Evicting squatters can be a headache at the best of times, but when journalists, camera crews and local politicians arrive it can cause a full on migraine.
This is the case for business man Imrak Malik whose land has been occupied by a group of squatters protesting against the construction of a third runway at Heathrow. The squatters, who have been on the land since 2010, managed to attract the attention of the mainstream media when Mr Malik secured the ruling to evict them. Activists from the surrounding area joined forces with the squatters, and they made it clear that they despite the ruling they had no intention of leaving the site. The bailiffs are yet to make an appearance, and it seems that the squatters will continue to live there illegally for the time being.
How many political squatters are there?
The majority of squatters are not politically motivated, but are instead homeless people who are seeking a roof over their head. A high percentage of these homeless squatters have mental or physical health issues, which often includes substance abuse. With these squatters, it may be easier to prove forced entry or damages and secure police assistance.
Political squatters, on the other hand, are a different type of squatter that come with a different set of problems for landlords. Political squatters occupy a property as a form of protest. They are less likely to be homeless in the conventional sense, and are often well-educated about their limited rights as squatters. They may also hold certain anarchist, autonomist or socialist ideologies.
What makes political squatters harder to evict?
It’s easier to evict a squatter from residential property than non-residential property. Political squatters often target non-residential properties that holds some significance for their particular ideology. Simply being on non-residential property without the owner’s permission is not a crime. Political squatters might know this, and look out for unmonitored and unsecured non-residential properties to squat in. It can be many days before the squatters are discovered, during which time they may have prepared themselves for a longer stay.
When squatters are on your property, the best way to get swift police involvement it to prove that they are breaking a law. This could be forced entry, damages, stealing or even energy usage without payment. At Heathrow, Mr Malik’s property was originally derelict land, so proving “damage which affects the value or performance” of the property will be difficult. The squatters have installed solar panels and wind turbines, so they are not stealing from the grid or from the property owner either. It may well be the case that the squatters can be fined for the cost of removing these structures, as well as the ‘houses’ that they built on-site, but this doesn’t necessarily help with the immediate task of getting them evicted.
The role of neighbours, media and local politicians
Whether the squatters have the support of the neighbours and other activists can make a real difference to the squatter’s staying power. Supportive neighbours can provide squatters with supplies and other activists can increase numbers making eviction more difficult. Most of the time neighbours are naturally unsympathetic towards squatters as they don’t want the associated mess on their doorstep. However, the Heathrow case is a rare example of the aims of the local people coinciding with the aims of the squatters – neither group wants the third runway built.
Local MP for Hayes and Harlington, John McDonnell, claims to have supported the squatters “from day one.” It’s one thing for a politician to support a particular clause, but quite another thing for a politician to support individuals who are openly breaking the law. MPs should not directly influence the work of the judiciary, and McDonnell’s support for a group who are acting illegally comes very close to crossing a line.
Attracting media attention is one of the main goals of political squatters. There is no doubt that by reporting the incident, the media gives political squatters the free publicity that they are looking for. It is also possible that media reporting increases the number of activists who hear about a squat and try to get involved. Dealing with the media can be tricky for property owners, a statement taken out of context can make things look one-sided. Remember, you don’t have to talk to the media if you don’t want to. As news moves quickly, it’s unlikely that many journalists will stick around for the long-haul.
Since 2012, we have had laws in place that do more to protect property owners and penalise squatters. If a landlord becomes aware of squatters quickly, does his research properly and gets good legal advice, he should be able to have squatters moved on fairly quickly. While political squatters on non-residential land might be a little trickier, political motivations are not an excuse for squatting in the eyes of the law. No matter how long the squatters remain at Heathrow, Mr Malik need not fear that they will be able to claim possession without his consent under the current laws. It seems likely that he will wait until the media attention fades before sending in the bailiffs.
About the Author: Jeff Nelson is the director of London Safety Clean. He has years of firsthand experience with squatters and knows how much damage they can cause – http://londonsafetyclean.co.uk/