Who’s guarding property guardians?

Squatting is an obvious solution to the UK’s lack of housing, but new ‘property guardian’ firms neglect tenants’ traditional rights

Lucy Finchett-Maddock and Bill Bowring

guardian.co.uk, Friday 9 July 2010 07.59 BST


Squatting is still not a criminal offence in the UK, and squatters have the right not to be evicted without a court order.

Britain is undergoing a housing crisis. The MP Jeremy Corbyn recently highlighted that London alone has 353,000 families languishing on social housing waiting lists, and 52,000 in temporary accommodation. In one year alone, 12,000 families were categorised as homeless. Their chances of obtaining decent, secure accommodation are very small.

A report by the National Housing Federation underlined a startling and tragic disparity. The average income in England is £25,000 a year. The average house price is £220,000. The gross annual income required to gain a mortgage is £56,000.

In London, the situation is much worse. With average house prices now at £362,000 and average income at £26,000, the average Londoner can never buy a property. Only those with an annual income of £93,000 are able to secure a mortgage.

Renting is no solution. In the emergency budget debate, George Osborne announced his plan to deal with the issue of local housing allowance spending – he wants to slash the bill by £1.8bn. This will hit private rented tenants hardest of all. Corbyn described the likely result as “a form of social cleansing in central London – and the centre of other cities – as the poor are driven out of ‘high cost’ housing areas”.

At the same time there were 75,706 empty houses in London and 651,993 in England as a whole in 2009, according the Empty Homes Agency (EHA). That number has not shrunk.

With so many buildings unoccupied, an obvious solution would be to use the large number of empty properties. Squatters have been doing this for years. Squatting is still not a criminal offence in the UK, and squatters have the right not to be evicted without a court order.

In a more recent response to this crisis, “guardian property managers” such as Camelot Property Management Ltd and Ad Hoc Property Management have appeared. These are commercial organisations that profit from the human need for cheap, affordable housing by selling themselves as protectors of vacant property. They encourage temporary occupation by “guardians”.

The “guardians” make payments to these companies to live in empty buildings, and to protect the private owners of the properties from squatters. This is touted as the “guardian scheme” solution to the housing problem.

One serious problem is that contracts between the property managers and the “guardians” do not mention the word “tenant” at all. The “guardians” have none of the rights enjoyed by tenants or even squatters. Camelot advertises a “watertight legal framework” for property owners: the occupier is described as a “licensee” paying a “fee”, with no occupation or other rights.

This means those guarding properties are paying these companies large amounts of money to be in receipt of minimal living conditions. In order to kick squatters out, people are renting with limited protection of their rights.

Given the amount of empty buildings that this country is faced with, combined with the no-doubt rising numbers of homeless due to future cuts in housing and housing benefits, squatting is a logical solution to the housing/homeless matrix. In the squatting case, it is interesting that in order to seek a roof over one’s head, one has to proceed with the law, as Dante would say. And it appears that squatting is more within the law than any guardian property contract.

Last week, Birkbeck University’s law school ran a series of lectures discussing social rights and the role of law within our contemporary society. In the session on housing, one notable missing attendee was the invited John Mills, managing director of Camelot Property Management. An email received only an hour before the event proclaimed that the topics that were due for discussion deemed it inappropriate for him to attend. Discussions centred around these issues of licensing and tenants’ rights, and it would have been beneficial for Camelot and the debate for Mills to have been there. The event covered the most relevant of issues that we face today within housing allocation, homelessness, squatting and guarding.

See http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/libertycentral/2010/jul/09/housing-property-guardians-squatters-rights

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