Squatters are making fortunes out of owners of empty properties by breaking in and demanding money to move out. One owner, Nick Herrtage, has told his story.
Nick is director of Chester Row, a small developer. He says a single group of squatters is moving from site to site in south-west London, extorting cash from owners before moving on to their next target. And, he says, the police are powerless to help, since squatting in commercial buildings is not a crime.
Mr Herrtage bought a 14,000sq ft site in Wiseton Road, Wandsworth, in 2011. This February he won planning permission to build nine houses and work was due to start on September 2. Then, in the early hours of August 20, about 25 squatters — Mr Herrtage says they were Lithuanians and Russians — broke in, moving their belongings into the disused offices and community centre there.
“Residents were woken by these people trying to kick in the doors of the building and so called the police,” he says. “But by the time they got there the squatters were in and there was nothing that could be done.”
In 2012 squatting in residential premises was made a criminal offence, following high-profile cases of squatters invading people’s homes while they were on holiday or had builders in. Since then 69 squatters have faced prosecution, most being fined. However the legislation does not cover commercial sites, where squatting remains a civil offence.
Squatters’ spy line
Websites backing squatters now advise them that it is “safer” to choose commercial buildings and suggest they scan local council planning registers to find sites that are in line for redevelopment and therefore likely to be empty.
As a result, the British Security Industry Association says squatters are targeting commercial buildings. Simon Alderson, chair of its Vacant Property Protection Group, says: “There is strong evidence that squatting in commercial properties has doubled since the new law came into being.”
With the police unable to help, Mr Herrtage took legal advice and was told obtaining an eviction order could take several months and would cost £10,000 or more in legal fees. He says: “We are a small business and it took us a long time to get planning permission for this site. We needed to start work.”
Mr Herrtage says he had no option but to negotiate direct with the squatters, mostly men in their 20s. They demanded £5,000 to move on saying that was the fee their previous “host” had handed over. He reluctantly agreed and, on August 23, the squatters left. He has since hired security guards to patrol the site, at a cost of £500 a day, and has fortified it with hoardings.
Mr Herrtage’s case is not unique. This summer, squatters took over a Grade-II listed former social club on Mare Street, Hackney; in August squatters who had moved into a warehouse in Earlsfield were given an eviction notice after holding raves for up to 6,000 people, to the horror of residents.
The Government estimates that there are 20,000 squatters in the UK, many of them living in London. A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice, which was responsible for last year’s anti-squatting legislation, said: “Squatters have been playing the justice system and causing untold misery in eviction, repair and clean-up costs. We have already made squatting in residential buildings a criminal offence. We are closely monitoring the situation with commercial properties.”
Chief Inspector Steve McSorley of Wandsworth police says: “We would always recommend that owners of properties follow due legal process rather than offering cash inducements.”
But Mr Herrtage says: “I think it is the law that is at fault, because the police do not have the authority to act. Our only options were a potentially long-winded and expensive court case or to pay them off, so we did not feel we had a choice.”