UK: Letter from a squatter to a member of parliament

Mike Weatherly MP for Hove & Portslade has been making lots of noise lately with regards to squatting. Basically he’s keen to make an impact in his first term and sees the victimization of squatters as a vote winner. Much of what he says on the issue consists of misrepresentations, exaggerations and lies. I wrote this letter to him last Wednesday (26th October) taking him to task for some of what he has said, he promised to reply, but he hasn’t as yet.

I’ve never had much time for politicians, but this one stands out as a particularly nasty prick even compared to the rest of them.

Keep fighting, keep squatting.

Dear Mike Weatherly MP

I’ve been following your campaign against squatting for some time and I have a few questions about the way in which you have conducted it. I realise you need votes and attacking an unpopular minority is an easy way to win them; however I also feel that calm, honest, reasoned, factually accurate debate should occasionally form a part of our political system .

In a speech to the House of Commons in March [1] you inserted numerous half-truths, misrepresentations and lies – despite being challenged on many of your statements since, you continue to spout inaccurate sound-bites in an effort to stir up resentment and fear.

You say you “wish to dispel the myth… that squatters and homeless people are one and the same”. The legal definition of homelessness includes people who can only stay where they are on a temporary basis and those who don’t have permission to live where they are [2] – as far as I can tell that perfectly describes squatters. Even if you ignore this (which you do) the reason people squat is to provide themselves with a home – I don’t know of anyone who has a squat as a second or third home, so the way you plan to “dispel” this “myth” is by pushing those who currently squat onto the streets.

Your article of 7th September in the Daily Mail [3], while no doubt well received by its reactionary readership, contained many of the factual errors you are becoming known for.

You talk about a house in Wilbury Villas – a council owned building which, having been evicted, is still vacant while the council pays private security firm Sitex Orbis to keep it that way. Having lived briefly in that house, I feel I should point out I am not claiming any benefits and the reason I didn’t add “breaking and entering… breach of the peace, misuse of drugs, criminal damage or anti-social behaviour… arson, robbery, unauthorised works to listed buildings, illegal utility use or fly-tipping” to the legal warning was because I had no intention of committing these offences. I note that you feel these crimes “go hand in hand with squatting” based, presumably, on the fact that squatters have committed them at some point. By this dubious logic home owning goes hand in hand with murder.

In another of your case studies you talk about how“squatters moved into the house of a recently deceased woman for nearly two weeks.

“They broke in through a side door, later claiming they’d climbed in through a window. Her poor daughter — in the depths of her grief — ended up paying £10,000 in extensive legal fees and repair costs to the house to get rid of these wicked opportunists.” Presumably this is 7 York Avenue (when the owners went to court you were there for a photo opportunity [4] – and you accuse the squatters of wicked opportunism), is there a breakdown of this £10,000?

A possession order costs less than £200 and, as far as I’m aware, there was little or no damage caused to the building. The property was entered through an open window at the front of the house – the story about the side door was fabricated by the security company (Secure Site) in an attempt to convince police to illegally evict the occupants. Regularly this tactic works and people are left homeless and often arrested – I realise this is an outcome you are seeking to make the norm, but I feel it is worth mentioning nonetheless.

If the figure of £10,000 has any basis in reality, I suspect the bulk of it was paid to Secure Site to keep the property empty (a job they did pretty badly on the face of it). Unbelievable figures also cropped up in your speech to the House – you claimed that 10 incidents of squatting council properties cost “over £30,000 in legal bills alone”. Ordinary people regularly obtain possession orders without legal assistance, so I would imagine a housing officer could achieve this too. As a taxpayer I’d like to know what £3,000 per property was spent on.

You regularly blame squatters for depriving people of housing, whether council or private. Your statements with regard to people’s homes being occupied are some of your most shady. As you are well aware DROs [5] and PIOs [6] protect people’s homes already, the reason they are rarely (legitimately) used is simply because people don’t squat other people’s homes. When 160 lawyers pointed this out to you [7], you chose to ignore most of their points and accused them of acting in self-interest [8] – do you honestly believe new legislation would mean less work for lawyers?

In the opening of your Daily Mail article you talked about a hypothetical situation where people return home to find it “has been taken over by squatters”. You go on to state that “all you can do — once you’ve found somewhere to stay — is go through the stress of going to court to seek an eviction order, which might eventually mean you get your house back.” This, to put it bluntly, is a lie.

The solution to squatting you offered in a letter printed in the Guardian was that “squatters should be instantly arrested for being there at all”. I realise you were attempting to make a populist statement, not formulate a reasoned response, however I wonder whether you are aware of the abuse of squatting law by landlords. The police are understandably reluctant to intervene in many disputes of this nature – even if new laws were brought in, only the courts could judge who has a right to a property. You may get some new prosecutions, police and court time would be further wasted, but the people who own the property, who you claim to be sticking up for, would not see any difference.

You and elements of the media have claimed that damage caused by squatters has stopped buildings being used. An example you gave in your speech to the Commons was Park House – a former school owned by Hyde Martlet, who have been neglecting the listed building in an attempt to get planning permission to knock it down [9]. Apart from the brief period of squatting Park House has been kept vacant since being bought by Hyde Martlet, and I don’t believe they have done any work on it (beyond paying Sitex Orbis to install alarms and ugly metal sheeting over the windows). You claimed that “refurbishment will now be that little bit more expensive as a result [of the squatters actions]”. When are Hyde Martlet planning on refurbishing Park House?

This “historic building” in your constituency is being destroyed by a company driven by profit. Many locals have opposed the development of the site [10], yet you chose to use this case as another weapon to beat squatters with. I would question whether you are motivated more by increasing your own profile and less by the concerns of your constituents.

You claim to have met many squatters and that “the squatters that [you] have spoken to are professionals and… theirs is a lifestyle choice”. What is a “professional squatter”? It is true that many squatters are intelligent and organised, as this is often a prerequisite to even be able to squat. People are forced to sleep in doorways and bins because of the difficulties of dealing with the law as it stands and those that enforce it, while many properties in Brighton & Hove have remained vacant for years. Who is the greater criminal – the person who leaves buildings empty for years while people freeze on the street or someone who climbs though windows of these buildings looking for shelter?

You are quoted as saying “what we’re not doing here is talking about the person who needs a home for the night and crawls into an empty building.”[11] Yet I fail to see how anything you have proposed will not be targeting that person. You claim that “the estimated numbers of squatters having doubled into the tens of thousands since the recession began in 2008” – I don’t know where you got this ‘fact’ from [12], but it appears you have inadvertently admitted that people are forced into squatting.

You say you don’t believe vulnerable people will be harmed by the criminalisation of squatting, this is an absurd position to take. Research by Crisis [13] found that 40% of homeless people have resorted to squatting, are all these people lifestyle squatters or are they merely collateral damage?

No doubt, if the level of repression was increased, some of those who currently squat would find alternative ways to house themselves or rely on the state to do it for them. However this will be a proportion of the ‘savvy’ squatters, leaving the more vulnerable to face the full force of a law that effectively criminalises homelessness. A new law would also not decrease the number of incidents of squatting as, assuming it is enforced, new legislation would lead to more evictions and, as a result, a higher turnover of squats. As a recent report [14] from Sheffield Hallam University found that “Strengthening laws or enforcement activity against squatters in occupied buildings is likely to have minimal impact on levels of squatting but significant impact on squatters themselves.”

Worryingly you suggested in your Daily Mail article that charities are supportive of your actions. This is clearly not the case for either Shelter or Crisis – both have explicitly opposed the criminalisation of squatting [15] [16].

Squatting is neither easy or comfortable, the difficulties faced by people with insecure housing are something you either don’t have any comprehension of or choose to ignore. As far as I can tell you are not an idiot and you are aware that much of what you say is false, yet you continue to make irresponsible statements on a sensitive topic.

There are completely legitimate reasons to want to look at the issues around squatting and homelessness, however what you are doing is jumping on a bandwagon in an effort to gain support from your Tory base. Perhaps this is more important to you than making the world a better place, but I would hope for better from the people that are supposed to represent me.

1 Mike’s Speech to the Commons on Squatting –

2 Housing Act 1996 –

3 Daily Mail, 7th September 2011 – Make squatters criminals and let an Englishman’s home become his castle again –

4 Mike sees squatters in court –

5 Displaced Residential Occupier – see Criminal Law Act 1977 & Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994

6 Protected Intended Occupier – see Criminal Law Act 1977 & Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994

7 An open letter signed by 160 legal academics, solicitors and barristers –

8 Mike’s response to the lawyers –

9 The Argus, 25th January 2011 – Hove residents kept squatters in school secret –

10 The Argus, 28th January 2011 – Letters to the editor –

11 Huffington Post, 21st August 2011 – Plans To Criminalise Squatting: Hurting The Homeless Or Protecting Homeowners?

12 There are many estimates for the number of squats and/or squatters in the UK, however they are all based on very rough approximations and there has been very little research in this area. This is something the government may wish to consider before rushing to legislate. The assumption is Mr Weatherly simply invented this statistic.

13 Crisis – Hidden Truth About Homelessness –

14 Crisis – Squatting Report –

15 Shelter – Response – Options for dealing with squatting

16 Crisis – Oppose plans to criminalise squatting – take action now –