Opinion: Stephen Williams is right to support the criminalisation of squatting

It’s always a pleasure to see a Liberal Democrat MP standing up for our core liberal values. And among the core principles of liberalism, private ownership of property is of huge importance.

So it’s truly gratifying to see that Stephen Williams, MP for Bristol West, is taking a stand to protect owners of property from being dispossessed. Stephen has given his support to legislation, to be brought before parliament by the government, to criminalise squatting.

This is highly welcome and long overdue. Squatting has for too long been portrayed as a victimless crime, a Robin Hood grab from the rich by the needy, or a radical attack on selfish interest. None of these notions could be further from the truth.

Let’s look at them in turn, staring with the idea that squatting is a victimless crime. That is certainly not the view of a couple I know who bought their first home, a flat in Peckham, a few years ago. Shortly afterwards, one of them got a job in Africa, helping distribute medicine across one of Africa’s poorest countries. They moved out there, but they did not want to sell their new home, so they let it to some tenants. Some time afterwards, the tenants ceased to pay the rent and proceeded to squat in the flat. Being in Sub-Saharan Africa at the time, the couple struggled to evict the squatters, and for the best part of a year were forced to meet their mortgage payments while not receiving the income from their flat. When the squatters finally did leave, they’d trashed the place and stolen the telly. The police were uninterested, despite the fact that the squatters bank details were available through which to chase them up.

What about the fact that squatting represents a solution to housing need, involving those who cannot afford property occupying the spare property of those with plenty? The above should deal with the idea that landlords are always wealthy. What of the squatters? Many are, in fact, perfectly able to pay rent. Taking the example of two squatters I’ve known, one also worked for Transport for London, while the other was very well educated. Neither needed to squat to live; both could afford pay rent. For various reasons they chose not to. Whatever the pros and cons of it, to suggest that they represent the “needy” would be absurd.

Finally, there’s the question of whether squatting is a radical action taken to attack the principle of private property – either in its entirety, or just the idea that people should be allowed to own “more than they need.” I don’t doubt for a moment that, in a minority of cases, there is a genuine – if misguided – desire to undermine the principle of private property (though I would add that one squatter I have known actually owned a property elsewhere). What effect would it have if they succeeded in their aim? And what effect does it have just occupying the properties they do?

As I noted above, private ownership of property is a fundamental principle in a free society. One reason for this is consequentialist: society as a whole benefits from individuals being able to own (and, therefore, exclusively dictate the use of) property. Without the exclusive right to private property, who would build more than they could defend with their own hands? Where would the 30 per cent of the population who cannot afford to build or buy a home live if nobody else felt safe enough to own extra property that they could let out? (The socialist answer is collectively owned housing, but it is worth noting that squatters show no favour to social landlords, many of which are unable to house those on their lists because some of their properties are occupied by squatters).

Squats will never undermine the right to own property. Private ownership is too valuable to society as a whole. But they do reduce the stock of housing available to those willing to pay rent. Be they rich enough to pay their own way or in receipt of Housing Benefit; be their landlord “private” or “social”; squatting makes it harder for fair-minded citizens to find a home, and pushes up the cost for those that do.

Squatting is harmful to landlords and tenants; to those who pay rent and those who need it to pay for their mortgages. It is a selfish and disgraceful practice. Stephen Williams is correct to protect the rights of property owners from those that would seek to steal from them. I hope that can convince the rest of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party to support him.

Tom Papworth is the Director of Policy at Liberal Vision, which exists to promote individual liberty, a free economy and limited government within the Liberal Democrats, among the political and media community and to the wider public.

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34 Comments

  • “But they do reduce the stock of housing available to those willing to pay rent. Be they rich enough to pay their own way or in receipt of Housing Benefit; be their landlord “private” or “social”; squatting makes it harder for fair-minded citizens to find a home, and pushes up the cost for those that do.”

    No they don’t. Squatters make letting less attractive. The costs incurred by landlords cannot, economically, be passed on to tenants. The greater the costs for tenants then the greater downward pressure on house prices, meaning that first-time buyers have a better chance of competing against buy-to-let speculators to buy a house to live in. A tightening of the laws against squatters will make it easier for landlords to out-compete first-time-buyers, reducing the proportion of the population that own their own home. This is nothing more than special pleading by people that think that the world owes them something because their names are on the title deeds of a piece of land.

    “And among the core principles of liberalism, private ownership of property is of huge importance.”

    No it isn’t. That’s a key principle of Tory ideology (and seemingly now the Lib Dems). Taxation of private property is a core principle of liberalism.

  • Liberal Neil 27th Jun '11 - 1:48pm

    I agree with Duncan.

  • I don’t think Stephen is a Liberal Vision-ista

    “it is clearly not unacceptable for a landlord owning a building that is actively NOT using it (and instead is just sitting on the investment waiting for the right offer to come in)”

    To some extent – but that is something which should be dealt with by the taxation and regulatory process rather than ad hoc measures.

  • Perfect solution: Make it illegal for a landlord to let a property if they don’t have insurance against squatting.

    Winners:
    Those wishing to buy their own home to live in, as house prices will be forced down by the increased costs to the landlord.

    Bad solution: As suggested by Stephen Williams.

    Winners:
    Landlords, as the costs of policing the anti-squatting laws will be shouldered by both homeowners and non-homeowners. The effect of Stephen William’s proposals will be to transfer more wealth from non-homeowners to homeowners, with the result that homeownership will become even more out of reach to those wishing to purchase somewhere to live in.

    Why shouldn’t the landlords shoulder the cost of the risks of voids, squatting, etc? A healthy rental sector with good landlords, receiving money from providing a service, is a vital part of the economy. Subsidising landlords that decide to live far away, that hold on to property as they wish to speculate and gain from artificial scarcity, is not the solution. How does the landlord, in this instance, deal with any problems the tenant may have with the property or the letting agent if they’re living thousands of miles away?

  • Is the Lib Dem position that the rights of property owners trump the rights of others? It’s not like landlords are under threat from vast armies of squatters, as the OP makes out…

    Personally, I’d be less concerned with squatting than with the outrageous restrictions being placed on legal aid. It is not liberal to deny access to legal representation because of an individuals financial situation.

  • “Get orf my land” said the land-owner to the trespasser.

    “How did you come to own the land?”, said the trespasser…”I inherited it from my father”

    “How did he come to own it?”…”He inherited it from a line of my ancestors going back to 11th century”

    “And how did your distant ancestor come by the land”…”He fought someone for it”

    “OK, then. Let’s have a fight to decide whose it is”

    @Tom Papworth
    “As liberals we recognise that we cannot decide the ends that others should pursue”

    You can’t say that and also argue for a tax on land. A tax on land deliberately targets those that do nothing with their land. It is a form of telling them what to do, albeit through tax incentives/decentives. If your definition of liberalism is to allow everyone to do what they want, then “Liberal Democrat” is an oxymoron.

  • david thorpe 27th Jun '11 - 2:23pm

    liberals have traditionally valued ownership of land as among the least important of the means of production this comes from the tradition that toreis owned the land and liberasl worked it.

    I know many peoplefor whom squatting is a lifestyle choice

  • Andrew Duffield 27th Jun '11 - 4:28pm

    @ Paul Perrin

    Land [Value] Tax is the antithesis of “an attack on private property rights”, being instead the most efficient and equitable way (via CI) of re-privatising community created wealth to those individual citizens who helped create it

  • Tony Dawson 27th Jun '11 - 5:57pm

    I agree with Andrew (above) about land taxation.

    I would be concerned more about squatting if there was presently a proper force in the land to make people provide vacant buildings for rent after a short time empty There are millions of people struggling in awful conditions in this country because of non-occupier greed. I do have concern, though, for the ‘little (wo)man’ who might lose his or her only home to squatting.

  • @Jock: Oh how the state trasnfers the costs off those who can afford to leave property idle and onto those who can’t afford any property to begin with but do pay tax!

    It seems, to me, that since the banks needed bailing out there has been a sort of transfer of wealth from the bottom all the way to the top. Big companies and banks who are “too big to fail” are bailed out with public money while the people at the bottom are told “there is no money left”. There’s plenty of money about, it’s just that the government has been protecting and subsidising the interests of those with money and power while taking away the very lifelines many average people depend upon.

    IMO, housing should be a basic human right just like healthcare. But there’s too much money to be made in property, isn’t there? What does it say about our society that the interests of those who own second, third, etc. homes which are left empty most of the time are more important than the interests of someone who has nowhere to live? And once the housing benefit cuts hit this problem will just get worse.

    One rule for wealthy land/homeownes, another rule for the average working and lower-middle class proles such as myself.

  • The central point for me is that we shouldnt be making more things illegal unless theres a pressing need. Most “authorities” on the subject suggest something like 30,000 people squatting at any one time, out of 60 Million.
    There is already legal redress for Owners, using Civil Law, why drag another area of life into The Criminal Arena ?

  • @Andrew Tennant
    The problem the article highlights is the fact that landowners wish non-landowners to give them more wealth on th basis of nothing more than the fact they own land. That’s what any real liberal would conclude, based on the evidence. That evidence being that the proportion of the population living in private homeownership is declining, the number of new entrants to private homeownership is at record lows and the average number of properties owned by current homweowners is increasing. Those very real problems would be exacerbated by Stephen Williams’ proposals.

    This is just the latest in a long line of special pleading by a vested interest group, i.e. current homewoners, that usually get their own way in wanting to receive economic rent – i.e. unearned money received at a rate above the competitive market rate transferred to them from the non-homeowners. They seek to keep the economic rent high by destroying competition and are able to achieve it’s destruction because politicians are happy to oblige them (partly because they wish to get elected using their votes and partly because many of them are corrupt and profit from the economic rent-seeking). However, such behaviour, en masse, eventually crashes the economy, as we’re seeing at the moment, until the wrong is righted. This is a terribly inefficient method of feedback and causes mass misallocation of resources towards unproductive activity, as well as screwing the productive (i.e. people that are doing useful jobs and would like to settle down and buy a house to live in, but can’t because the rent-seekers and their supporters have pushed house prices far too high and caused an economic meltdown to boot).

    A Land Value Tax is a much more efficient method of regulating this rent-seeking behaviour and preventing the enormous, damaging land-value speculation cycles created by its participants. It is the liberal solution as it prevents the free market from destroying competition. The free market is as much an enemy of liberalism as socialism. The liberal solution is to create a fair, productive and efficient market through regulation.

    If it were the case that landlords are currently having a hard time of things and were unable to compete against first-time buyers to buy property and provide a service tp those who would elect to rent a house through their chioce, then I would welcome regulation to tip the balance towards landlords. However, squatting is a minor problem. The (one, anecdotal) example in the article above isn’t even about squatting – it is about rental voids and the authors attempt to paint them as squatters highlights the bias. It is currently possible for landlords to take out such insurance. If landlords were forced to do this, then it would increase their costs (which can’t be passed onto the tenants) and house prices would therefore fall until yields became viable. This would be good news for first-time buyers as well as good tenants and good landlords that seek to enter into a contract to provide and deliver a service, rather than the recent crop of landlords that seek to take money from economic rent through speculation and special pleading.

  • Just getting back to the example in the article:
    Buying a house to live in should be a long-term financial plan that correctly assesses the multiple risks of:

    Changes to the mortgage terms – i.e. interest rates
    Changes in employment status – e.g. potential loss of employment, reduction in income, having to move location
    Changes in house price – e.g. making sure enough equity exists to mitigate against potential changes in the sale price.
    Changes in the cost of everything else – e.g. CPI running much higher than wage inflation.
    Avoiding the huge transaction costs involved in moving by doing it as infrequently as possible (this isn’t good for the economy – much better to abolish stamp duty and replace with LVT and make it illegal for rightmove, etc, to prevent private individuals from advertising on their site – another axample of corporate free marketeers destroying competition to their advantage)

    Homeownership suits those that plan for long term financial risks. The more we give in to special pleading for those that would like to pass the costs for such risks onto others, the more those fundamental apsects of genuine liberal behaviour (that I’ve just listed – i.e. individuals making their own, informed decisions) are undermined.

  • I’m sorry to keep going on here, but it is very important to point out the difference between a squatter – someone that enters and occupies a property without the owner’s consent – and a tenant – someone that agreed to live in the property – that does not pay the full rent. This article mentions ‘squat’ incorrectly 19 times.

    A tenant dispute is a civil dispute – a business agreement that has not been contrafctually fulfilled – that’s all. It happens all the time in the business world, e.g. suppliers not getting paid, etc . Letting a house is a business, so why should it be different to any other business? Such tenant disputes should not in any way be confused with breaking in to an empty house and claiming the right to live their.

  • @Duncan Scott
    One of the first links that came up when I typed landlord insurance into google:
    http://www.credit-check-services.co.uk/landlord-insurance.asp

    To be honest, I’m not sure it should be compulsory. The option is there for landlords to take it out if they want to. It was an option for the landlord in the example given by Tom Papworth of the landlord that ran off to Africa.

    There needs to be better regulation of the rental sector, especially for (quite frequently bad) landlords that provide social housing. Compulsory credit checks on the landlord would be useful for the tenants though. Security of tenure is bad enough with ASTs but the fact a tenant can be evicted at a couple of months notice because the landlord’s had the property repossessed is disgraceful. It’s hardly conducive to building a fair society if hard-working tenants, with families, can get turfed out because of the bad debtor landlords.

    Getting back to the landlord that ran off to Africa – surely they just took the money for the telly and damage to the property from the, usually not insubstantial, deposit?

    Whatever the rights or wrongs of squatters and ownership of vacant buildings, it’s important not to confuse the issue with tenant disputes.

  • Peter Chivall 28th Jun '11 - 12:59pm

    I am in two minds about whether, and in what circumstances, ‘squatting’ should become a criminal offence. I suspect that this is largely a problem of dwellings in areas of very high demand and prices, such as central London and the Clifton area of Bristol (amongst many others). I fully support the introduction of Land Value Taxation as a potential leveller of our current excessive and economically inefficient distribution of wealth. In the context of properties left empty for speculative reasons, LVT should be an incentive to keep property occupied.
    Those self-styled ‘liberals’ who oppose LVT should recognise that without the scarcity of land resulting from the needs of others in a crowded island, a house plot in central London would be worth no more than a similar plot in the Ukrainian steppe. the ‘value’ of the land is thus largely determined by the community at large and it is thus justified for the community to seek reasonably to tax the value it has created.
    Further, the value of land is often enhanced by the investment of the community in infrastructure. I understand that over half the revenue subsidies from the state to the railway system goes to hold down season ticket prices for London commuters, yet there is no mechanism for those commuters to contribute other than through their personal income tax or council tax (and with many properties already in the highest band). The state’s contributions to the Crossrail project will enhance land values in both suburbs like Shenfield, and in the City. Yet the promised contributions from City institutions towards the projects costs have largely not materialised, and there is currently no mechanism for the developers of land at Shenfield to contribute, but they will benefit from the community-created enhancement of the value of their landholding, whether developed or not.

  • david thorpe 28th Jun '11 - 3:25pm

    @ tom

    landowners didnt make the land and it would exist without them, for the land to have a social use it must have deployed upon it the other means of production
    capital labour and enterprise.
    gladstones liberals representated those three against land
    then the labour party split off to become the representatiive of labour

  • I find it bizzare that people defend squatting. We don’t allow people who can’t afford to eat steal food from a supermarket. We don’t allow people who can’t afford a car to steal someone else’s. We find more civilised ways of dealing with problems in society.

    The pro-squatters seem to think there’s only one reason why a house may be unoccupied and that is because the owner is rich enough to leave it empty. There are many different circumstances where ordinary people find themselves in a position where their house in being squatted. Why should these people have no way of getting their house back?

    Also being a raver (not so much these days) most squatters I’ve met are not really people who are desperate or that ideological. They’re just taking the p*ss.

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