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Squatting in England and Wales

The "Square Occupied Social Centre" a now-evicted squat in Russell Square

Squatting in England and Wales usually refers to a person who is not the owner, taking possession of land or an empty house. People squat for a variety of reasons which include needing a home,[1] protest,[2] poverty and recreation.[3] Many squats are residential, some are also opened as social centres.

There have been waves of squatting through British history. The BBC states that squatting was "a big issue in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 and again for the Diggers in the 17th Century [who] were peasants who cultivated waste and common land, claiming it as their rightful due" and that squatting was a necessity after the Second World War when so many were homeless.[4] A more recent wave began in the late 1960s in the midst of a housing crisis.

Many squatters legalised their homes or projects in the 1980s, for example Bonnington Square and Frestonia in London. More recently, there are still isolated examples such as the Invisible Circus in Bristol.

Under Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, squatting in residential property became a criminal offence on 1 September 2012.[5][6] Squatting in non-residential property may be a civil or a criminal matter, depending upon the circumstances,[7] and repossession by the owners, occupiers or intended occupiers may require legal process or police action.



16th- and 17th-centuryEdit

In 16th- and 17th-century Wales, an expansion in population as well as taxation policy led to a move of people into the Welsh countryside, where they squatted on common land. These squatters built their own property under the assumption of a fictional piece of folklore, leading to the developments of small holdings around a Tŷ unnos, or "house in a night".

In Elizabethan times, there was a common belief, that if a house was erected by a squatter and their friends on waste ground overnight, then they had the right of undisturbed possession.[8] To make it difficult for squatters to build, an act was passed known as the Erection of Cottages Act 1588 whereby a cottage could only be built as long as it had a minimum of 4 acres (1.62 ha; 0.01 sq mi) of land associated with it.[8][9]

In 1649 at St George's Hill, Weybridge in Surrey, Gerrard Winstanley and others calling themselves The True Levellers occupied disused common land and cultivated it collectively in the hope that their actions would inspire other poor people to follow their lead. Gerrard Winstanley stated that "the poorest man hath as true a title and just right to the land as the richest man".[10] While the True Levellers, later more commonly known as the Diggers, were perhaps not the first squatters in England, their story illustrates the heritage of squatting as a form of radical direct action.

Post World War IIEdit

There was a huge squatting movement involving ex-servicemen and their families following World War II. In Brighton, Harry Cowley and the Vigilantes installed families in empty properties and all around the country, in London suburbs and villages such as Chalfont St Giles families occupied derelict camps and in some cases stayed there until the mid-1950s.[11] As word spread, more and more people squatted until there were an estimated 45,000 in total.[12] On 10 October, Aneurin Bevan reported to the House of Commons that 1,038 camps in England and Wales were occupied by 39,535 people.[13]

Whilst the Government prevaricated, there was considerable public support for the squatters, since they were perceived as honest people simply taking action to house themselves. Clementine Churchill, wife of the ex-Prime Minister, commented in August 1946: "These people are referred to by the ungraceful term 'squatters', and I wish the press would not use this word about respectable citizens whose only desire is to have a home."[13]

On 8 September 1946, 1,500 people squatted flats in Kensington, Pimlico and St.Johns Wood. This action, termed the 'Great Sunday Squat' garnered much media attention and resulted five of the leaders being arrested for 'conspiring to incite and direct trespass.' The squatters left the apartments but did receive temporary accommodation. A sympathetic judge merely bound the squatters over to good behaviour.[13]


In the context of a severe housing crisis, the late 1960s saw the development of the Family Squatting Movement, which sought to mobilise people to take control of empty properties and use them to house homeless families from the Council Housing Waiting List. This movement was originally based in London (where Ron Bailey and Jim Radford were instrumental in helping to establish family squatting campaigns in several London boroughs and later the Family Squatting Advisory Service), and several local Family Squatting Associations signed agreements with borough councils to use empty properties under licence (although only after some lengthy and bitter campaigns had been fought—most particularly in the borough of Redbridge).[14] Bailey commented in 2005 that "The whole concept of community-based housing associations – that's where it all started, with squatting groups. It shows that the solution to housing problems isn't estate based, it should be based on mutual aid. The government should do all it can to enable self-help groups to flourish." [15]

Since 1967, the Principality of Sealand has existed as an unrecognised micronation on HM Fort Roughs, a sea fort off the coast of Suffolk. It was occupied by Paddy Roy Bates who styled himself as His Royal Highness Prince Roy.

In 1969, members of the London Street Commune squatted a mansion at 144 Piccadilly in central London to highlight the issue of homelessness but were quickly evicted.[16] The Eel Pie Island Hotel was occupied by a small group of local anarchists including illustrator Clifford Harper. By 1970 it had become the UK's largest hippy commune.[17]

1970s onwardsEdit

St Agnes Place pre-demolition

By the early 1970s, there was a growing conflict between the original activists of the Family Squatting Movement and a newer wave of squatters who simply rejected the right of landlords to charge rent and who believed (or claimed to) that seizing property and living rent-free was a revolutionary political act or more practically decided it was a good way to save money. These new-wave squatters (often young and single rather than homeless families) were a mixture of anarchists, Trotskyists—the International Marxist Group (IMG) being especially prominent—and self-proclaimed hippie dropouts, and they denounced the idea that squatters should seek to make agreements with local Councils to use empty property and that Squatting Associations should then become landlords (or Self Help Housing Associations as they were sometimes styled) in their own right and charge rent.

The Advisory Service for Squatters (ASS) continued the work of the Family Squatting Advisory Service, running a volunteer service helping squatters. ASS has been in continuous existence for almost forty years. It publishes the Squatters' Handbook and has drafted a legal warning to be used by squatters.[18]

St Agnes Place was a squatted street in Kennington, South London, which was occupied from 1969 until 2005.[19] The BBC documentary series Lefties profiled a squatted street called Villa Road in Brixton, which is still in existence.

Local Authority Housing Departments, facing rising court costs when evicting squatters, often resorted to taking out the plumbing and toilets in empty buildings to deter squatters. In the 1970s, some housing councils would attempt to deter squatters from entering their properties by "gutting" the houses, rendering them uninhabitable by pouring concrete into toilets and sinks or smashing the ceilings and staircases.[14]

Activists such as Terry Fitzpatrick teamed up with the local community in Whitechapel to form the Bengali Housing Action Group (BHAG) in 1976. At a time when the National Front was a threat in the area, Bengali families found strength squatting in numbers. Members of Race Today were involved in BHAG. When the Greater London Council declared an amnesty for squatters in 1977, they offered the Bengali families estates in the area.[20]

In 1979, there were estimated to be 50,000 squatters throughout Britain, with the majority (30,000) living in London.[21] There was a London's Squatters' Union in which Piers Corbyn was involved. For eighteen months, it was housed at Huntley Street, where over 150 people lived in 52 flats. The union organised festivals and provided homes for the homeless.[22]

Squatters occupied the Centre Point building in central London to protest homelessness and set up a free state in west London called Frestonia which attempted to secede from England. Actor David Rappaport was the Foreign Minister, while playwright Heathcote Williams served as Ambassador to Great Britain. The squatters later formed themselves into a housing co-operative which still owns the buildings. In Euston, Tolmers Square was occupied by more than one hundred squatters, who engaged with local groups to fight for a redevelopment plan which fitted the community. "Demolitions and threats to Georgian Bloomsbury and to Tolmers Square in Euston (the 'locus classicus of London's intellectual squatting movement'), succeeded anew in drawing public attention to the plight of the squares, and precipitated the initial stirrings of the movement for their preservation." [23] The squatters lived there for six years, during which time Alara Wholefoods & Community Foods started up. Community Foods grew to become the largest wholefood company in Britain in the 1980's and 1990's. Nick Wates writes that "It was only by taking direct action that anyone could intervene. By occupying empty buildings, squatters were able to halt the decline, revive the community and revive leadership in the struggle against the developers." [24]

On Railton Road in Brixton, the 121 Centre was set up, having first been squatted by the black feminist Olive Morris. Until its eviction in 1999, the 121 hosted events and in the 1980s printed a squatters newspaper called Crowbar and the anarchist Black Flag magazine in its basement.[25]

Centro Iberico was an old school squatted as a social centre in the 1980s, following on from the Wapping Autonomy Centre.

Elsewhere in England, there were sizeable squatting communities in Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Leicester and Portsmouth.[26] In Bristol, in the mid-1980s, squatters had the Full Marx bookshop, the Demolition Ballroom and the Demolition Diner, all on Cheltenham Road.[25]

In the 1990s, squatters in Brighton formed a group called Justice? and squatted an old Courthouse. They later set up a Squatters Estate Agency which received national media coverage. The 2012 Brighton Photo Biennial focused on 'Agents of Change' and released a full colour pamphlet entitled 'Another Space: Political Squatting in Brighton 1994 – present.'[27] Projects such as the aforementioned estate agency, a community garden, exhibitions and an anti-supermarket project were all featured. The curator commented that "While millionaires leave 'spare' houses empty for months on end and Tesco buy up land to be left vacant indefinitely, so called public space continues to diminish. By opening buildings to the public to make and share art, squatters create temporary autonomous spaces that radically refute this logic." [28]


A squat entitled the Kew eco-village in 2009.
A "Topple the Tyrants" occupation at the home of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi in London in 2011.

In 2003, it was estimated that there were 15,000 squatters in England and Wales.[29] In 2012, the Ministry of Justice deemed the figure to be 20,000.[30]

According to statistics compiled by the Empty Homes Agency in 2009, the most empty homes in the UK were in Birmingham (21,532), Leeds (24,796) Liverpool (20,860) and Manchester (24,955).[31] The fewest empty homes were in South East England and East Anglia.

In recent years, there have been squatted social centres in many UK cities, linked through the UK Social Centre Network. The OKasional Cafe in Manchester began in 1998 and periodically created short-term autonomous spaces including cafes.[32] The RampART Social Centre in Whitechapel, London, existed from May 2004 until October 2009, hosting meetings, screenings, performances, exhibitions and benefit gigs. As part of Occupy London the Bank of Ideas was occupied in Hackney.[33] The Spike Surplus Scheme was a venue and garden based in a former doss-house in Peckham, squatted from 1999 until 2009.

The 491 Gallery in Leytonstone, East London is a multidisciplinary art gallery.[34] Young artists who cannot afford to rent studio or gallery space, occupy abandoned buildings. Artist Matthew Stone from the !WOWOW! collective in South London states "I was obsessed with the idea of it, but also with getting to London and being part of a dynamic group of young people doing things."[35] Lyndhurst Way was squatted as a gallery from 2006 to 2007.

Temporary Autonomous Art, run by a group called Random Artists, is a series of squatted exhibitions which have been occurring since 2001.[36] Beginning in London, the events have also taken place in Brighton, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Cardiff.[37]

Groups have also squatted land as community gardens. Two such London projects were the Kew Bridge Ecovillage and the Hounslow community land project. In Reading, a garden called Common Ground was opened in 2007.[38] It was then resquatted the following year as part of the April2008 days of action in support of autonomous spaces.

Da! collective is an art collective that received national attention when they squatted in a £6.25 million, 30-room, grade II-listed 1730s mansion owned by the Duke of Westminster in 2008. After being evicted, they moved to a £22.5m property nearby in Clarges Mews.[39]

Raven's Ait, an island in the River Thames, was occupied in 2009. The squatters declared their intention to set up an eco conference centre. The eviction of these squatters took place on 1 May by police using boats and specialist climbing teams.[40]


Grow Heathrow is a squatted garden and part of the Transition Towns movement. It was raided by Metropolitan Police before the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton in April 2011, although the police denied any link to the wedding.[41] Social centres in Camberwell and Hackney were also raided.[42] Alleging unnecessary and illegal pre-emptive action was taken against them, the squatters requested a judicial review of the policing tactics.[43]

An activist group called Topple the Tyrants squatted a London home belonging to Saif al-Islam, son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, in March 2011.[44] It was an eight-bedroom mansion in Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, which had been listed for sale for €12.75 million when the 2011 Libyan civil war began.[45]

Later in 2011, the perceived eviction of the Telepathic Heights squat in Stokes Croft in Bristol led to riots.[46]

When the Government announced its plans to criminalise squatting, protests were launched across the UK and SQUASH (Squatters Action for Secure Homes) was reformed (it was first set up to fight previous plans regarding criminalisation in the mid-1990s) with a presentation at the House of Commons.[47] Squatters attempted to occupy the house of Justice Secretary Ken Clarke in September 2011.[48] The following month, twelve people were arrested outside the House of Commons whilst the criminalisation of squatting was being debated.[49]


Gremlins protesting on the roof of the squatted Spin Bowling, Cardiff, 2012.

As a result of the criminalisation of squatting in residential buildings, a group calling themselves The Gremlins in October 2012 resisted eviction of Spin Bowling in Cardiff from bailiffs and police. The group covered their faces with scarves and masks, posting on Bristol Indymedia claiming; "The state tries to make people homeless, anarchists have no sympathy for the state and its lackeys." The protest was believed to be in response to the imprisonment of Alex Haigh, who was the first person jailed under the new Section 144 law in the UK.[50][51] The activists have renamed the building Gremlin Alley Social Centre and continue to organise events at the squat.[52]

In November 2012, masked squatters moved into the Bute Dock Hotel in Cardiff Bay, owned by the nearby letting agents Keylet. They were seen on the roof and were believed to be from the group, after a post on the Gremlin Alley Twitter account. Managing Director and Chairman of the Association of Letting and Management Agents, Mr Vidler, said "It's distressing because I have items in there which are part of our business", concerned it would cost a lot of money to remove them.[53] Within a week they had left, after the owners took legal action, as it was being used for storage. Since the legal battle, Keylet plans to actively support tackling homelessness, believing "homelessness in Cardiff and the UK needs urgent attention." In a statement about the occupation,[54] the squatters said they intended to "reclaim this unoccupied space to re-open it for the use of the community".[55]


A property in Oxford owned by University College which has been occupied by squatters.

Common lawEdit

Historically, there is a common law right (known as "adverse possession") to claim ownership of a dwelling after continual unopposed occupation of land or property for a given period of several years or more, depending on the laws to a particular jurisdiction.[56]

UK laws allow for adverse possession claims range after 10 to 12 years, depending on if the land is unregistered. In practice, adverse possession can be difficult. For example, St Agnes Place in London had been occupied for 30 years until 29 November 2005, when Lambeth London Borough Council evicted the entire street.[57]

The law of adverse possession was fundamentally altered following the passing of the Land Registration Act 2002. In effect, after 10 years of actual physical possession, a squatter may apply to the Land Registry to have their title recognised as the owner in fee simple. However the original titled owner of the property, who will be notified by the Land Registry of the change in ownership, has the right to defeat the application by way of objection.

Criminal Law Act 1977Edit

Section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 covers the occupation of property. The Act was implemented to stop slum landlords forcibly evicting tenants (as was the case with the notorious London landlord Peter Rachman in the 1950s-1960s), and made "violence for securing entry" an offence. The law states:

if "(a) there is someone present on those premises at the time who is opposed to the entry which the violence is intended to secure; and (b) the person using or threatening the violence knows that that is the case."[58] The law does not distinguish for this purpose between violence to persons or property (e.g. breaking a door down).

People who squatted in buildings would often put up a "Section 6" legal notice on the front door.[59] The notice stated there were people living in the property who claimed they had a legal right to be there. It warned anyone — even the actual owner of the property — who tried to enter the building without lawful permission that they would be committing an offence.

In September 2012, the law was changed making trespass in a residential building with the intention of permanently residing a criminal offence. Although a Section 6 warning still applies for non-residential buildings.

Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994Edit

The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 introduced section 6.1(A) and other provisions were added, which override this and give the right of entry to "displaced residential occupiers", "protected intending occupiers" (someone who had intended to occupy the property, including some tenants, licensees and landlords who require the property for use), or someone acting on their behalf. These terms are defined in sections 12 and 12A. Such people may legally enter an occupied property even using force as the usual section 6 provision does not apply to them, and may require "any person who is on [their] premises as a trespasser" to leave. Failure to leave is a criminal offence under section 7 and removal may be enforced by police.

Civil Procedure RulesEdit

In 2001, the Civil Procedure Rules introduced new processes for civil repossession of property and related processes, under section 55. These include a fast track process whereby the legally rightful occupier can obtain an interim possession order (IPO) in a civil court which will enable them to enter the premises at will. Any unlawful occupiers who refuse to leave after the granting of an IPO is committing a criminal offence[58] and can then be removed by police. However some of these processes may not be available unless used within 28 days of the time that the claimant knew of the unauthorised occupancy.

Criminal law refers to an "occupier"[7] or "trespasser",[60] and the Civil Procedure Rules part 55 refer to possession claims against "trespassers".

Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012Edit

Frontage of the 491 Gallery.

In March 2011, Mike Weatherley, Conservative MP for Hove, proposed an Early Day Motion calling for the criminalisation of squatting.[61] His campaign was backed by a series of articles in the Daily Telegraph in which Kenneth Clarke (the Secretary of Justice) and Grant Shapps (Minister of Housing) were reported to be backing the move.[62][63][64]

In response, Jenny Jones, Green mayoral candidate for London, said that squatting was an "excellent thing to do".[65] Campaigners relaunched SQUASH (Squatters Action for Secure Homes) with a Parliamentary briefing chaired by John McDonnell MP. This formed a coalition between housing charities such as Shelter and Crisis, activists, lawyers and squatters.[66]

A total of 158 concerned academics, barristers and solicitors specialising in property law published a letter in The Guardian stating their concerns that "misleading" comments were being made in the mainstream media about squatting.[67] Mike Weatherley replied that "the self-proclaimed experts who signed the letter, sheep-like, have a huge vested interest when it comes to fees after all"[68] and Grant Shapps tweeted that "these lawyers are sadly out of touch".[69]

The Government opened a consultation entitled 'Options for dealing with squatters' on 13 July 2011, which ran until 5 October. It was "aimed at anyone affected by squatters or has experience of using the current law or procedures to get them evicted."[30] The pro-squatting campaign group SQUASH stated that there were "2,217 responses and over 90% of responses argued against taking any action on squatting."[70] Groups supporting a change in the law included the Crown Prosecution Service, Transport for London and the Property Litigation Association. Groups against a change included the Metropolitan Police, squatter networks, The Law Society, homelessness charities and the National Union of Students.

Kenneth Clarke then announced an amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill which would criminalise squatting in residential buildings.[71] In 1991, Clarke stated "There are no valid arguments in defence of squatting. It represents the seizure of another's property without consent."[72] John McDonnell commented that "by trying to sneak this amendment through the back door the government are attempting to bypass democracy."[73]

The amendment states that "the new offence will be committed where a person is in a residential building as a trespasser having entered it as a trespasser, knows or ought to know that he or she is a trespasser and is living in the building or intends to live there for any period."[30]

The change in legislation has been referred to by Mike Weatherley as "Weatherley's Law" [74] and came into force on 1 September 2012, making squatting in a residential building a criminal offence subject to arrest, fine and imprisonment.[75]

Since criminalisationEdit

In September 2012, Alex Haigh was the first squatter imprisoned under the new law, receiving a sentence of 3 months after occupying a housing association property in London.[76] Two men were then found guilty of squatting above the Lamb Inn, in Romford.[77]

In November 2012, Conservative MPs called for the criminalisation of squatting in commercial buildings as well, due to the perceived increase in the squatting of business properties. These included the following pubs: the Cross Keys in Chelsea, the Tournament in Earls Court (both in London) and the Upper Bell Inn near Chatham, Kent.[78]

In February 2013, a homeless man named Daniel Gauntlett froze to death on the doorstep of an abandoned bungalow, in a case that has been linked with the new law.[79]

In November 2013, a squatter convicted under section 144 had his appeal upheld at Hove Crown Court.[80] The man had been arrested on 3 September 2012, in what was seen by The Guardian as the "first test of new legislation that makes squatting a criminal offence."[81] Two other squatters were also arrested and had previously had the charges against them dropped completely.[82]

A newsletter from SQUASH published in May 2016 states that there have been "at least 738 arrests, 326 prosecutions, 260 convictions and 11 people imprisoned for the offence, based on available information" since criminalisation.[83]


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  32. ^ Okasional Cafes
  33. ^ Paul Owen and Peter Walker (2011-11-18). "Occupy London takes over empty UBS bank". The Guardian. Retrieved 21 January 2012.
  34. ^ Figen Gunes (2012-07-26). "Community art space under threat". Waltham Forest Guardian. Retrieved 2012-07-26.
  35. ^ [1] The artists who are hot to squat... Hoby, Hermione, The Observer, April 2009
  36. ^ About Random Artists
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Further readingEdit

  • Bailey, R., Conn, M. & Mahony, T. (1969) Evicted: The Story of the Illegal Evictions of Squatters in Redbridge London Squatters Campaign: London.
  • Bailey, R. (1973) The Squatters Penguin: London. ISBN 0140523006.
  • Hinton, J. 'Self-help and Socialism The Squatters' Movement of 1946' in History Workshop Journal (1988) 25(1) pp. 100–126.
  • Lessing, D. (1985) The Good Terrorist Jonathan Cape: London. ISBN 0-224-02323-3
  • Wates, N. & Wolmar, C. (1983) Squatting the Real Story Bay Leaf: London.
  • 'A Brief and Incomplete History of Squatting in Brighton (and Hove)'
  • Wates, N. (1976) The Battle for Tolmers Square Routledge: London.
  • Webber, H. 'A Domestic Rebellion: The Squatters' Movement of 1946' in Ex Historia (2012) 4 pp. 125–146.

External linksEdit