Many councils have thousands of unregistered properties on their books while people sleep on the streets.

But sympathy for squatters runs out when unauthorised occupation turns into vandalism, as it did in a Brighton church. Andy Dickenson asks whose land is it anyway?

The cry of "squatters' rights" used to ring through the air regularly in Brighton and Hove.

The former Astoria Bingo Hall in Gloucester Place, the old court house and register office in Princes Street and the Madeira Café in Kemp Town were all wrecked as squatters descended on the city in the late Nineties.

A decade later, Pastor Tony Bickley found himself on the wrong side of the law when his church was taken over by the homeless.

Squatters' rights stopped him entering Ebenezer Baptist Church as vagrants slept in the baptism pit, covered walls with anti-Christian graffiti, and ripped out the 180-year-old church organ.

Police eventually raided the abandoned church in Richmond Parade following reports that a man living in the squat had been dealing drugs to children.

But Pastor Bickley said until then he had been powerless to stop them. So what about the rights of property owners?

Lord Bassam of Brighton was known simply as "Steve" when he was the official spokesman for the Brighton-Hove Squatters Union.

Twenty years later Tony Blair made him a life peer.

He abhors the vandalism at Ebenezer Chapel but still believes squatting serves a purpose.

Lord Bassam said: "People who occupy unoccupied property have a duty to be mindful of the need to look after it and shouldn't vandalise it.

"It is understandable that people without a home need somewhere to live in but they have to act responsibly. I'm appalled that this has happened. Squatting serves a purpose, if just to highlight that these unoccupied properties exist in many areas and that there are people who are homeless and can't afford a home.

"I would urge anyone who has unoccupied property to make it available for rent or sale.

"The law is very clear that within a two or three-week period owners should be able to get their property back and if it is being used unlawfully, criminal law should be enforced.

"I sympathise with people whose properties have been taken over but I'm not aware there's a real problem with squatters in Brighton.

"Criminal proceedings can be enforced if the property was occupied.

Then the police can carry out an immediate eviction. It is only if the property is unoccupied that you have to go through the civil route.

"But there are many solutions to dealing with homelessness and people shouldn't have to resort to squatting in this day and age."

Helen Bell is a solicitor who has specialised in property litigation for law firm MayoWynneBaxter, based in Brighton. She has been dealing with squatters for nine years. She said: "Once squatters are in a property they are protected by the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 as amended by the Housing Act 1988.

"Basically that means that it is a criminal offence for the owner of the property to go in and change the locks without following the due process of law - in most cases that means obtaining a possession order from the court.

"What's more, it is generally treated by the police as a civil matter, so legally the property owners are on their own.

"They must obtain a court order and if they act without one they are at risk of being sued themselves for unlawful eviction, as ludicrous as that sounds.

"It seems very unfair to the owner because they are looking at legal costs of approximately £2,000 and, say, two to three weeks at least before they can get their property back.

"The best protection you could give yourself is to make sure your property is properly secured in the first place.

"People run into difficulties when their gates are left unlocked and travellers occupy their fields, and again they have to get a possession order.

"As soon as the occupiers are in they have this protection commonly known as squatters' rights.

"There have been efforts to change this legislation but at the moment it still stands that the onus is on the property holder to take the trespassers on themselves.

"Once you've established you are the owner of the property and you have correctly served the trespasser with the court papers, the actual hearing is quite straightforward.

"All you are establishing is that you own the property - this is dealt with by producing a copy of your title deeds - that you have properly served the trespassers with the court papers and with sufficient notice, and you have not given permission for them to be there.

"Once you've got your possession order there's still a slight delay because you have to enforce it with a warrant. That means you request the court bailiff to set a date to evict the trespassers.

"Any further delay will then depend on how busy the bailiffs are but the bailiffs will take action to forcibly remove these people and, if necessary, call on the police to help if there's a possibility of trouble.

"It's the unexpected expense and the seeming unfairness of the whole situation for the property owner - the fact that you are not allowed to go into your property, or onto your land, and ask these people to leave without a court order.

"And usually they can't recover these costs because it's unlikely that the owner will know the names of the people who took over their property or where they went to when they left.

"You would be best advised to obtain the services of a solicitor because if you get it wrong your claim will be dismissed."

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