London has seen a dramatic rise in squatting. Just-published Ministry of Justice figures show a 16 per cent jump in evictions in the capital during the year to February.
© Rex Features
Film director Guy Ritchie’s £6 million Georgian home in Fitzroy Square was among the homes where possession orders were granted. Squatters had occupied the property and turned it into a “free school” with a daily schedule of events open to the public.
In total, London courts sanctioned 26,690 landlord possessions during the year, though not all for squatting. The lowest figures were recorded by the City of London Court, with 20 possession orders granted, the same as the previous year.
County courts in Romford and Ilford saw the steepest increases (61 and 48 per cent respectively), followed by Edmonton, Willesden and Croydon (over 25 per cent), Bromley (21 per cent), Clerkenwell and Shoreditch (18 per cent).
The figures are revealing in light of new anti-squatting and trespass legislation, which received royal assent in May and is expected to come into force on September 1.
Squatting in someone’s home was already a criminal offence but the new law covers vacant residential buildings that have no tenant in occupation. Squatters can face a fine of £5,000 and up to a year in jail. Squatting will remain legal in commercial properties.
The Government says it is “determined to stamp out this distressing practice which causes property owners untold misery and costs them thousands of pounds in eviction, repair and clean-up costs”.
But critics, including the Law Society, Lib Dem politicians and artists, call the law change “pernicious” as homeowners were already fully protected against squatters.
Artist Antony Gormley, who inhabited an empty factory in the 1970s, says the real scandal is the large number of buildings that lie empty.
“Squatting is a good way of preserving properties while at the same time putting them to good use - for creative things or to provide shelter for the homeless.”
Defending the law change, Grant Shapps, housing minister, said: “Often these buildings are death traps of despair where accidents are common and fires frequent. The squatters’ lives are characterised by gloom and anguish, amplified by drug addiction and alcohol abuse.
“The idea that squatting in some way offers a reasonable solution to the issue of homelessness is both false and cruel. Instead it keeps vulnerable individuals away from the real help they need.”
The Advisory Service for Squatters has the following comment on its website: “Many people have no choice but to carry on squatting and will refuse to be intimidated. Finding empty non-residential property will not always be easy or appropriate. Squatters need to be more organised. We need legal back-up and networks linked up with others resisting evictions and attacks on housing rights.”