Squatters are turning their attention to shops, pubs and other commercial properties, after new laws banned them occupying residential home. Chief reporter Emily Walker looks at the vacant properties, their neighbours and the people who say they are left with no choice but to inhabit them.
Across Brighton and Hove, shops, pubs and businesses are lying boarded up and empty.
The city’s former central Post Office, left empty for five years, has been occupied by a large group of squatters over the past few weeks.
The new laws brought in in September to criminalise squatting only apply to residential properties, meaning the police are powerless to stop them.
But Conservative politicians, led by Hove MP Mike Weatherley, are pressing for the criminalisation of squatting to be extended to commercial premises to prevent abandoned buildings being targeted.
Nationwide, there has been a surge of boarded up pubs being taken over as squats.
In Brighton’s London Road squatters have been occupying a disused lighting shop for more than two months.
Signs on the windows invite others to help “fight the squatting ban”.
Squatters occupying the former British Heart Foundation charity shop next door were served a court order on Monday ordering them to leave. Security firm workers were yesterday surveying the site with a view to securing it once they are finally evicted.
However, with several more empty business premises in the street there will be no shortage of new properties for the squatters to move to when the bailiffs finally move in.
The squatters say that by occupying commercial properties they are demonstrating the unfairness of the new law.
However, local business people fear that squats bring down the already struggling shopping areas even further.
One business owner – who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals from the squatters – said: “The police spent the best part of the day trying to get them out of the flat above the lighting shop, but can do nothing about them in the shop below – It’s ridiculous.
“The squatters in Blockbusters were served a notice a month ago but are still in there.
“It doesn’t help the businesses that are already struggling.
“It makes the area look even more run down.
“They’ve got signs up that say ‘rent is theft’, but what about the people on the other side of the road who are paying their rent and rates?
“The hard working people struggling to run their businesses are the ones who are suffering.
“More needs to be done to fill the empty shops.
“If the council could reduce the business rates or something it might help.”
Hove MP Mike Weatherley, who was behind September’s change in the law criminalising squatting in homes, is now seeking to get the law extended to commercial properties as well.
Mr Weatherley has met the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling to press him on the matter.
Less than a mile away from the London Road squats is the latest major property to be occupied.
The Ship Street Post Office building has been empty for the best part of five years.
TGI Fridays submitted a planning application to the council to open a branch of its American-style restaurant in the Grade II listed building.
However, the plans were refused by Brighton and Hove City Council on the grounds that the development made no provision for housing and that changes to external pipes and ducts could detrimentally affect the character of the listed building.
Through the smashed windows of the derelict building the graffiti sprayed walls and floor strewn with litter, including used condoms, could clearly be seen yesterday.
However, with the current discrepancy between the law against squatting in commercial premises and residential properties, there is still a long list of empty shops, pubs and other business sites across the city ripe for squatting.
A squatter’s view
Squatter Micka, 29, yesterday spoke to The Argus as he removed an eviction notice pasted to the front of the former British Heart Foundation shop in London Road, which he is occupying.
He said: “I have been living here since September.
“Rents are so extraordinarily high that even when you have a job for a few days it is unaffordable.
“These buildings are empty and not in use. We are keeping the places in good working order.
“I think that the law is penalising those who are already the most disadvantaged in society.
“People have nowhere else to go.
“I think Mike Weatherley (Hove MP) and the people who want to make us criminalised squatters should come into a squat and see what it is like.
“They refuse to talk to us or listen to our point of view.
“They should listen to the other side of the story before they condemn us as criminals.”
A neighbour’s view
Ines Klinesmith lives near the London Road squats.
Living next door to a squat is not as horrifying as people perceive it to be, or horrifying at all. I live next door to a squat which is home to several dozens of people and their well looked after dogs.
They are polite, considered and seem to be taking good care of the empty building. There’s no unwanted noise, smells or any other general annoyance. In fact, they are just like everyone else living in that street.
Some people say squats are nests of drugs and alcohol, but there are also dry squats. There are homes in which people take drugs and there are homes where no one takes drugs. Whether they pay the rent or not.
I see no harm in what they are doing, or squatting in general if they take over empty or abandoned properties.
Is it expensive to rent and pay the bills in this city and winters are cold. I think people are failing to understand the message squatters are trying to put through.
Squatting in a residential property is now a criminal offence.
Meaning that if squatters move into your home or a home in your street, you can call the police. The police should respond in the same manner as to any other crime in progress and can arrest the squatters.
Under section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, squatting in residential homes in England and Wales is punishable by up to six months' jail and fines of up to £5,000.
However, the new law which came into effect in September does not currently apply to commercial properties.
If you are the owner of a business premise occupied by squatters you would have to seek an order from the county court, then give the people occupying your property notice of your intention to evict them.
Only if the notice period has expired and if the squatters still remain, can the police or bailiffs intervene to force them to leave.
Squatters can then be arrested if suspected of committing a separate criminal offence, such as criminal damage or assault.
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