With news that 30 squatters have taken over mansions at 94 and 95 Park Lane in London there are serious concerns that the current economic environment will see more homes in the UK the subject of “squatters rights”. The two mansions at Park Lane, London are valued in the region of £15 million each and have the Dorchester Hotel as a neighbour and overlook the famous Hyde Park.
When you consider that there are now over 762,000 empty homes in the UK, some the subject of repossession orders and others almost derelict, there is every chance that we could see an increase in the number of squatters attempting to gain access. While it is very difficult to confirm the number of squatters in the UK a 2003 report suggested there were at least 15,000 squatters in England and Wales. This figure is likely to have mushroomed over the last few years and could rise substantially over the next 24 months.
What rights do squatters have in the UK?
While many people may find it rather bizarre, squatters do have substantial rights in the United Kingdom as the act of “squatting” is not actually a criminal offence but more of a civil matter.
Gaining entry to an empty building
One of the main criteria afforded to squatters rights is the fact that entry to the property in question must not have been gained by a force or incurred criminal damage to the property. In the example above, of the Park Lane mansions, entry was said to have been gained via an unlocked cellar door which is perfectly legal in the eyes of the law. If squatters are deemed to have gained entry by force or caused criminal damage they can be evicted immediately.
A section 6 notice
The rights of squatters are not normally discussed in the media and rarely mentioned on property forums but they can be fairly deeply entrenched and cause serious problems to the original owner of the properties involved. Upon gaining legal entry to properly squatters have been known to place legal warnings (known as a section 6) on the front door which confirms they have a legal right to live in a building and anyone who tries to enter without permission – even the owner of the property – would be committing a criminal offence.
While there have been various amendments to the law in favour of landlords and property owners, most prominently in 1994, this is still something of a grey area.
Right to ownership
Originally the squatters rights legislation was passed with regards to properties which had changed hands where possibly there may have been some confusion regarding ownership with an absent family member or possible beneficiary. The squatters rights legislation allowed those living in those properties were ownership may have been “uncertain” to claim full ownership, with no recourse to court, after a set period of time.
The current legislation confirms that squatters have a right to claim ownership of a property after living there for 12 years so long as nobody else has posted a claim – referred to as adverse possession under common law. However, it can be very difficult to prove that you have lived there for 12 years or more to gain complete ownership of the property, a factor which was demonstrated when Lambeth Council ejected squatters from St Agnes Place in London despite the fact they had lived there for 30 years.
The government introduced new legislation in 2002 by way of the Land Registration Act which effectively forces those squatting to claim physical possession of the property after 10 years and have their names inserted on the title deeds. This act of attempting to change the title deeds would then alert the underlying owner of the property, who may not know of the squatter situation, with the idea that they would take legal action to block the change of ownership. This law was enacted purely and simply to make life as difficult as possible for squatters looking to officially register a property.
While London is commonly assumed to have the most empty properties and consequently the highest density of squatters advisory associations, empty homes are a serious issue in places such as Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester although the south of England is starting to struggle as more and more people fall foul of mortgage default and cannot afford to maintain and pay for their properties.
In essence the squatters associations around the UK claim that if a property is empty then anyone who has no home of their own should be able to gain legal access and make use of a property. As the current economic climate continues to worsen in the UK there are serious concerns that the UK courts may look more favourably upon the rights of squatters to the detriment of property owners.
The cost of evicting squatters
Very often the process by which squatters may be evicted from a property can literally drag on for many years through the courts and cost substantial amounts of money. As a consequence of this often long drawn out process many landlords and property owners have taken to intimidation and physical violence to “force their unwanted guests to leave”. While illegal and leaving property owners open to prosecution, once the squatters have left the property and the building is secured, they literally have no right of access.
Common ways to reduce the problem of squatting
By far the largest potential problem is experienced by local councils throughout the UK who often have large numbers of properties uninhabited and at potential risk of squatters. As a consequence many councils use unorthodox methods to reduce the risks of squatters by taking out plumbing, removing toilets and other such vital elements of the common home. As a consequence this makes the property far less desirable for those looking for somewhere to stay and can in many cases avoid long drawn-out court cases to evict squatters.
The case of the Park Lane mansions
The two £15 million Park Lane mansions currently inhabited by squatters are believed to be owned by the Duke of Westminster although the leasehold is said to be in the hands of two separate companies. As a consequence these companies are rumoured to be taking legal action to evict the squatters from the properties and secure the buildings. Quite how long this will take, how much it will cost and how effective it will be remains to be seen but the problem of squatting in the UK is set to mushroom in the years ahead.