The subject of squatters is never far from the headlines as the UK property market continues to head downwards. The ongoing repossession of many homes across the UK together with an ever-increasing number of council properties left empty is something of an embarrassment for the property sector but there are far reaching implications which have emerged over the last few weeks.
While for many years the legal profession has sought to clarify the situation regarding squatters and squatter’s rights, with a number of potential legal loopholes closed over time, Lambeth council in south London has been forced to issue a list of around 800 properties which are not owned by any individual and remain empty. This has set a legal precedent for councils around the country and sent shockwaves through the property sector which is already reeling from a significant fall in property prices.
What exactly happened with the Lambeth Council?
Under the terms of the government’s Freedom of Information act any individual is allowed to request information from government run services such as councils, Parliament and other areas of public services in the UK. Using the Freedom of Information act, Lambeth Living, the association which manages the Lambeth borough councils housing stock, has been forced to issue a list of 800 properties under the council’s control which remain empty.
While the council sought a legal challenge against the ruling that the information had to be provided, the Information Tribunal clarified the situation and confirmed that the council had a legal obligation to provide the address of empty properties which are not owned by any individuals. Officials at Lambeth Council suggest that a precedent had already been created with a similar request to Bexley Council which resulted in a list of empty properties being brought into the public domain.
What are the consequences of this ruling?
The consequence of this Freedom of Information act ruling could be far reaching for the property industry as there are literally hundreds of thousands of properties up and down the country which are currently empty. Officials in public office are seriously concerned that there will be a substantial increase in the number of squatters appearing in areas such as London although the Freedom of Information service could be used to uncover properties all around the UK. However, there may also be other far-reaching consequences!
It is estimated that there are around 750,000 homes empty in the UK and while a great majority are owned by the council a significant number of properties have been repossessed by various banking institutions all over the country. If the public were able to use the Freedom of Information act to somehow obtain a list of repossessed properties this could also increase instances of squatting right across the UK.
Should squatters really have rights?
This is a subject that has attracted significantly differing views across a wide spectrum of the UK investment and social community. On one hand these properties in question have been acquired by the various companies and public bodies with the intention of either been sold on at some point or offered to tenants looking for housing. However, in relation to repossessed properties on the property market, the sector is still very depressed and significantly fewer homes are being sold at this moment in time than we saw just 12 months ago. As a consequence more and more repossessed homes are remaining on the market and taking much longer to sell. This has seen a significant increase in the number of empty and unused homes across the country with the potential for squatters to obtain information about these properties and “make use of the residential facilities”.
Alternatively, there is also a growing opinion in the UK that even though properties have been acquired by individuals, companies and public bodies, the fact that the UK housing stock numbers have historically been less than the overall demand across the country brings into play various social and housing obligations. Is it right for much sought-after properties to remain empty for long periods of time? Is the right for significant numbers of the UK population to live on the streets?
There are laws in place which do actually legalise squatting under certain circumstances although ultimately in the vast majority of cases this has led to intervention by the police to effectively “move the squatters on”. However, there is a certain amount of friction between the UK police force, property owners and the UK courts who have often ruled in favour of squatters rights although there still seem to be a number of technicalities on which the police are able to intervene.
The future of empty properties in the UK
As we touched on above, the UK property market is still in decline and the number of repossessed and empty properties across many sectors in many areas of the country continues to grow. Balancing out the legal and social obligations of property owners is something which many have been trying to do for many years but which ultimately comes down to a personal opinion. The legal profession has offered mixed signals over the years although many governments have tried to close various loopholes which the squatters have been able to use.
One accusation always aimed at those claiming squatter’s rights has been the perceived opinion that all properties which they obtain access to are left in a derelict state and “not looked after”. However, while the vast majority of cases which hit the headlines may well promote this image there are many squatters who have taken care of the properties they “live in” with many people remaining in these properties for many years. There are also legal obligations regarding the ownership of empty properties and the rights of those who obtain access on a longer-term basis.
The problems encountered by Bexley and Lambeth councils could just be the tip of the iceberg with concerns that this particular procedure, used to obtain access to property addresses, will be replicated right across the country. This will not only lead to a substantial increase in squatters across the UK but could also see a number of those normally entitled to council rented accommodation miss out.
There is also the obvious increase in costs attributed to various councils and public bodies up and down the country as they seek to eject squatters and protect their properties in the future. However, those on the side of squatters will argue that if a property is not being used and people are homeless, where is the harm?