So what is the law on squatting?

img_1472Squatters have moved into the former Barclays bank on Wanstead High Street. The police have been, as have representatives of Sainsbury’s. But the squatters do not – yet – have to move out. Why?

Sainsbury’s now owns the site and is considering its options for opening a shop there. It has instructed its lawyers to try to get the property empty as soon as it can, but these things can take time.

Traditionally squatting is not a crime. It has often in the past been regarded as a part of political protest, sometimes against landlords who allow property to stand empty. After WWII, many servicemen and their families squatted in empty houses simply because they did not have anywhere else to live. If people live in properties for up to 12 years, even as squatters, they can then claim that the property should become theirs. Owners would need to obtain court orders to have squatters evicted – defying a court order is a crime.

20140626-205226-75146470In the 1970s, legal protection was introduced for people who were squatting in properties. It became a criminal offence to use force against them or even to enter a property where they were living. This was in part to stop intimidation and violence by rogue landlords. The notice that the new occupants of the former Barclays have put on the door (pictured above) is what’s known as a “Section 6 warning” and serves as a reminder that the law protects squatters as well as landlords.

In 2012 the law was changed again to make a distinction between residential and non-residential property – to squat in someone’s house or flat now is a crime, but not an empty office space. The government issues this advice:

A non-residential property is any building or land that isn’t designed to be lived in.

Simply being on another person’s non-residential property without their permission isn’t usually a crime. The police can take action if squatters commit other crimes when entering or staying in a property.

Crimes include:
* causing damage when entering the property
* causing damage while in the property
* not leaving when they’re told to by a court
* stealing from the property
* using utilities like electricity or gas without permission
*not obeying a noise abatement notice

One of the squatters told the Wanstead Guardian that the 20 occupants of the building met during the Occupy protest at St Paul’s in 2011 and have since squatted at several properties in East London. She said:

“We are just a bunch of young creative people looking to make a political statement about the right to occupy unused buildings… There is a massive housing crisis with more and more people being made homeless all the time, so it seems a bit hypocritical to say 20 people can’t find a home in an empty building.”

The tenant of a flat above the premises, identified as Jamshed, told the paper that he was concerned for the safety of his family. “Some of them seem friendly, but they refuse to say who they are so we can’t trust they have good intentions,” he told the paper.

A spokesman for Sainsbury’s told Wansteadium that the firm had instructed its lawyers to apply for a court order so that the squatters could be evicted as soon as possible.

5 thoughts on “So what is the law on squatting?”

  1. I have also noticed more dishevelled looking people lurking around the high street, whether they are squatters or just homeless I am not sure. Not good when we have a lot of older and more vulnerable people needing to use the high street. And the fact that there is no police station locally doesn’t help!

  2. “Creative young people” who can barely write, it seems. I hope they are expelled at the earliest possible opportunity.

  3. someone at Sainsburys said:
    I’ve been advised by our communications team that our property team is aware of the latest developments regarding the recent occupation of the site of our proposed store.

    As the current site is a non-residential building, an order of possession is required before legal action can be taken to remove the persons currently occupying the site. Our property team is currently looking into the matter with the intention of keeping the local community updated.

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