Government "gathering evidence" on impact of squatting on commercial property

Out-Law News | 13 May 2013 | 5:05 pm | 2 min. read

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is "gathering evidence" about the impact and scale of squatting in commercial property, after criminalising squatting in residential property last year.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling will write to MPs in order to form a "better picture" of the extent of the problem in their own constituencies, a spokesperson told Out-Law.com.

"We recognise that squatting can also have a serious impact on non-residential property owners and we are continuing to monitor this situation closely," the spokesperson said.

Commercial property expert Melissa Thompson of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com said that an extension of the ban on squatting to cover offices, pubs and other commercial properties was a logical next step.

"Respondents to the MoJ's consultation exercise on the criminalisation of squatting suggested that only banning squatting in residential property would increase the number of cases in commercial premises," she said. "Intelligence from high court enforcement officers shows that this is indeed what has happened since the ban came into force."

"The potential extension of the offence to cover commercial premises is welcome news as this would lead to a standardised approach towards squatting removing a disproportionate burden from commercial property owners who are already hit hard by the obligation to pay full business rates on empty buildings. The Government doubtless already has plenty of information on the extent of the practice of squatting in commercial premises as a result of its previous consultation, and it is to be hoped that it will refer to this as well as the responses the Justice Secretary receives from the latest evidence-gathering exercise," she said.

Squatting in residential buildings became a criminal offence in England and Wales on 1 September 2012. The offence is committed where a person in a residential building as a trespasser, having entered as a trespasser, knows or ought to know that he or she is trespassing and is living in the building or intends to live there for any period. Individuals could face up to six months in prison and a £5,000 fine if found guilty of the offence.

However, squatting in commercial and other non-residential buildings has not been criminalised. Property owners must instead pursue civil procedures or take action under existing criminal offences, such as those in relation to damage to private property, in order to have squatters removed.

In its response to its 2011 consultation, the Government said that there "does not appear to be the same level of concern" about squatting in commercial and other non-residential buildings as was the case for residential properties.

Mike Weatherley, the Conservative MP who led the Government's efforts to criminalise squatting in residential properties, wrote to the Prime Minister last week calling for an extension of the ban to commercial properties.

"While the law has been a tremendous success, the consequence has been that squatters are now deliberately targeting commercial properties," he said in his letter.

"A salient example of this was seen within my own constituency just two months after the law had come into effect when a bunch of squatters broke into a former school that was just about to be let as a refurbished office suite. The squatters caused significant misery and distress and left an appalling mess after themselves," he said.