Recession Revives Britain's Squatter Movement

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 17, 2009

LONDON -- The smell of curry, made from ingredients salvaged from dumpsters, filled the kitchen of a $33 million mansion in Mayfair, one of London's richest neighborhoods.

A dozen people, mostly in their teens and 20s, chatted in the cavernous living room, wearing heavy coats in the unheated parlor lighted by a single bright light.

About 15 squatters have lived since late November in this grand but vacant five-story house, with spiral staircases, an elevator and 19th-century Chinese wallpaper adorned with hand-painted birds and flowers.

"It's better for a building to be occupied than empty," said Simon McAndrew, 29, a former fashion industry hairdresser who has organized takeovers of several expensive and vacant homes in central London. "We're artists, and we're doing something good with the space."

Squatting -- taking up residence in a vacant building -- has been a tradition in Britain since at least the 14th century, as well as a barometer of the times. It boomed after each of the 20th century's two world wars, when returning soldiers needed places to live, then picked up steam again in the radical 1960s.

Now, despite local governments' efforts to discourage it, squatting appears to be on the rise once more as a deep recession hits the country.

In Britain, trespassing is a civil offense, not a criminal one. Provided the squatters do not break a window or door to enter or otherwise damage the property, police are largely powerless to remove them.

Landlords must petition a court for an eviction order, and they can be prosecuted if they attempt to remove the intruders by force.

"The owners are upset and distressed about this. They can't understand how the squatters can be permitted to break into their house and live there," said Andrew Jeffrey, a lawyer who represents the owners of the Mayfair house. "In nine out of 10 countries around the globe, this would not be tolerated, and the police would remove them immediately."

Nic Madge, a circuit court judge in London and a specialist in property law, said proposals in the 1970s to criminalize squatting were defeated in the face of "considerable political opposition."

"The standard British sign, 'Trespassers will be prosecuted,' is generally a legal fiction," Madge said.

Ron Bailey, an activist who started Britain's modern squatting movement in 1968 and has written books about squatting, said Britons have a history of sympathy for the practice that goes back hundreds of years.

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