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Squat law change: Vital - or no help?
10:25am Tuesday 4th September 2012 in News
This weekend squatting became a criminal offence - and yesterday, Sussex Police carried out the first squat raid using their new powers in Brighton.
Squatters have been a significant problem in Brighton and Hove for years, but will changing the law make a difference?
City politicians from either side of the debate give their view on the new law.
HOVE MP Mike Weatherley campaigned to bring in the new squatting law.
A squatter in Brighton once complained to me that his father was late in sending him his monthly allowance of tobacco from Dubai.
This really hit home that the squatting debate is not about helping the homeless. It’s certainly not about making use of empty buildings.
The argument boils down to whether or not society is willing to put up with the demands of one extremely narrow self-serving group, who currently don’t pay for housing arrangements.
Why won’t they pay their fair share? Simple. A loophole exists, that was put in place to protect vulnerable tenants from Rachmanesque landlords.
In reality, it prevents normal homeowners without costly court orders from throwing out individuals who have broken in.
I say “exists” but I meant “existed”. From September 1, squatting in residential buildings has been a criminal offence.
This means that people who go abroad and find others in their homes when they return, or people who are trying to sell an empty property, or others who are in the process of inheriting a property from a loved one, can sleep safely. Any invasion can now be dealt with by the police.
It also means that the police will no longer be able to ignore related offences such as breaking and entering, theft of utilities and criminal damage.
What has fascinated me throughout this whole campaign is the difference between the genuine homeless, who might sleep rough and be addicted to alcohol or drugs, and the often privileged individuals who choose to squat.
It is incredibly saddening that squatters have tried to use this as a cover during their violent and expensive fight against this change to the law.
Locally, we have seen council properties trashed by squatters which has added tens of thousands of pounds and months of delays to the refurbishment programme. This means that those who genuinely need help are currently not getting it. In Brighton and Hove, we have seen small businesses go under because they can’t afford to evict squatters.
On that particular point, I shall not be shying away from the intimidation and threats that I have received from squatters.
Alongside a drive to get commercial buildings back into use, I am campaigning for a change in law that stops squatters from ransacking commercial buildings.
Homeowners may now be safe but traders are still vulnerable to the squatting menace.
Like the police – who see the new law as a waste of resources likely to worsen community relations – I’m deeply concerned about this change in the law.
Of course, I absolutely want there to be proper redress and protection for anyone who returns from a holiday to find their house squatted, for example.
Or for someone who is trying to sell their house and leaves it empty, only to find squatters have moved in.
But the major problem in dealing with these cases is not the law itself – they are already illegal. Rather, the problem is enforcement, particularly the time it can take for courts to act when needed.
I do not think that a failure to properly enforce the law is grounds to change it. Instead we need to see efforts increased, including better training for police officers to enforce squatting law properly and swiftly. Instead we’re seeing massive cuts to police budgets.
Remember, many homeless people are pushed into squatting and do not do so out of choice. The appalling and often dangerous conditions in many squats are hardly attractive.
Research by Crisis shows that 40% of single homeless people escape the horrors of rough sleeping by squatting, mostly in disused properties. These are the people who are most likely to be affected by the proposed new law and who will be criminalised.
Perhaps that's the real plan: get the homeless off the streets and into our already over-crowded prisons?
Often homeless people will suffer from multiple-diagnosis, with a combination of mental ill-health, substance abuse and other problems.
The Green Party’s approach is to prioritise efforts to help tackle these problems, as well as investing in affordable housing and bringing empty properties back into use as soon as possible.
For example, Brighton and Hove City Council has been named 2011 Practitioner of the Year by the Empty Homes Network for bringing 154 properties back into use in the past 12 months alone.
These – and other steps to tackle the lack of affordable housing – must be more of a priority than playing political football with the roofs over people’s heads.
Whilst there is no denying that some high profile cases raise serious questions about the need to better enforce existing laws on squatting, criminalising vulnerable homeless people is inhumane, undemocratic and, crucially, completely unnecessary.
We know there are better ways to deal with this difficult issue.