Madeley Meets The Squatters

Thursday, 6 December 2012, 9:00PM – 10:00PM

“I must admit the thought of living without running water, without electricity…the thought of squatting has never filled me with anything other than repulsion.”

Richard Madeley

Today in Britain, it’s estimated there are anything between 20,000 and 50,000 people squatting. They are often portrayed as anti-social, drug-taking freeloaders, who contribute nothing to society. But is that really the case? With a new law having just come into force making squatting a criminal offence, Richard Madeley is on a mission to meet Britain’s squatters, to see what their lives are really like and find out why they squat. He also hears from landlords and even brings them face-to-face with the people occupying their property against their wishes.

Richard travels the country to meet squatters from wide-ranging backgrounds, all with a different story to tell and conflicting views on the morality of how they live. In doing so, he examines how the change in the law will impact on the current situation faced by both squatters and landlords.

Richard visits a former pub in Walthamstow, used as a squat for five years despite being surrounded by local businesses. Nigel Jenkins owns the garage opposite and explains what he has seen in the past: “Nine o’clock in the morning they are drunk out of their skulls. First thing in the morning we come in…they have used the driveway as toilets.” Despite this he admits: “Everyone sees them as an inconvenience but nobody sees the amount of trouble these people are in. What are you going to do with them? Unless you can re-house them, there’s nothing you can do with them.”

Richard heads to Bristol, where he discovers that local squatters have organised themselves into groups, with their own planning committee that meets each week to help members find new squats to live in. Richard attends one of the meetings to find out more and a squatter explains to him: “I like to think of us as urban wombles, we roam the streets that aren’t being used and we make a use of them. How can you argue the morality of that? We don’t pay rent, no, but at least people aren’t sleeping rough.”

There is a tense atmosphere when Richard introduces Dave Durant to the squatters who have occupied a property he owns in south Bristol. It’s the second time he’s had squatters in his building and with Richard as mediator he confronts the people occupying his building: “I know that the place was locked, you know that the place was locked. I know, that you must have broken into my house.” Squatter Tristan refuses to confirm how he gained access but is keen to respond: “If people are suffering they should be allowed to sleep under a roof, especially if it lies dormant like this one.” He tells Richard: ”I see it as greed. When there are five of us wandering the streets, hungry, needing somewhere to live, when he has multiple properties, I see that as greed. Until you’ve been in our position and suffered like we have, you’re going to find it hard to have a balanced view.”

Richard visits the houses of parliament to meet Mike Weatherley, MP for Hove and the architect behind the new law, which has made squatting in a domestic property a criminal offence. Mike says: “The first thing we want to do is protect people’s homes, they’re just freeloaders, they’re not contributing to society and they are taking what’s not theirs.”

It’s estimated there are nearly a million empty properties in the UK, despite homelessness being on the rise. Richard visits a squat in the heart of the Barbican, a five-storey commercial building worth millions where even the new law is powerless to evict the squatters because it is not a domestic property. Catherine Brogan is one of its inhabitants: “Owners of empty properties destroy their property so that no-one wants to live in it…” It is Catherine’s view that: “The owner isn’t interested in bringing this property back into use. To them I think it’s just a number on a balance sheet. This is a £20million asset to them and why do they want to do anything with it? I think that if you’re going to leave a property empty then we’ve got a responsibility to come in and use it and I feel happy that I’m taking something that’s been laid waste and turning it into a home for up to 20 people who wouldn’t have anywhere else to go otherwise.”

Richard is keen to learn more about the concept of ‘skipping’ from local supermarkets and he joins squatters on an evening visit as they forage for free food in bins. They acknowledge that skipping is breaking the law but claim “We are stealing bread that is destined for landfill. It’s absolutely ridiculous isn’t it, which is why I’m doing it so openly. If the police want to arrest me, I’ll take the charge.”

Richard also meets Dory, who is now in her 50’s and gave up a high-flying career to be a squatter. And Mary, a victim of domestic abuse who was assigned a council flat to escape her situation but on the day she was due to move in, found that a squatter had got there first.

About the author

  • BBC One
  • BBC Two
  • BBC Three
  • ITV1
  • ITV2
  • 4
  • E4
  • Film4
  • More4
  • Five
  • Fiver
  • Sky1