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A year after Hove MP's squatting law begins, he vows to extend it
As the sun beat down on the London Road premises police in body armour mopped the sweat from their brow as the hostile crowd chanted in front of them.
Above them, on the rooftop of an empty property, a group of squatters, clad in black, sat in stubborn defiance.
The country’s first eviction under Hove MPs Mike Weatherley’s new anti-squatting law, passed just two days earlier, had hit an impasse in the September sunshine last year.
The stand-off lasted several hours before more than 20 police officers stormed the premises and finally managed to secure the building but the squatters fled into the night.
Three were eventually arrested and charged but two cases were dropped as they had no case to answer, with the final squatter, Dirk Duputell, found guilty and sentenced to a 12 month community order and ordered to undertake 40 hours of unpaid work.
A year has passed since that turbulent day in the busy Brighton street and yet it remains the only time in the past 12 months the police have used the new powers.
Those behind the bill claim the lack of enforcement demonstrates it has been a success, warding off people and making Brighton and Hove a no go destination for squatters.
Orchestrator Mike Weatherley said: “It didn’t take long for squatters to get the message that they would be arrested if found trespassing in other people’s homes. The figures show this pretty clearly.
"The task now is to extend this highly successful law over to commercial premises so that traders get the same protection. This will ideally take place over the coming year.”
But critics have argued the lack of affordable housing in the city is at odds with the bill, which does not distinguish between “professional squatter” and those simply desperate for housing and unable to afford rent.
Andy Winter from Brighton Housing Trust understood the reasons behind the bill but said it has failed to address some of the problems it has spawned.
He said: “Something needed to be done about the destructive element which had emerged in the world of squatting, but the bill wasn’t thought through properly and we are now witnessing the destruction of commercial premises.
“Something still needs to be done about residential properties allowed to remain empty when there is such housing need, but the act has failed to address the issue of housing need.
“I would rather have had a more comprehensive bill set out to achieve the goal of alleviating housing need so squatting didn’t happen.”
And Mr Winter revealed the bill had had some unfortunate consequences.
He added: “With the shortage of affordable housing, people in housing need will take desperate measures to get shelter, including squatting. It has succeeded in stopping people squatting in residential premises, and in one case at least with fatal consequences when a man died from hypothermia because he slept out rather than risk arrest by sleeping in a derelict residential property “
"The act has addressed a symptom of the housing crisis facing Britain. I hope Mike Weatherley will show the same passion and determination in getting public investment into affordable housing as he showed in championing the bill.
Squatters themselves feel the law marginalised those in need rather than solved the squatting issue and joined with Mr Winter in demanding the government tackles affordable housing with the same vigour as squatters.
One Brighton squatter, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “The bill was very lazy and unthoughtful.
“It has not made the problem go away. The best way to get rid of squatters would be to get rid of the huge amount of speculation and aggressive behaviour in the housing market.
“But they did not want to do that.
“They wanted to put squatters in the same legal grey area as others who cannot access social services, who cannot call the police or an ambulance because they are in a squat.
“It is disenfranchisement, a way to create a multi-tiered society.”
The man was not surprised at the police’s seeming lack of enforcement of the law.
He said: “The police made it clear they had no interest as acting as bailiffs.
“They are not trying to make inspections of properties. They understand it is not their place to be involved in these sort of conflicts.
“Even landlords are going through traditional court procedures instead of getting the police involved.”
The squatter said that there were still alternative properties that could be targeted and revealed commercial properties were favoured even before the law came in making residential occupation illegal.
He added: “Commercial properties are often bigger and empty for longer periods.”
The previous 12 months seem to confirm his theory, with a number of high profile squats appearing in commercial properties across the city.
The most recent saw squatters evicted from the former post office in Ship Street, Brighton. While police were present the eviction was carried out by bailiffs and was not under the new laws.
Other premises targeted in the past year include a former restaurant in Ship Street, the Old School Building in Hove, and a property in Bartholomews, in the city centre.
For all the talk of a moral fight for those left marginalised amid a housing crisis, often these premises are left in a state once the squatters have been removed.
Photos from Ship Street showed the building littered with rubbish, while the London Road property had been trashed, with boards placed in front of the door to prevent the police from entering.
It is this element of criminality that has meant the bill has received support from police top bosses, including Sussex Police & Crime Commissioner Katy Bourne, who said: “The squatting legislation was introduced before I took up office as Sussex Police & Crime Commissioner. Although this is a matter for local authorities to lead on I fully support Sussex Police in upholding this law in incidents where they believe a crime has been committed.
“However, some people may find themselves homeless due to unforeseen tragic events and so it is right when officers have to enforce the squatting law they seek to engage with the local authority in order that appropriate advice around alternative accommodation can be sought if people are removed or arrested.”
Inspector Roy Apps said: “Under section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 a new offence of squatting in a residential building came into effect from September 1 last year.
“Under the law it is now an offence for which we can consider police action where people are suspected to be committing an offence of squatting in a residential building.
“We have used the powers to remove squatters from such a building once in Brighton and Hove in the last year and three people were arrested.
“Each report we receive about squatting is considered on its own merits before we decide if any action should be taken, such as if we are empowered to act by the law.
“We also try to make sure our actions will not leave vulnerable people with nowhere to go but the streets.”
But it is not quite job done for Mr Weatherley and his bill, with squatters claiming the fight is not over.
“Had there been a blanket ban there would have been greater opposition but it is still possible to squat in commercial properties,” said one Brighton squatter.
“But people are still fighting against the law and will continue to do so.”
With the Hove MP intent on pushing the bill further to rid squatters from commercial properties it seems this divisive issue is likely to rumble on for the next 12 months.
And we may see another stand-off between police and squatters at the first commercial eviction before too long.
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