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.