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News - 1 September 2012
A potential home to some?

Residential squatting is now illegal: lock up your shops and offices

Squatting in houses became a criminal offence today. With an estimated 50,000 squatters in the UK looking for somewhere to go, it is inevitable that they will target commercial property which is not included in the law. Maybe there’s another way for landlords to protect their assets other than just locking them up.

Squatting in a person’s home has been a criminal offence for a long time. That’s why, despite occasional stories of people retuning from two week’s holiday to find strangers in their lounge and the locks changed, squatters tend to seek out empty and abandoned properties rather than breaking into occupied homes. The new law extends the criminal offence to include all residential properties whether or not they are empty or abandoned.

From today a criminal offence will be committed if a person knowingly enters a property designed or adapted for use as a place to live with the intention of living there for any period without the owner’s permission.

It does not apply where the person has at some point in the recent past had the owner’s permission to be there e.g. he/she is a tenant whose lease has come to an end.

However, given the deep cuts to public spending and the subsequent and ongoing reduction in police resources, simply calling the police to assist with the immediate eviction of squatters might not be as ‘immediate’ as homeowners would like.

Even if the police attend it might not be straightforward: they will only have the right to enter and search the property if they have reasonable grounds to believe that an offence has been committed. They might simply consider that the owner’s complaint gives them such grounds but resourceful squatters [and they tend to be a resourceful breed] may have a piece of paper that they will claim is a tenancy agreement; exactly what circumstances are sufficient to give the police ‘reasonable grounds’ are awaiting further guidance.

Nevertheless, the introduction of the new offence will undoubtedly act as a deterrent to squatting in residential properties and it is tempting to conclude that squatters will seek out vacant commercial properties instead. Less comfortable and less well-equipped perhaps but the current economic climate has led to an increasing number of empty shops and offices that could be vulnerable.

The owner of a commercial property will have to go through the courts to reclaim their property which can be costly and time consuming. In May a group of squatters not only took up residence in the old Co-op department store in London Road in Brighton but also invited others to join them for a squatter’s convention. Medina House on Hove esplanade was squatted on-and-off for years. 

One novel way for landlords to make sure that their properties are secure is to allow a charity, arts group or a pop-up shop to temporarily occupy their empty property under licence whilst they try to find a permanent tenant.

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