Sep 5 2010
THE number of people squatting in Welsh homes is at its highest for 40 years, claims a major bailiff firm.
Hundreds of homeowners in Wales are having to fork out thousands of pounds to evict the unwanted residents, after a rise of at least 40% in the number of squatters taking over homes.
The shocking figure comes as estimates suggest the popularity of squatting in Wales and England has risen year-on-year with the number of squatters increasing by a massive 132% in the past 15 years.
Yet experts fear the latest projections are just the tip of the iceberg, as more and more are driven into squats as a result of the recession, a hike in house prices and rents and reduced public housing.
Whereas squatters were once frequently activists making a social or political statement by taking over the homes of others, experts now say the majority are forced into the lifestyle by financial pressures.
Most Welsh squatters are thought to be in Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham, but outside school holidays many can be found in posh holiday homes where they live a life of luxury on the cheap.
Contrary to popular belief, squatting in Wales is legal providing no damage is caused to the property when entry is gained. And as squatting is a civil matter the police have no powers to remove the occupants – instead the owners must either take action through the civil courts or employ expensive bailiffs who act “within the framework of the law”.
Ben Gower, a manager at the UK Bailiff Company, said his firm had seen an unprecedented rise in squatting throughout the country.
He said: “Exact numbers are not available, as no database is maintained by the police because they are not always advised of such incursions. But based on our internal database, there were approximately 100 squatter cases last year, and if the current trend continues to the end of the year, the number we will have dealt with will have increased by 40%.”
This evidence is backed by the Advisory Service for Squatters (ASS), a voluntary group which provides legal and practical advice to squatters, which claims there are now as many as 22,000 squatters in Wales and England, compared to 15,000 in 2003 and just 9,500 in 1995.
Mr Gower said his firm’s statistics only provided a glimpse at the true picture of squatting in Wales and predicted the situation could be much worse.
“Because of the lack of a centralised database there is no way to tell exactly how many people are squatting. There has clearly been a big rise in the cases we have dealt with, which would suggest the numbers are increasing throughout the country.”
An ASS spokesman called Mike, himself a squatter, said the estimates represented the largest rise since the 1960s and ’70s. He added that the traditional profile of a squatter no longer applied to the current movement, as most squatters were now less concerned with social or political statements, and were driven by financial need.
“The increase in the number of squatters is mainly due to necessity,” he said. “People aren’t exactly attracted to squatting, it’s primarily down to the fact that they need somewhere to live.
“While there will be a few people living in squats because they are politically opposed to paying rent to landlords, these are in the minority.”
According to Mr Gower, Welsh squatters come from a variety of backgrounds and are choosing to live in a number of different types of buildings.
“We are seeing two types of squatters, commercial and residential. Commercial squatters are highly organised, they know exactly what they are doing and they know the law can’t touch them.
“They target primary site locations on busy high streets, usually selling clothing, watches, perfume and seasonal goods such as fireworks and Christmas items. They always leave people on site overnight to protect their interest and they use locksmiths to break in, which makes it very difficult to remove them.
“Then there are residential squatters, of which there are two types, those that move in to residential buildings and those to industrial buildings.
“In residential buildings they either break in or are given the keys by a landlord’s previous tenant. A high number of these squatters are from overseas, who are desperate to take any property, as they do not have large deposits to put down on premises.
“Industrial squatters are usually new age travellers who often use and abuse premises for raves, creating a mess. These units are generally empty industrial units where access is available.
“Squatters usually stick to the larger towns, where they can mingle in with the population. They have an infrastructure on the doorstep – in Wales this means most are in Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham.
“Because of the downturn in the economy and this hitting youngsters worst, particularly those aged between 18 and 25, the numbers of residential squatters are definitely on the increase.”
He added that the cost to owners who want to clear out squatters is one many are not prepared for. The most common remedy to empty a squat is through a drawn-out civil legal process, which can take up to three months to complete and which can leave owners with thousands of pounds in legal costs.
Another way to remove unwanted occupants is to hire the services of bailiffs, such as Mr Gower’s firm, but for which he quotes a guaranteed removal fee of £2,350 plus locksmith fees.
One Welsh homeowner found himself facing huge bills after he became a victim of squatters. The homeowner, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals from squatters, said it was an “extremely distressful” experience.
“When I drove past our property, to my horror I noticed a light was on, a scooter was parked on the property and my car, left in the drive, was missing. I immediately telephoned the police.
“After speaking to the people inside, the police said they had admitted the property was broken into in the last couple of years and they had been living there since. They told me they were willing to pay rent. The police warned us not to disturb them and promptly left.
“I also saw a satellite dish had been fixed to the chimney. These were not people who were poor or homeless. This has left us extremely distressed. It makes us sick to think of what they did and has left us with no faith in the police.”
One former squatter is Swansea anarchist and Class War publisher Ian Bone, once dubbed the “most dangerous man in Britain”. Although no longer squatting, Mr Bone said the way of life was not always as hard as many people may expect.
“I was squatting in a disused children’s home in Swansea’s Sketty Park with lots of other homeless families who were in desperate need of a roof over their heads. This was a really nice building, it was fully furnished and had blankets and everything else we needed. It wasn’t living in squalor.
“We had to get the local people on our side, they didn’t seem to mind that we were there, because they knew we weren’t interested in damaging the place as it was somewhere we wanted to live – I suppose it might have been a bit different if we were in someone’s house. But our needs were obvious, we just wanted a roof over our heads.”
Peter Black, AM for South Wales West and the Liberal Democrat’s housing spokesman, called for more social housing to be made available to alleviate the problem.
“A big factor in this trend must be that there are 27,000 private sector homes in Wales being left empty. These are attractive to homeless people in desperate situations and the Government needs to address this.”