The case against squatting

Posted on August 31, 2012

Tomorrow, at long last, squatting becomes a criminal offence – at least in residential properties.

For libertarians, who are not normally quick to welcome the creation of new crimes given the glut of absurd and oppressive laws introduced in recent years, this is a rare bit of good news. Property rights are one of the essential foundations of a free society – the law should protect anyone’s right to gain or create property, to do with it as they wish and to sell it if they so choose.

Squatting, by contrast, is an outright assault on property rights. Someone who doesn’t own the house in question enters it, take up residence, feels unrestrained in making changes or causing damage without the owner’s consent and, under some circmstances, can even apply to seize legal ownership after a long enough stay. The law as it used to be told homeowners they had no right to enter and evict squatters, and in some circumstances the only thing the police would do was to prevent them reasserting their right to their own property.

We rightly treat burglary, theft and robbery as crimes, and we should treat the non-consensual occupation of someone’s fixed property as a crime as well. I’m glad the Government have acted to change the law.

But, as ever, there are loud voices making the opposite case – in fact, the BBC helpfully top their online article with just such an individual. There are a number of flawed arguments the squatters are putting across, and I thought it would be helpful to rebut them.

There is a homelessness problem in the UK

That’s absolutely true. Homelessness is an incredibly complex issue – there are those who due to financial problems find themselves losing their house, there are those who suffer mental health or substance absue issues and many other causes. Each of those needs a multiplicity of solutions – but stealing other people’s property isn’t one of them. If having lax laws that allowed mass squatting was a solution to the homelessness problem, then after decades of having exactly such lax laws we would have solved it. We clearly haven’t.

There’s also a false assumption that all squatters are impoverished and homeless against their will. This isn’t always the case – indeed, the pro-squatting Advisory Service for Squatters said in 2003 that “many have full time work”. This is at least in part because of a rarely mentioned but major element of squatting: those who do it out of a political ideology which opposes property rights.

Squatters aren’t breaking in

It has always been illegal to break into a building – which is why squatters are advised to say that they found an already-open route in. I say “advised to say” because it’s widely known that many squatters do break in anyway, claiming someone else conveniently came by with a crowbar ten minutes earlier and broke the locks off the property. As the ASFS says, the police “would only be able to do anything if there were witnesses”.

Morally, this is besides the point. Taking or using someone’s property without their permission is wrong in and of itself. You might be stupid to leave the keys in your car ignition and the door wide open, but it is still wrong for someone to get in and drive off.

Ludicrously, a squatter on the Today Programme this morning claimed squatting was “not taking the property off the owner” because if they wanted to they were entitled to “take us to court”. The victims of the Bernard Madoff will, I’m sure, be delighted to know they weren’t really deprived of anything because they, too, had the opportunity to go to court.

The idea that squatters would just merrily move out if someone wanted their house back is also ludicrous – they regularly force homeowners to fight lengthy legal battles through the civil courts to regain access to their property. Locks are changed, access is denied and barricades are even put up to prevent legal entry.

These buildings are permanently empty

Well, some of them are, but far from all of them. Janice Mason in Walthamstow was about to sell her house when she found it had been occupied. Peter Nahum was restoring a listed building before moving his family into it. Dr Oliver Cockerell and his wife had just gone on their summer holiday. It’s clear that this isn’t some clean dividing line between occupied homes and permanently empty houses.

In fact, this is often simply an arrogant and self-serving assumption on the squatters’ part. They look at a house and decide on limited information that it is permanently empty – when the owner may well be saving to repair it, applying for planning permission, selling their own home elsewhere and so on. A survey by the Empty Homes Agency found that in the East Midlands just 13% of the owners of empty homes planned for them still to be empty 12 months later. 42% said their home was on the market for let or sale, and 63% said it was currently being improved or repaired.

Again, even if it was the case, it wouldn’t be ok to seize them from their rightful owners. A key part of property rights and a free society is being able to do what you choose with your own property.

There are huge numbers of empty houses in Britain

This is also true – but again it is no reason to just hijack them as you see fit. There are plenty of things other than squatting that we could and should be doing to bring them back into use, often from a state of severe disrepair.

For example, despite the social goods that come about as a result of repairing such houses, doing so is still taxed at full rate VAT (this also applies to a landlord  upgrading their properties, a family making their house more energy efficient and so on). The Cut the VAT campaign, which I’ve long supported, is pressing the Government to reduce this from 20% VAT to 5%. A 12.5% fall in the overall cost of repairing such houses would make a sizeable difference to the number coming back into use.

Scandalously, tens of thousands of the empty houses in the UK are in fact part of the council-owned social housing stock. These are owned by the people with the express purpose of using them to alleviate homelessness, and yet many councils don’t do anything with them. Given the fiscal situation they may well have some trouble getting the cash together to repair them all – but the policy solution for that is to sell some of the empty houses and use the capital to bring the others back into use.

Of course, we can predict the people who would vocally oppose such tax-cutting, market-based solutions to the housing shortage. They would be the same commentators on the Left who stand up for squatters’ right to occupy other people’s private property – it seems they might not want the real problems fixing after all.

Aidan Burley attack teacher fights in gutter, gets dirty

Posted on February 10, 2012

The problem with fighting in the gutter is that everyone tends to get covered in muck.

So it is with the latest set-to around Aidan Burley, the MP who became notorious for attending a stag do where someone wore a Nazi costume.

This week, a schoolkid on a trip to Auschwitz tweeted:

aiden burley seen texting and dozing whilst listening to an concentration camp survivor #torynazi?

Burley denied dozing or being disrespectful, a position that was given quite a bit of credibility by a statement from Dr James Smith, the Director of the Holocaust Centre, who sat next to him at the talk in question.

Something seemed a little fishy, particularly given that teenagers on school trips aren’t normally that big on recognising backbench Tory MPs, so perhaps it wasn’t a huge surprise that the teacher leading the group of school children turned out to be a Labour councillor, Suzannah Reeves. According to PoliticsHome it was she who recognised Burley and “confronted” him.

The problem for Councillor Reeves (other than the appalling grammar of her pupils) is that she’s not exactly in a position to preach about controversies involving alleged anti-semitism.

As well as being a teacher and a Labour councillor, she’s also the Chair of Governors at Parrs Wood High School. Only last week, she and the school’s Headmaster were called to a meeting with Jewish community leaders angry that the school was hosting an event run by a Hamas-linked charity, Human Appeal International, listed by the US State Department as being linked to terrorism.

The school has since had to cancel the event, which was particularly embarassing given previous controversies over a pupil’s skewed perspectives on the Middle East.

Now, I’m sure Cllr Reeves isn’t anti-semitic in any way, the school trip she was running shows that she must have an understanding of the importance of Holocaust education, and there’s no suggestion she personally played any part in organising the HAI event.

But should she really be attacking Aidan Burley when the school she is meant to Govern has drawn the attention Department of Education’s extremism experts due to agreeing to host an event for a charity which is linked to funding Hamas, an anti-semitic terrorist movement dedicated to destroying Israel?

My point is simply this – perhaps the gutter isn’t the best place to fight, if you want to stay clean.

Kent County Council’s “vampire killer”

Posted on January 20, 2012

Kent County Council’s Youth Service Transformation Consultation was never going to be the most exciting public process in the world – that is, until the war against the undead cropped up.

Among the obligatory quangos, District councils, MPs, PCSOs, parents and young people listed as responding to the consultation was one “First Sergeant”, whose occupation is listed quite prominently as “Vampire Killer”.

Sadly, the submission made by the modern-day Van Helsing of Kent has not been published. With council tax at the rate it is, perhaps he now views Kent County Council as a bloodsucking institution in its own right…

Hat-tip: Eagle-eyed Paul Francis, the ever-excellent Political Editor of the Kent Messenger for the original spot

Ken’s Con

Posted on January 09, 2012

Evening Standard polling on the London Mayoral Race shows clearly that transport fares, and the management of the underground service, is the only major chink in Boris’s armour. It’s a topic which is high on Londoners’ list of concerns and it’s the only area where Ken appears to have a distinct opportunity.

As a result, Ken Livingstone is hammering the issue, promising a 7% cut in fares. But can he be trusted to stick to this pledge for a so-called “fare deal”, or is it pie in the sky?

Judging by his track record, it’s the latter. In fact, he’s broken promises on fares at both of the last two Mayoral elections.

In September 2003, with an election coming up, Ken promised to peg fare rises to “no more than the rate of inflation”. But in September 2004, he announced tube fares would rise at inflation +1% and bus fares would jump by inflation +10%.

In December 2007, with another election approaching, he told the London Assembly “I intend to freeze Tube fares in real terms in 2009″. He lost the election, but by April 2008 leaked emails emerged showing that when he gave that pledge to the Assembly he had already signed off on higher than inflation rises for bus and tube passengers.

It’s understandable why Ken – lagging by 8 points in the polls behind Boris – is making increasingly desperate pledges to persuade voters. The question has always been how he will fund them. Looking at his past behaviour gives us the answer – he won’t have any trouble funding his 7% cut, because he makes a habit of  breaking his promises as soon as the election is out of the way.

 

 

Blogger-Bashing Barnet Seeks Secret State

Posted on November 14, 2011

The ever-tenacious David Hencke has a report of some worrying attempts by Barnet Council to muzzle local bloggers.

Wasting goodness knows how much taxpayers’ money, the local authority has now twice tried to secure rulings that would mean in effect that no blogger may write about public officials.

A local blogger, Mr Mustard, identified a £50,000-a-year (plus perks) non-job, Barnet’s new “Change and Innovation Manager“. He was doing a good public service by spotting a wasteful post stuffed full of management-speak twaddle – taking up the charge much as the TaxPayers’ Alliance has encouraged people to do for some years now.

To properly investigate how this money was being spent, Mr Mustard investigated the public blog of the person appointed to the post – a Jonathan Tunde-Wright. This was perfectly reasonable – particularly when it turns out Mr Tunde-Wright appears to be a big fan of management mantras, such as:

I am persuaded that organisational culture eats strategy for breakfast.

All in a day’s work for a blogger scrutinising public spending. But that’s not how Barnet Council saw it.

Barnet have now twice tried to secure a ruling from the Information Commissioner that Mr Mustard was in breach of the Data Protection Act by daring to blog about someone who was not part of his own family or household. If successful, they could have had him slapped with a £5,000 fine – and, of course, silenced.

Mercifully, the ICO ruled against Barnet both times – but the fact they even tried to go down this route is disturbibg.

On the surface this attempt to silence a blogger in this way is pure aggression and censorship from a public body. They wanted to shut him up regardless of the fundamental right to free speech or the entirely positive influence of bloggers and the transparency agenda because they thought it would be better that way for Barnet Council.

Look deeper than that and it gets more concerning. Numerous times in my years at the TPA we encountered attempts by public bodies to draw a false distinction between public roles and the people who occupy them. We could, we were told, talk about a job title and the associated salary, but criticising the actual public servant was not allowed.

During the compilation of the annual Public Sector and Town Hall Rich Lists we regularly got FOI responses that refused to name even a council’s Chief Executive. Tellingly, Tunde-Wright repeats this mantra in David Hencke’s article:

I also do feel that by going beyond the Post to naming the Post Holder, referencing my personal blog and making particular comments, the said blogger may have crossed the line and placed myself and my family in this uncomfortable place of feeling harassed online.

This is a pernicious attack on transparency and accountability. The Post and the Post Holder should be open to scrutiny by the public who fund both of them. The existence of a job is only one element of public spending and administration – how well the person who holds the post actually does the job is equally  important.

Barnet’s argument effectively means individual incompetence or other personal failings would be beyond the realm of public scrutiny. It would be like saying no-one could cover the Liam Fox scandal because talking about him as an individual was beyond the pale, and as everyone would accept the need for a Defence Secretary then he should have stayed in post.

It is good that the ICO was robust in defence of the free speech of bloggers – but appalling that a local authority would think public scrutiny is a bad thing and then try to use legal intimidation funded by taxpayers to silence their critics.

We clearly still have a long way to go until we have a proper transparency culture.

Ken ne regrette rien

Posted on November 10, 2011

Ladies and gentlemen, I proudly present the first video venture from CrashBangWallace.com. It explores all the things Ken Livingstone should be – but isn’t – sorry for from his terms as Mayor of London. Ken ne regrette rien…

Appropriately, Ken’s been shooting his mouth off again recently – this time telling LondonlovesBusiness.com that it’s ok that he’s matey with Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the extremist preacher who argues violence against Israel is justified. In fact, is there anything Ken has done that he’s ever said sorry for?

This is a man who drove Londoners’ council tax through the roof, ditched City Hall’s reputation into the gutter and “reached out” to Islamist extremists in an official capacity. Why should anyone give him another chance to do it all again?

Ken Livingstone fans revisit the failed ‘Tory Toffs’ tactic

Posted on October 11, 2011

Boris Johnson spoke at a Lambeth & Southwark Conservatives event last night in Lambeth Town Hall, rallying the troops in advance of next year’s GLA and London Mayoral election. In a retro return to the old days, a gaggle of Labour and Trade Union activists picketed the event, heckling guests as they arrived and making a minor nuisance of themselves.

It wasn’t just the sight of lefty pickets at Tory events that was a blast from the past, though – Ken Livingstone’s camp appear to be revisiting the “Tory Toffs” attack strategy that ultimately doomed Labour in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election. The organisers told protesters:

We would ask that formal dress be worn; bring your champagne flutes and martini glasses in the hope someone will provide some drink, and join us in trying to ensure that everyone may eat cake.

For those who don’t recall, this was exactly the approach that Labour took in Crewe and Nantwich in 2008 – Labour supporters turned up dressed in top hats to pursue an explicit class war strategy that they seemed convinced would work. It didn’t – the Conservatives got a 17% swing to take the seat, in part because voters were turned off by the stench of class warfare and the politics of envy. Even the Guardian described the toff attacks as “patronising, old-fashioned and divisive”.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that people who support Ken Livingstone are quite keen on things that are “patronising, old-fashioned and divisive”, given that you could plausibly put the phrase on Ken’s business card, but it doesn’t bode well for his election prospects. Particularly given that his old ally Lee Jasper was back in the thick of things, too, promoting the event on Twitter.

So here they are in all their glory, the politics-of-envy, class warriors who Ken apparently hopes will hand him the keys to the capital. I suspect the Boris campaign will be hoping they are wheeled out on a regular basis right up to polling day – as Crewe showed us, the more they do this, the more they will deter voters:

Greens running no-fingerprints anti-Boris campaign

Posted on September 01, 2011

Given Ken Livingstone’s pretty diastrous campaign so far, it’s unsurprising that a separate anti-Boris campaign has emerged online. “Sack Boris 2012″ has an active Twitter account, campaign site, a Facebook page and even merchandise like Oyster card holders and mugs. They’re starting to get some traction among lefty Twitterati, and are appealing for donations like nobody’s business.

But who are they?

On the site itself there are no “About” or “Who are we” section to illuminate as to who runs it, other than an outgoing link in the small print saying the site is “Published by Common People”. The Common People website is similarly opaque – the content fits just about every lefty stereotype, supporting UK Uncut, opposing any cuts, lining up behind Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine nonsense, laying into people who want to set up private educational establishments and so on and so on.

There is a “Who we are” section but it provides few answers:

Common People was founded at a corner table in the Bricklayer’s Arms, Putney, in June 2010 by a group of activists who have worked together over the past ten years on a wide range of campaigns, blogs and elections.

Right…

the board are members of the Green Party, the Labour Party and no party, but we all support the same principles of equality, rights, environmental protection and sustainability, and citizens working together to support each other and solve problems

Ok, but why no names still?

Fortunately, the internet has its own wonders, and a quick WHOIS search brings up the name of the person who registered the website: a James Killock. Surely not the James “Jim” Killock listed by Wikipedia as being the live-in partner of Sian Berry, the 2008 Green Party candidate for London Mayor?

Why are Common People and Sack Boris so secretive about who they are, to the point of keeping any names of both of their websites? For that matter, when do they intend to tell the people donating to them that their campaign is run by senior Green Party activists? What is the real Labour/Green split on their governing body?

Given that they are seeking to raise thousands of pounds to spend campaigning against Boris in an election, and that their mission is to “take an active part in influencing elections”, it’s surely only a matter of time before the Electoral Commission come sniffing around – and so far, Common People haven’t registered with them at all…

Notorious council fatcat becomes a hunt saboteur

Posted on July 04, 2011

You could be forgiven for having missed the news that the League Against Cruel Sports – aka the country’s leading mob of hunt saboteurs – have appointed a new Chief Executive. Like most people, my initial reaction was “who cares”, until the name of their new Chief Exec leaped out from the page: Joe Duckworth.

Mr Duckworth, better known to readers of Private Eye as “Vera” Duckworth, hasn’t always been a professional fox-hugger. The animal lovers should like him, though – until recently he was one of the most notorious fatcats in local government.

The LACS say he had “a long and distinguished career in local government” – and they’re right, if they mean it was distinguished by earning huge amounts of money and demonstratingremarkably little improvement for the people he was meant to be serving.

In 2006 and 2007 he was the Chief Executive of Isle of White council, cashing in a hefty £150,000 a year – almost twice the amount paid to his predecessor on the basis that he would turn the council round. According to sources quoted in the Telegraph at the time, his reign over the island was characterised by an “atmosphere of fear” due to his behaviour, and his departure was greeted with “a sigh of relief”.

And what did taxpayers get for their money? Nada. As one councillor said, “When he arrived we were a two-star council, and we are still a two-star council now he has gone.”.

After a failure like that, you’d assume he’d have disappeared into anonymity, but no. Vera’s next job was as Chief Executive of Newham – one of the UK’s poorest boroughs, where he raked in £280,000 in 2009-10 (according to the TaxPayers’ Alliance’s Town Hall Rich List).

The obscenity of anyone – particularly someone with a dismal track record in their previous job – cashing in so heavily at the expense of some of the poorest residents of any Borough in the country is plain to see. As for his output in Newham, safe to say it was less than stellar.

And now he’s joined the League Against Cruel Sports. Two questions face them: first, how can a small outfit with only 3-4,000 members afford someone with Joe “Vera” Duckworth’s expensive tastes? Second, event if they can afford the pay packet, can they afford to have someone so ineffective at the helm?

Is your council restricting your free speech?

Posted on June 30, 2011

The left-libertarian Manifesto Club have an interesting new report out today, on the assault against the freedom to distribute leaflets and flyers.

It may sound like a mundane thing, but with scores of local authorities either banning leafleting in public places or demanding that people buy a licence this is a very real limitation on free speech and the free market. Whether you’re promoting a political cause or advertising a business, you should be free to offer a leaflet about it to someone if you so wish – just as they should be free to refuse to take it.

The report is well worth a read, not least because it deals with a current issue in its historical context, drawing parallels with the tyrannical licensing of printing in the 17th Century. We often forget when focusing on the big, titanic battles over treaties or Acts of Parliament that often our liberty is lost in the small things, the quiet erosions of freedom that creep up on us with soft steps.