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.