Eaton Square occupation puts squatters’ rights back in the spotlight

£15m mansion in Belgravia becomes London's most prestigious squat; what are the legal issues at play?

As the Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians stake their claim to a £15m mansion in Belgravia, the legal and social issues surrounding squatting and squatters’ rights have shifted right back into the spotlight.

The Grade II listed Eaton Square pile in question was built in the 1820s and had been employed as a language school until a Russian oligarch, named in numerous reports as Andrey Goncharenko, acquired in 2014 as part of a three-year buying spree in the capital; Westminster planning records show permission is now in place for a basement leisure complex and a few other internal changes, but the house has apparently been lying empty for a while.

Announcing the takeover on Facebook, the group said in a post: “We’re back. We’ve opened our first squat in Belgravia. We intend to erect an [antisocial][discommunity] centre open to all individual groups who wish to unite under one roof.

“If it would disgust the wealthy, you’re welcome here.”

According to the Guardian, the group entered through a window last week and face eviction proceedings at Central London county court on Tuesday. Tom Fox, one of the squatters, told the paper: “It is criminal that there are so many homeless people and at the same time so many empty buildings. Our occupation is highlighting this injustice.”

To understand the fascinating issues at play, let’s hark back to this briefing from Nick Martyn looking at squatters’ rights via some other recent high-profile cases..

Despite the law relating to squatting in residential buildings having changed on 1 September 2012, the issue of squatting continues to be a topic which has grabbed the headlines in the press. Recent high profile cases of squatting have include the occupation of 16 Grosvenor Street, London, eco-activists on land at Runnymede near the Magna Carta, the ‘Manchester Angels’ at the former Stock Exchange building in Manchester and the self-proclaimed ‘anarchist’ squatters at the former headquarters of the Kids Company.

The introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (“the Act”) made squatting in a residential building a criminal offence, punishable by a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment, a £5,000 fine or both. The Act also extended the pre-existing laws which provided that a squatter could be guilty of an offence under section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 if they failed to leave residential premises occupied or intended to be occupied by its owner.

With squatters now running the risk of exposing themselves to the sanctions available in respect of residential buildings, it is fair to say that they have looked for alternative locations to occupy. In practice, this legislative change has prompted a rise in the number of cases of squatting in non-residential premises.

However, the question of what is or what is not a residential building is not always clear-cut. Section 144(3)(b) of the Act states that a building is “residential” if it is ‘designed or adapted, before the time of entry, for use as a place to live’. There are elements of this definition which have resonance in other legislation. For example, the Leasehold Reform Act 1967 defines a “house” as ‘any building designed or adapted for living in’. There has been significant litigation on what this phrase actually means and therefore it is certainly possible that the definition of ‘residential’ in the context of the existing squatting legislation, will receive similar scrutiny.

The question of what is or what is not a residential building is not always clear-cut

It is worth noting that in the case of 16 Grosvenor Street, the building was originally built in the first half of the 18th century as a residential house by the architect, Thomas Ripley. Despite the building having been used as offices for over 80 years, a literal interpretation of the Act might suggest that the building would remain ‘residential’ (and therefore subject to the residential squatting laws) as it was designed for living in before the time of the squatters’ entry. However, given that the squatters were only evicted after the owners, Quintain, obtained a possession order in the High Court, it is possible that the adaptation of the building to office use ‘before the time of entry’ meant that the residential squatting laws did not apply.

What should the approach be in circumstances where an empty residential building has been bought by owners who intend to use it for commercial purposes? If those new owners have done no work to the building prior to it being occupied by squatters, it is arguable that a criminal offence will have been committed, despite the intention of the new owners that the building might never be used for residential purposes in the future.

What about the reverse situation – would an owner who has purchased a commercial building with the intention of developing it into residential premises be able to take advantage of the squatting laws for residential buildings? Presumably not, unless it is adapted for use as a place to live in before the time of entry. Ultimately, the extent to which changes are made to a building to adapt it as a place to live in will presumably impact on the ability of the new owner to take advantage of the remedies introduced by the Act.

What about hotels? The new owners of the Stock Exchange building in Manchester, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville, are currently converting the building into a boutique hotel. Will this ultimately be a building ‘adapted for living in’? What about mixed-use premises?

There will of course be instances where buildings are quite obviously residential but equally, there will be instances where that line is blurred. It remains to be seen how the courts will interpret these provisions.

Ultimately, there will always be circumstances where the position is less than clear. Property owners should remember the civil remedies available where there is uncertainty about whether the building in question is ‘residential’ or in circumstances where the building is non-residential. A possession claim can be issued against the squatters and if an order is made, it can be enforced by court bailiffs once a warrant of possession is obtained. Alternatively, the ‘Interim Possession Order’ (“IPO”) procedure seeks to provide an accelerated means of obtaining possession from the squatters and in certain circumstances, is backed up by a power of arrest in the event the squatters fail to leave.

Nick Martyn is a senior associate at law firm Mundays

Image by Edwardx (CC-BY-SA-2.0)

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