Squatters in Bristol face jail and fines under new law
THE face of squatting in Bristol could be changed forever now a new law has come into force.
People who occupy residential properties without permission could be jailed for six months' and/or be fined up to £5,000, as it is now a criminal offence in England and Wales.
In the past, squatting was a civil matter, only attracting police intervention if criminality was suspected.
But so-called squatters' rights have been scrapped by the Government, keen to sway the balance of power towards home-owners.
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In the past two years, squatters have occupied a number of buildings in Bristol, including the house known as "Telepathic Heights" on Cheltenham Road, Clifton Wood House, 19 Berkeley Square in Clifton, 66 Queen Square, the "Red Factory" on Portland Square and the Hobgoblin on the Gloucester Road when it was awaiting refurbishment.
A police raid on Telepathic Heights in April 2011, when a squatter was planning to fire bomb the Tesco Express opposite, triggered a full-scale riot.
Peter Moore, a resident of Randall Road, Clifton, was affected by the Clifton Wood House squatters.
Of the law change, he said: "I think it's definitely a good idea to give the police more powers, but my concern is that it's going to cost the public purse to deal with squatters, especially if they end up in prison.
"If they're homeless, how are they going to be prosecuted effectively? It doesn't really address that problem.
"However, I do think it is morally wrong for people to take over a house, particularly if the landlord is trying to refurbish it."
Roger Cole, 54, pictured, has been squatting since he was 19 on and off, and he now "runs" the Emporium squat in Stokes Croft.
He told the Post: "All it's going to do is to make criminals out of people that are just needy. What kind of a civilisation is that? What kind of a country are we living in?
"Essentially, you're criminalising homelessness. You're criminalising poverty. Let me tell you, the majority of these people don't live in these conditions out of choice. They squat because otherwise they would be sleeping out on the streets, while they're surrounded by empty buildings.
"Why shouldn't we be able to make use of these buildings?"
Explaining the Avon and Somerset police stance, Chief Inspector John Holt said: "Officers will continue to use their discretion to take appropriate action based on individual circumstances. At present, there is no dedicated team to tackle squatting. Resources are allocated as and when they are needed. However, it is an ever-changing picture and policing is dynamic."
He added: "It may be that people are given warnings/cautions/fixed penalty notices or are summonsed for court. If necessary, people will be arrested at the scene. As with any incident, there are a range of options available to us."
Homeless charity Crisis fears the law change may criminalise vulnerable people, leaving them in prison or facing a fine they cannot pay.
"It also misses the point," said Leslie Morphy, the charity's chief executive. "There was already legal provision that police and councils could, and should, have used to remove individuals in the rare instances of squatting in someone's home.
"And the new law also applies to empty homes – of which there are 720,000 in England alone, including many that are dilapidated and abandoned – criminalising homeless people when they are just trying to find a place off the streets."
But taking a firm stance, Justice minister Crispin Blunt said: "For too long, squatters have had the justice system on the run and have caused homeowners untold misery in eviction, repair and clean-up costs. Not any more.
"Hard-working homeowners need and deserve a justice system where their rights come first – this new offence will ensure the police and other agencies can take quick and decisive action to deal with the misery of squatting."