcome will be but I sincerely hope that the police will *not* act upon the made up allegations of a frustrated council clerk who most probably isn’t even acting on behalf of the tenants but is trying to cut corners and win themselves some merits over their legal department.

      To re-iterate clearly:
      DROs are not being enforced because (thankfully) there just aren’t any

  2. What irritated me about Mr Weatherley’s blurt was the total failure to have any regard for judicial process. In Weatherly-world, police are Judge Dredd figures and door step, on the stop finders of fact. Oh, if only life were that simple.

    I invite Mr W to sit in on an illegal eviction case. On stepping down from his “ivory tower” he’ll find the “he’s a squatter” ruse is trotted out by rogue landlords up and down the country as a defence.

    But hey, who cares about due process? Sadly, not this Government.

  3. Slightly off topic but – Did anyone see Question Time last night.

    Grant Shapps AND Caroline whatsherface were on. TWO housing ministers ….

    I excitedly hoped the ‘Grant is wrong’ issue would come up but it didnt :( Worse he even got the opportunity to harangue Caroline accusing her of obfuscation!

    Janet Street Porter came out with the best housing comments I thought …. scary.

    • Without invalidating this comment I am insisting on curtailing this line of discussion. At least until I have seen it on iplayer tonight!!

  4. To quote, –

    ” they( i,e us) are dangerously out of touch with the real world if they think that the arrest of somebody who will not leave is a satisfactory outcome. Squatters should be instantly arrested for being there at all.”

    Under the current law the police cannot arrest someone if they leave when lawfully required to so under a DRO notice, but can if they refuse.

    Under the proposed new law, the police can arrest someone for being there whether they leave or not.

    What difference in practice will that make?

  5. It can only be posturing. The police have ample powers in domestic cases now, and rarely use them. Why should anybody think that giving them slightly different powers will make any difference to that.

    What bothers the police (apart from the manpower issue) is that they can’t be sure these people are squatters without some sort of court determination, and don’t want to get dragged in to a landlord/tenant argument, when they might be personally liable for assault etc if they get it wrong. So they would rather say “that’s a civil matter” and wait to come back with the HCEO later.

    This proposal isn’t going to change this. Ergo (!) it is posturing. Probably for the reasons given above.

  6. 2 points for me; neither legal ones – back in the 1980s when the East River Crossing was mooted Greenwich council bought out a long road to knock down and then didnt build the bridge. The entire street got squatted and hundreds lived there happily, cleanly and responsibly while the council tooks eons to decide what to do with the street, which is still there now. I had mates there, most of who worked as well and were model citizens.

    Secondly the Police rrraaarrrggghhh. Much as I have respect for them and their job, when it comes to housing issues they are a bloody liability. When an illegal eviction comes in to me and the tenants tells me they called the police I just groan. In almost everfy single case they proclaim landlord and tenant disputes to be civil matters and then help the landlord to illegally evict the tenant.

    The latest idea in Lewisham, which is probably doing the rounds in the canteen, vouch-safed by older hands, is for attending officers to resolve the dispute by getting the tenant to sign a note, often torn out of the cops IRB book, promising to move out in 48 hours or a week. The landord gets a promise so they leave, the tenant avoids immanent eviction that night and I have untangle the mess and tell both landlord and tenant that the note is not worth the Metropolitan Police logo-ed paper it is written on

  7. Im guessing that police confusion stems from the local authority being the prosecuting authority for illegal evictions.

    Some councils, like Tower Hamlets, still have Tenancy Relations Officers (TROs) who exercise their criminal law powers.

    Other councils still have TROs, but do not fund them to exercise their criminal law powers. This, IMHO, would make a great JR.

  8. I am a TRO for a council not a million miles away from Tower Hamlets Kris and I can say it isnt a case of funding but logistics pure and simple.

    One London authority I know has 1 TRO who works 2 days a week, how do you cope with 5 or 6 illegal evictions a week(which is what I get) with those resources, JR or not?

    But I dont want to digress from the subject of squatting and police involvement

  9. “… if they think an average person is physically equipped to take on a gang of squatters … The police should be able to act immediately.”

    Ah yes, typical of these left-wing do-gooder landlords and their Conservative hangers-on. Always expecting help from the state to manage their properties. And who’s paying for all this Government hand-out? Yes, that’s right – hard-working taxpayers like legal aid lawyers …

    Etc. I could go if i wrote for the Daily Mail and the roles were reversed.

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