Squatting in the UK has a long and interesting history which saw a boom in the number of squatters in the late 1960’s with the development of the Family Squatting Movement which sought to help homeless families take control of empty houses. The 1970’s also saw a new wave of anarchist squatters who claimed to be occupying empty properties with the intention of revolution! Whilst squatting is still viewed by some as a social movement, the number of squatters at present in the UK is far lower than it has been in recent decades. The most recent government estimate of the number of squatters in the UK was in 2012 and puts the figure at around 20,000, although squatters groups say the real total is much higher.
What is squatting defined as?
The idea of having squatters in your property can be a real nightmare for homeowners and landlords. At present squatting is defined as when a person or persons knowingly enters a residential property without the owner’s permission and lives there or intends to live there as a trespasser. However this definition does not encompass a tenant who enters the property with permission of the landlord and falls behind with rental payments or continues to live there after the tenancy period has come to an end.
What action can be taken against squatters?
Until recent months squatting was treated as a civil matter in England and Wales and homeowners or landlords seeking to evict squatters were required to go through civil courts. Squatters were also protected by a law introduced in 1977 which made it illegal to threaten or use violence to gain entrance to a property when someone is present and opposes the entry. This law is now more commonly referred to with the term “squatter’s rights”
However new legislation on squatting was introduced taking effect from 1st September 2012. This has allowed homeowners and residential landlords more rights by making squatting a criminal offence in both England and Wales. Anyone who finds someone squatting in their property can contact the police who now have the power to raid a building on suspicion of it being occupied by squatters and remove them. Anyone found to be guilty of squatting may face six months in prison and a fine of £5,000.
What precautions can be taken against squatters?
There are a number of sensible precautions that property owners can take if their residential property is likely to be unoccupied for a significant period of time. The most important precaution to take is to have the property securely locked when unoccupied – this includes ensuring that all doors, windows and gates to the property are securely fastened.
If possible it is also recommended to give the property the appearance of occupation. This can be done by hanging curtains in the windows, leaving lights on timers to go on and off at certain times and by arranging for any neighbours to visit the property occasionally. It would also be sensible to make regular visits to the premises yourself to ensure that all security is maintained and to enable you to make contact with the police quickly if squatters have occupied the property.
Squatting in commercial premises
The new legislation which has been brought in to criminalise squatting in residential property does not apply to commercial property. This has meant that owners of commercial property have seen a significant increase in the number of squatters living in commercial premises as they seek to exploit the loophole left open in the legislation which means they may only be evicted, not criminally charged, for living in a property which has been designated as commercial. At present that landlords of commercial buildings are still required to go through the civil courts to evict squatters from their property.
Whilst squatters can still be a real problem for property owners the new changes to legislation offer more rights to owners of residential property. Whilst squatters in commercial property cannot have criminal charges brought against them, the situation is being monitored and may also be included as a criminal offence in the not too distant future.
Written by Sarah Male , Urban Sales and Lettings