Westminster council is apparently the first in London to use new laws to evict a squatter. Almost.
Westminster City Council's housing management company, CityWest Homes, contacted the police to remove a squatter in a north-west London flat. On arrival at the property, the squatter had already departed thanks to the police's request that he be given advance warning of the impending visit.
The recently introduced law, which currently only covers residential property, carries a maximum sentence of up to six months in jail for persistent offenders, a £5,000 fine, or both. Councils can now remove squatters by simply complaining to the police who can arrest the illegal tenants. Homeless charity Crisis campaigned vociferously against the anti-squatting law and has criticised the move, saying it criminalises the homeless, while a legal challenge is already being made in Wales. A protest last year against the reform led to arrests and speculation that it was being used to give property owners a way of getting rid of Occupy-style protests quickly.
The anti-squatting law has been presented as protecting the homeowner, though this report in the Guardian suggests that the common public perception of a householder returning from holiday to find their house taken over by squatters is rare. The real beneficiaries of the new law are more likely to be local authorities — rather than face lengthy battles to remove squatters from empty council-owned properties they can now get the police to do it for them.
Earlier this year, a group of activists in Lewisham reclaimed empty properties, which were to be auctioned by the council to house some of the borough's homeless. The real disgrace is the sheer number of empty homes at a time when social housing is being sold off, private rents are rocketing and homelessness is on the rise. The Empty Homes charity last year also urged councils to do more to buy privately-owned properties which stand empty and use them to ease the burden on housing waiting lists.
Squatters in non-residential buildings could find their days are numbered too — campaigns are already underway to extend the law to commercial property no matter how laudable the squatters' project may be.
Photo by chrisjohnbeckett in the Londonist Flickr pool.