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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What David Hockney has to tell us about football

Why the sudden glut of blond footballers? A conversation I had with the artist back in 1966 gave me a clue. . .

In 1966, I went to interview David Hockney at a rather run-down flat in Bayswater, central London. He was 28 and had just won a gold medal at the Royal College of Art.

In his lavatory, I noticed a cut-out photograph from a newspaper of Denis Law scoring a goal. I asked if he was a football fan. He said no, he just liked Denis Law’s thighs.

The sub-editors cut that remark out of the story, to save any gossip or legal problems. In 1966 homosexual activity could still be an offence.

Hockney and a friend had recently been in the United States and had been watching an advert on TV that said “Blondes have more fun”. At two o’clock in the morning, slightly drunk, they both went out, bought some hair dye and became blond. Hockney decided to remain blond from then on, though he has naturally dark hair.

Is it true that blonds have more fun? Lionel Messi presumably thinks so, otherwise why has he greeted this brand-new season with that weird blond hair? We look at his face, his figure, his posture and we know it’s him – then we blink, thinking what the heck, does he realise some joker has been pouring stuff on his head?

He has always been such a staid, old-fashioned-looking lad, never messing around with his hair till now. Neymar, beside him, has gone even blonder, but somehow we expect it of him. He had foony hair even before he left Brazil.

Over here, blonds are popping up all over the shop. Most teams now have a born-again blondie. It must take a fortune for Marouane Fellaini of Man United to brighten up his hair, as he has so much. But it’s already fading. Cheapskate.

Mesut Özil of Arsenal held back, not going the full head, just bits of it, which I suspect is a clue to his wavering, hesitant personality. His colleague Aaron Ramsey has almost the full blond monty. Paul Pogba of Man United has a sort of blond streak, more like a marker pen than a makeover. His colleague Phil Jones has appeared blond, but he seems to have disappeared from the team sheet. Samir Nasri of Man City went startlingly blond, but is on loan to Seville, so we’re not able to enjoy his locks. And Didier Ndong of Sunderland is a striking blond, thanks to gallons of bleach.

Remember the Romanians in the 1998 World Cup? They suddenly appeared blond, every one of them. God, that was brilliant. One of my all-time best World Cup moments, and I was at Wembley in 1966.

So, why do they do it? Well, Hockney was right, in a sense. Not to have more fun – meaning more sex – because top footballers are more than well supplied, but because their normal working lives are on the whole devoid of fun.

They can’t stuff their faces with fast food, drink themselves stupid, stay up all night, take a few silly pills – which is what many of our healthy 25-year-old lads consider a reasonably fun evening. Nor can they spend all their millions on fun hols, such as skiing in the winter, a safari in the spring, or hang-gliding at the weekend. Prem players have to be so boringly sensible these days, or their foreign managers will be screaming at them in their funny foreign accents.

While not on the pitch, or training, which takes up only a few hours a day, the boredom is appalling, endlessly on planes or coaches or in some hotel that could be anywhere.

The only bright spot in the long days is to look in the mirror and think: “Hmm, I wonder what highlights would look like? I’ve done the beard and the tattoos. Now let’s go for blond. Wow, gorgeous.”

They influence each other, being simple souls, so when one dyes his hair, depending on where he is in the macho pecking order, others follow. They put in the day by looking at themselves. Harmless fun. Bless ’em.

But I expect all the faux blonds to have gone by Christmas. Along with Mourinho. I said that to myself the moment he arrived in Manchester, smirking away. Pep will see him off. OK then, let’s say Easter at the latest . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times