News needs to be two things: new and true. In terms of the latter, most of what gets reported about squatting misses the mark somewhat. And, to an extent, it’s understandable: squatters aren’t exactly queuing up to give interviews to the mainstream media, so misconceptions and murkiness, stereotype and sensationalism, abound.
But no other area of investigative journalism would tolerate such a slap dash approach to fact gathering: we get more reports from inside Burma than from inside squats. The question is: how much of the myth is carried on deliberately?
The most shocking squat case to be splashed across the pages of our daily newspapers recently was the invasion of a property owned by Dr Cockerell and his pregnant wife; the Standard ran with the headline: ‘you're putting my unborn baby at risk, mother-to-be tells squatters’. But although the good doctor was indeed a homeowner, this was not yet his home: it was only the third to last paragraph that made mention of the fact that they had not yet moved in. The implication up until that point being: if the average homeowner leaves the house to go to the shops, squatters will be in before you can say, ‘pint of semi-skimmed, please’.
Indeed, our more sensationalist media outlets constantly conflate the words house, home and homeowner. It creates a climate of fear, which makes it easier to push through legislation that protects the propertied and demonises the impoverished. Never is mentioned that the Criminal Law Act 1977provides ample protection for a residential occupier, and squatting other people's homes is a criminal offence. Or that a protected intended occupier (PIO) or displaced residential occupier (DRO) has recourse to an interim possession order (IPO) - a fast track eviction process that means squatters must leave within 24hours or be arrested.
When invoking accidental usurpers like these to paint a picture of the squat community, they knowingly take an isolated case and conflate it with the common place. Why would anyone occupy an already occupied building, only for the newly tanned owners to return from holiday - all straw donkeys and sombreros - to make them homeless again? It’s the situation squatters will do anything to avoid. And it defies sense, particularly when there are approaching three quarters of a million genuine empties in the UK currently.
It’s not just our press: our politicians also blunder on, willingly blinkered. 160 property lawyers signed a letter in the Guardian recently, accusing Grant Shapps MP of deliberately misleading the public. He knows perfectly well, they said, that the law is more than adequate to protect homeowners in those rare cases where someone is stupid, finkish or unlucky enough to attempt to squat a house that's already occupied. If he doesn't know that these cases are not squatting at all but areas already covered by criminal legislation, then he really has no business being a minister - much less the housing minister.
You may have seen Mr. Shapps on Question Time recently, being quizzed on the woeful lack of social housing. No one thought to ask him about the criminalisation of trespass, but some apt questions might have included: how does criminalising squatting help with a housing crisis? Why do you refuse to make the rules for landlords more rigorous despite 86, 628 complaints against rogue rent collectors last year? Can't we do better than a situation where 1.7million families are on council housing waiting lists, when homelessness is up 17%, while 737, 491 properties lie empty and abandoned? Until these questions are answered, there can be no honest debate.
Mike Weatherly, another conservative member of parliament pointlessly championing the rights of homeowners, rushed to Grant's defence in a response letter, which was also printed in the Guardian. In it he pointed out that lawyers have a vested interest in property disputes remaining a civil matter: it puts food on their table, Porsches in their garages. But while it's completely fair to say that they have a vested interest in the status quo, who wants to maintain the status quo?
Criminalising squatting misses the point entirely: why not criminalise the act of abandoning property? In fact, the law is set up to make it more appealing to own second homes and leave them empty. Yet, if it was illegal to waste property in this way, it would a, have exactly the same effect as criminalising squatting (contrary to popular belief, no empty properties pretty much equals no squatters) and b, may go some way to alleviate the twin evils of economic inequality and rampant homelessness we’re now facing.
This seems a reasonable course of action, which almost everyone - squatters and squires alike - could support; I doubt, somehow, that this solution would be acceptable to the uber-rich, who take up ‘the quiet enjoyment of property’ from the south of France and various other tax havens, leaving the British public to deal with the consequences.
If we're discussing vested interests, it’s probably fair to ask if Mike Weatherly represents merely the views of the propertied people of his constituency – those that are likely to vote for him – or whether he also represents the best interests of the homeless and disenfranchised of his ward…