Housing in Knightsbridge, London, an area where much property sits empty. Photo: Getty
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Live in guardians: one radical solution to the UK’s housing problem

Property guardianship emerged in the Netherlands in the 1990s, seen as a way of dealing with the large numbers of squatters occupying empty Dutch buildings. 

Not many people can afford to live in a 10,000-square-foot property in the heart of London like Robin – but actually, she can’t afford to, either, which is why she became a property guardian.” So began a recent Sky News report, the latest in a series of upbeat features on property guardianship, the novel practice of recruiting people to live in empty commercial or residential buildings for a fee. But is it as good as it sounds?

It first emerged in the Netherlands in the 1990s. At the time, squatters were occupying empty Dutch buildings in large numbers and had gained legal status through a ruling stating that owners could evict them through the courts only. Property guardianship was seen as a way of preventing this problem.

In the past five years the practice has been adopted in the UK, too. And, in a country that has the apparently paradoxical combination of a homelessness problem and an empty-building problem, it doesn’t sound like a bad idea. According to local council data, there were 635,137 empty residential properties in England in 2013. Almost a third of these had been lying empty for more than six months.

For the building’s owners, it’s a good deal: leaving a building empty can reduce its value by up to 5 per cent, and installing security can cost £6,000 a month. For the property guardians, it’s not too bad an arrangement, either, as they pay between 30 and 60 per cent of standard market rate. But what they pay isn’t rent, and they are not technically tenants – their fees go to an agency, not to the landowner, in exchange for keeping the guardians in check.

Arthur Duke, managing director of the agency Live-in Guardians, says most of his customers are aged between 25 and 35. “About 80 per cent are saving for a deposit, and the other 20 per cent are fed up with expensive rents.” Most stay with the company for about six to nine months; some stay in one property but others move through several. When a building is needed by its owners, the guardians are offered other properties.

Guardians have to contend with a fair few rules. These include a ban on pets, parties, and smoking – and on leaving the property for more than 24 hours without permission. Until recently, agencies also had clauses in their contracts forbidding guardians from speaking to the press; as far as I can tell, this no longer applies.

The rules highlight the big catch with property guardianship: even its strongest advocate would admit that the exchange is, essentially, reduced rent (sorry, “fees”) in return for reduced rights. Property guardians aren’t tenants; they are “licensees”. In human-speak, this means they are given the right to use the building but the building’s owner doesn’t take on landlord responsibilities. This legal compromise was constructed precisely to allow such schemes to operate: agencies need to be able to boot out the tenants when a building is due to be reoccupied, sold or demolished.

The facts are more complicated. Giles Peaker, a property lawyer, was approached in 2012 by a UK guardian who had been locked out of a property after being given only two weeks’ notice by telephone. Her belongings, which were still inside the property, then went missing. She sued the company for unlawful eviction and received a substantial payout. (One of the conditions of the settlement was that no one could name the agency.)

In court, Peaker argued that the Eviction Act 1977 applies to guardians. That gives them the right to at least four weeks’ notice before being asked to leave. Despite this, several property guardian agencies maintain a two-week eviction policy.

In the Netherlands, guardian agencies have faced mounting criticism. In 2009 the Dutch film-maker Abel Heijkamp set up the campaign group the “Union of Precarious Renters” to improve legal protection and push for an end to property guardianship. His website is almost entirely in Dutch, but this has not deterred guardians in the UK from contacting him. “Policymakers only see the stories where people live in Westminster palaces – they ignore the fact that it’s creating guardians without rights or security,” Heijkamp says. “In London, where the rents are ridiculously high, people see it as a solution. But they should protect the rights of citizens, not of private enterprises.”

Yet Giles Peaker believes guardianship could still be a viable, and effective, housing option. “Like so many things, it’s an arrangement that can work – if it’s done properly between consenting adults.” 

A longer version of this article can be found on the NS’s new sister site citymetric.com

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

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Theresa May’s stage-managed election campaign keeps the public at bay

Jeremy Corbyn’s approach may be chaotic, but at least it’s more authentic.

The worst part about running an election campaign for a politician? Having to meet the general public. Those ordinary folk can be a tricky lot, with their lack of regard for being on-message, and their pesky real-life concerns.

But it looks like Theresa May has decided to avoid this inconvenience altogether during this snap general election campaign, as it turns out her visit to Leeds last night was so stage-managed that she barely had to face the public.

Accusations have been whizzing around online that at a campaign event at the Shine building in Leeds, the Prime Minister spoke to a room full of guests invited by the party, rather than local people or people who work in the building’s office space.

The Telegraph’s Chris Hope tweeted a picture of the room in which May was addressing her audience yesterday evening a little before 7pm. He pointed out that, being in Leeds, she was in “Labour territory”:

But a few locals who spied this picture online claimed that the audience did not look like who you’d expect to see congregated at Shine – a grade II-listed Victorian school that has been renovated into a community project housing office space and meeting rooms.

“Ask why she didn’t meet any of the people at the business who work in that beautiful building. Everyone there was an invite-only Tory,” tweeted Rik Kendell, a Leeds-based developer and designer who says he works in the Shine building. “She didn’t arrive until we’d all left for the day. Everyone in the building past 6pm was invite-only . . . They seemed to seek out the most clinical corner for their PR photos. Such a beautiful building to work in.”

Other tweeters also found the snapshot jarring:

Shine’s founders have pointed out that they didn’t host or invite Theresa May – rather the party hired out the space for a private event: “All visitors pay for meeting space in Shine and we do not seek out, bid for, or otherwise host any political parties,” wrote managing director Dawn O'Keefe. The guestlist was not down to Shine, but to the Tory party.

The audience consisted of journalists and around 150 Tory activists, according to the Guardian. This was instead of employees from the 16 offices housed in the building. I have asked the Conservative Party for clarification of who was in the audience and whether it was invite-only and am awaiting its response.

Jeremy Corbyn accused May of “hiding from the public”, and local Labour MP Richard Burgon commented that, “like a medieval monarch, she simply briefly relocated her travelling court of admirers to town and then moved on without so much as a nod to the people she considers to be her lowly subjects”.

But it doesn’t look like the Tories’ painstaking stage-management is a fool-proof plan. Having uniform audiences of the party faithful on the campaign trail seems to be confusing the Prime Minister somewhat. During a visit to a (rather sparsely populated) factory in Clay Cross, Derbyshire, yesterday, she appeared to forget where exactly on the campaign trail she was:

The management of Corbyn’s campaign has also resulted in gaffes – but for opposite reasons. A slightly more chaotic approach has led to him facing the wrong way, with his back to the cameras.

Corbyn’s blunder is born out of his instinct to address the crowd rather than the cameras – May’s problem is the other way round. Both, however, seem far more comfortable talking to the party faithful, even if they are venturing out of safe seat territory.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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