The Government has opened a consultation in response to the perceived "appalling impact" of squatting. The consultation seeks to collect information on squatting and to elicit views on what to do to deal with it.

It may surprise some that squatting in itself is not a criminal offence. It is an offence for someone not to leave a residential property when required to do so by the owner. Owners of commercial properties are not so protected. Squatters may also commit other offences eg, burglary or criminal damage, when entering a property. However, enforcement of an owner's rights can be time-consuming and costly. Squatters can also point to other legislation, which prohibits the use or threat of violence to gain entry to premises if there is someone on the premises who opposes the entry, to claim so-called "squatters' rights" against legitimate owners.

The Government's proposals include:

  • creating a new offence which might be wide-reaching enough to catch the recent student takeovers of academic buildings;
  • expanding the existing law so that it covers commercial properties;
  • repealing the legislation which has led to "squatters' rights"; and
  • leaving the law alone, but improving enforcement.

The consultation closes on 5 October. When the results are published we should have a clearer picture of whether squatting is truly the problem the Government perceives it to be and whether, with the reported housing shortage and the increasing number of empty high street shops, it is a problem which is going to get worse or a relatively minor issue which the Government will not have the financial resources or the political will to deal with.