Thanks to a change in the law, empty business premises and pubs are being invaded by uninvited guests.
A loud bang goes off. I jump. “Don’t worry, it isn’t a bomb, it’s only a firework. This is Chelsea, you know,” says Ben.
Indeed it is. I am in London’s richest borough, in the Cross Keys, a gorgeous old pub that welcomed Whistler, Sargent and Turner as regulars and in more recent years hosted engagement parties for Pippa Middleton’s set. The fires are blazing, the battered old Chesterfields are comfortable, the tea is piping hot.
Except Ben is not the barman. He is a squatter, who has welcomed me in from behind a boarded-up door. The pub closed a few months ago, after the owner said it was losing too much money.
Along with 16 others, a rag-tag collection of homeless, students and middle-class charity workers, Tom has moved into the vacant pub and made it his temporary home.
Most of them came from the old BT headquarters in Holborn – the Hobo Hilton, as it was nicknamed – and this week they have lost a court hearing and will be evicted from the pub. Where will they move to? Another commercial property.
Welcome to the new world of squatting, far removed from the image of grungy bedsits in the wrong end of town, where the whiff of soft drugs failed to mask the stench of unwashed residents. Modern office blocks, warehouses, pubs and clubs are the venues of choice for today’s modern squatter.
And the Coalition government is responsible.
On September 1, the law changed, beefing up homeowners’ rights. Squatting, which for three decades was a civil, not a criminal offence, is now outlawed in residential properties. One person has already been sentenced to 12 weeks behind bars. However, commercial properties are not affected by the change in the law.
So the squatters have started moving into the increasing number of empty business premises that have emerged as the result of the recession.
David Marsden, property litigation partner at law firm Charles Russell, says of the change in the law: “It has worked. It is immediately noticeable.” Peter Mooney, who runs a bailiff company, says: “It’s all sorts of buildings: office blocks, industrial warehouses, even one local authority leisure centre, which had been used by the squatters to host a rave. Any vacant commercial properties are vulnerable.”
One thing is clear: squatting in commercial properties is on the increase and not going to go away, as more businesses go bust and youth unemployment and homelessness remains high.
By Harry Wallop – The Telegraph