As the Transition community, Grow Heathrow are set for their third eviction appeal next month and the first UK squatter goes to prison this week, Joseph Blake looks at the consequences of the new property law:
On 1st September 2012, a massively unjust, unnecessary and unaffordable new law came into force in England and Wales. In the middle of one of the worst housing crises this country has ever seen, up to 50,000 squatters who are currently squatting in empty properties across the UK face becoming criminals, and this because they are occupying abandoned residential properties to put a roof over their heads.
Of course, we have all heard the horror stories of the innocent homeowner who “goes out to buy a pint of milk and comes back to find their home squatted” – and we have sympathy with this situation. But most people don’t realise that such instances are extremely rare and overplayed in the media for political gain. They are also already a criminal offence, and homeowners are already strongly protected by existing legislation. One hundred and sixty leading legal figures wrote to the Guardian to explain this point.
In the face of this new law, thousands of vulnerable people are facing up to six months in jail and fines of up to £5,000. With homelessness rates rising and the number of empty properties currently in the region of more than 930,000 according to the Empty Homes Agency, we must ask: who is this law protecting? It protects unscrupulous landlords and property speculators who are keeping properties empty to up their profits. The new law encourages these properties to remain empty and is worryingly open to abuse by rogue landlords, which could mean trouble for tenants.
96% of responses to the government’s consultation didn’t want to see any action taken on squatting, but the government ignored the results of its own consultation. What is the point of even having a consultation in the first place? Out of 2,217 responses, 2,126 of those were from members of the public concerned about the impact of criminalising squatting, and only 10 people bothered to write in claiming to be victims of squatting.
On top of all this, the new law is completely unaffordable. Squash produced a report while the law was going through the House of Lords – after it bypassed the normal process in the Commons – which shows that this law will cost the taxpayer £790m over five years. The report concludes that this law alone will wipe out the entire expected costs of the legal aid, sentencing and punishment of offenders bill, which is supposed to be a cost-cutting bill.
Unlikely bedfellows such as the Metropolitan police, The Law Society, The Criminal Bar Association and numerous Homeless Charities such as Crisis have come out strongly against it and squatters know they have this on their side. We believe that possibly even the government ministers pushing this through will admit it is not popular legislation.
So how has this all happened? The political process that has criminalised squatting in residential properties was undertaken by an elite minority who actively ignored the opinions of the vulnerable and their advocates. Using manipulative rhetoric and purposefully obfuscatory propaganda to delegitimise the experiences and arguments of opponents, they made their decisions in the dark hours of the night and in scripted performances, deploying authoritarian and discretionary power. This is a sham democracy.
The attack against squatting has always been a rightwing ploy to defend and enhance private property rights over the human right to shelter. New groups have sprung up to support and defend squats from evictions which have begun. Who can blame them? Homeless shelters are already full – there is nowhere else to go!
Transition Heathrow is a grassroots action group working to build resilient Heathrow communities capable of collectively coping with the injustices and threats of climate change and peak oil. www.transitionheathrow.com. Joseph Blake is a campaigner and press officer with SQUASH (Squatters Action for Secure Homes), a campaign group opposing the criminalisation of squatting. http://www.squashcampaign.org/
Image from Transition Heathrow’s Open Day, 2012