Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Squatting - you may be surpised what you think

The Netherlands used to look a picture of harmony and tolerance but its liberal outlook is wearing a bit thin. The new coalition government is banning the Burqa, one of it’s party leaders is in court for promoting religious hatred. Even the tree in Amsterdam that sheltered Anne Frank has gone rotten and fallen over.  But perhaps most significantly of all the government has outlawed squatting.

Nothing wrong with that you might think. Surely it should be illegal to squat other people’s houses anyway.  Well perhaps, but it is legal in England and Wales and Dutch tolerance of squatting has actually been a very successful policy. The Netherlands has Europe’s lowest level of vacancy (0.3% compared to 3.5% in UK).

The simple idea in the Netherlands was that if an owner left a building empty for more than a year he lost the right to evict squatters. If the owner was intending to redevelop a building, demolish it, or sell it the last thing he needed was to have it full of squatters who had rights to stay. The effect was of course property owners did whatever they could to stop their property becoming empty, and if that failed, they did whatever they could to get their property back into use within a year.

A whole industry grew up to help. It provided a “guardian” service finding people who would live in empty properties to prevent them becoming squatted. Not only did the law minimise the number of empty properties, a by-product was to create a new sector of housing that was cheap and accessible. Figures suggest that nearly 1% of the Dutch population are now property guardians. The industry has spread beyond the Dutch borders and property guardian companies like Camelot and Ad-Hoc successfully operate in Belgium, Germany, France and the UK.

It is a truth that few dare speak here. But the risk of an empty property being squatted is a powerful motivator for the owner to get it into use. Whether you like the idea of squatting or not, it is probably true that it stops a lot of buildings being left empty. A system like the Dutch are now getting rid of, without doubt, creates an even stronger incentive still.  There are mutterings on the backbenches of Westminster here that squatting should be banned across the UK too. Plenty of people will tell you about the harm squatting causes, much of which will be true. But before you agree to enthusiastically, ask the other question too. What good does it do? You may be surprised what you conclude.