Nailing It Down
London's Councillors come out
Squall 4, April/May 1993, pp. 9-11.
“I consider the Government’s consultation paper to be poorly argued and drawing illogical conclusions.”
So says Councillor Sheila Camp, Chair of Housing for Islington Council. In common with many other councillors and housing officers that SQUALL has spoken to (Camden, Lambeth, Hackney, Shelter, Char), she does not support the criminalisation of squatting: “I feel that the present law on squatting is adequate.”
Councillor Linda Hibbard, Chair of Housing for Hackney Council has similar views: “I do not believe that the criminalisation of squatting will in any way aid housing authorities and I concur with the views expressed in the AMA in its response to the Government.”
She continues: “Experience has shown in Hackney that the Protected Intending Occupier (PIO) aspect of the Criminal Law Act can be put to good use to repossess properties from squatters prior to repairs being carried out and new tenants moving in.” (SQUALL would like to draw the reader’s attention to BBC 2’s Forty Minutes programme, shown in April 1992, a brief resume of which was published in Issue 1. It reported that certain councils were misusing the PIO clause by pressuring prospective tenants to sign for flats they had not seen in order to evict squatters without having to obtain a court order.)
Councillor Hibberd sees squatting as a symptom of the rise in homelessness which, in turn, is a direct result of the Government refusing to allow Councils to invest receipts from council house sales into improving the remaining stock and building new homes.
“There should be no changes to the existing law (on squatting) except to remove the requirement that the owner of a property should have purchased it for money or monies worth in order to use the protected intending occupier rule The most effective and permanent solution to tackling squatting is to tackle its cause - the lack of adequate, affordable housing.”
The AMA (Association of Metropolitan Authorities) in response to the Government’s consultation paper on squatting.
This enlightened stance from its Housing Chair is bellied by the more official face of the Hackney Housing Department, which has produced a leaflet; ‘Cutting The Empties, Hackney’s Strategy for Tackling Vacant Homes’. The section of the leaflet dealing with squatted properties is a very subtle piece of propaganda; technically accurate but influentially irresponsible.
An excerpt from the leaflet reads: “In the last year alone more than 1,000 illegal squatters have been evicted in the Council’s continuing drive to release flats for homeless families.” The term ‘illegal squatters’ implies, to the uninformed, that squatting is illegal. Squatting only becomes illegal after the council have attained a possession order for the property and then only if the squatters are still in occupation. Only the act of continued occupation after an order has been granted is an illegal act.
Squatting Is Not Illegal.
Referring to the 1,000 evictions in the past year; “More than any other London Borough”, the leaflet continues in its self-congratulatory misinformative manner: “This action is clear evidence of the Council’s determination to ensure that its housing is allocated fairly, both to existing tenants waiting to move, and to homeless people.”
‘Homeless people’, of course, doesn’t include anyone to whom the council does not see as being in ‘priority’ need. Young, single, able-bodied homeless people do not qualify on this count, even if their only alternatives are to stay on someone’s floor or sleep rough, on the streets.
Whilst Councillor Hibberd is at pains to point out the failings of central Government in its restriction of local authorities, ‘Cutting the Empties’ only briefly refers to the corruption within Hackney’s own ranks. The profligate ‘Keys for sale’ and ‘jobs for the boys’ scandal which is only paralleled in magnitude by the recent financial indiscretions of Lambeth Council, receives a three- sentence gloss-over and is couched in terms implying that Hackney themselves were the detectives who uncovered the fraud: “Hackney has also taken the lead in recovering illegally let properties - a problem which has bedevilled many London councils. Working in tandem with the Metropolitan Police, the Council became the first in the country to establish a special team to identify and repossess flats occupied by unauthorised tenants, and to root out fraud on the part of staff where this has been a factor.”
Meanwhile, down in Tower Hamlets, the structure of the housing department makes it difficult to nail down council policy. The borough is split in to seven neighbourhoods, each with its own housing chief. We did, however, establish contact .with a very enthusiastic lady, Leslie Muggeridge, who is the Housing Policy Coordinator.
According to Ms Muggeridge, the criminalisation of squatting will make no difference to the way Tower Hamlets deal with their squatted property. They use the Protected Intended Occupier clause of the Criminal Law Act 1977 to secure houses for those on their waiting lists. A few years ago Tower Hamlets were slammed by the Ombudsman for issuing false PIOs to evict squatters. Leslie claims this practice has stopped, but with responsibility for issuing PIOs falling on estate managers Easing with their local neighbourhood office, she feels unable to expand on the point.
Ms Muggeridge went on to say that she realised the implications of criminalising squatting were greatest for the single homeless: “While having full sympathy to the issues in respect of the single homeless or those who use squatting to resolve their housing problems, there are other factors which we need to consider such as the massive lists that we have to deal with. And the managing of scarce resources which will always mean that there needs to be tough policies to allocate fairly.”
Ms Muggeridge claims that Tower Hamlets devote one third of their new housing stock towards housing the homeless although there would seem to be no policy regarding the single homeless. Vulnerable groups are picked up through a points system categorisation, but if you are not elderly, a single parent, disabled or suffering from a mental or physical illness, your chances of being housed as a single person are virtually zero. Of the seven housing neighbourhoods in Tower Hamlets only one operates a scheme whereby homeless people are sometimes allocated property regardless of category. This works when the hopeful applicant “does all of the legwork” and finds a suitable empty property which has been at least twice refused by other tenants.
When asked about squatters in long-term voids, ie homes which are unlettable to tenants, Ms Muggeridge said that Tower Hamlets only pursued one policy and that was one of eviction. When pressed on this comment Ms Muggeridge said that Tower Hamlets didn’t have any squatters in long-term voids and that their long-term voids were burnt out and completely uninhabitable, for the most part. Tower Hamlets claim that, contrary to every other council in London, they don’t have property that is practicably habitable whilst being legally unlettable. Apparently, this is because over the last five years Tower Hamlets have had a massive capital injection that has brought most properties up to a “modem standard”. SQUALL suspects that a survey of Tower Hamlets Council Property may uncover a discrepancy here and although information needed to ratify Tower Hamlet’s claim to the contrary was promised by Ms Muggeridge, (numbers of squatters and evictions, description of housing stock and long-term voids etc), none was forthcoming.
In all conversations with official council bodies, SQUALL has discovered that there are no provisions for young, single, able-bodied homeless people and these people have no hope of obtaining secure housing. This group, which includes many squatters, are also in need of secure, affordable homes. Practicably they are ignored and left to fend for themselves. In the face of such neglect and uncaring attitude, many of these people have no choice other than to squat.
Finally, there follows a quote from a Conservative MP which, although coming from an unexpected source, expresses the real issue for those who, through lack of choice, squat.
“I want to help those responsible people who have put themselves into accommodation because they have seen that it's empty. I think it is fair to say that, very deep in Conservative philosophy, is that of self-help and if people are prepared to try and help themselves and if they see that a property is empty and no-one is using it and by moving in they are not going to hurt anyone, but they will protect and help their own family, surely we ought to encourage that…. You could argue they are perhaps more socially responsible in finding empty property and squatting there and giving their family a home rather than putting them in bed and breakfast.”
- Bob Hughes, Tory MP, Harrow West, speaking on The London Programme, May 1989.