Since 1 September 2012, it has been a criminal offence to squat in residential property, punishable by a maximum prison sentence of 6 months and/or a fine of up to £5,000 (you may remember my blog posted on 25 October 2012 about the first prosecution). Many in the property industry feel that the law doesn’t go far enough and the new offence should cover squatting in commercial property.
Following the introduction of the new law, there has been a reported rise in squatters taking over commercial property, particularly empty properties earmarked for development. It can take some time to get a development scheme underway whilst the property owner works up plans, puts finance in place, obtains planning permission, secures vacant possession of other properties and so on. This creates a window of opportunity for an organised group of savvy squatters to move into the empty property, which can bring the development grinding to a halt. The property owner cannot force his way back into his building to remove the squatters as this would be a criminal offence. The law is designed to stop unscrupulous landlords throwing innocent tenants out of their homes but, for commercial landlords faced with squatters, it can be a source of huge frustration. They have no choice but to seek the assistance of the courts to recover their buildings.
The Government’s guidance advises that “if you follow the right procedure, you can usually get [a possession order] issued by the courts within a few days”. Unfortunately, this fails to take into account availability: busy county courts may not be able to consider the matter for several weeks. Legal costs can be substantial and there is rarely any hope of enforcing a costs order against the squatters – most of time, property owners will not even know who they are.
Against this unsatisfactory backdrop, Mike Weatherley, the MP for Hove and Portslade, has called on Parliament to criminalise squatting in commercial property. In response, Damian Green, the Minister of State for Policing & Criminal Justice, indicated that the Government is actively monitoring the continuing problem of squatters in commercial properties. Earlier today, the British Property Federation reported that Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, will be writing to MPs seeking evidence on the issue. Although sympathetic to the plight of property owners, the Secretary of State is said to be as yet undecided whether to criminalise commercial squatting.
The industry will be pleased that the issue is back on the agenda, but may be left wondering why it was not given greater consideration by the Government when they consulted on it as recently as 2011.