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

Photo: Getty
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The government needs more on airports than just Chris Grayling's hunch

This disastrous plan to expand Heathrow will fail, vows Tom Brake. 

I ought to stop being surprised by Theresa May’s decision making. After all, in her short time as Prime Minister she has made a series of terrible decisions. First, we had Chief Buffoon, Boris Johnson appointed as Foreign Secretary to represent the United Kingdom around the world. Then May, announced full steam ahead with the most extreme version of Brexit, causing mass economic uncertainty before we’ve even begun negotiations with the EU. And now we have the announcement that expansion of Heathrow Airport, in the form of a third runway, will go ahead: a colossally expensive, environmentally disastrous, and ill-advised decision.

In the House of Commons on Tuesday, I asked Transport Secretary Chris Grayling why the government is “disregarding widespread hostility and bulldozing through a third runway, which will inflict crippling noise, significant climate change effects, health-damaging air pollution and catastrophic congestion on a million Londoners.” His response was nothing more than “because we don’t believe it’s going to do those things.”

I find this astonishing. It appears that the government is proceeding with a multi-billion pound project with Grayling’s beliefs as evidence. Why does the government believe that a country of our size should focus on one major airport in an already overcrowded South East? Germany has multiple major airports, Spain three, the French, Italians, and Japanese have at least two. And I find it astonishing that the government is paying such little heed to our legal and moral environmental obligations.

One of my first acts as an MP nineteen years ago was to set out the Liberal Democrat opposition to the expansion of Heathrow or any airport in southeast England. The United Kingdom has a huge imbalance between the London and the South East, and the rest of the country. This imbalance is a serious issue which our government must get to work remedying. Unfortunately, the expansion of Heathrow does just the opposite - it further concentrates government spending and private investment on this overcrowded corner of the country.

Transport for London estimates that to make the necessary upgrades to transport links around Heathrow will be £10-£20 billion pounds. Heathrow airport is reportedly willing to pay only £1billion of those costs. Without upgrades to the Tube and rail links, the impact on London’s already clogged roads will be substantial. Any diversion of investment from improving TfL’s wider network to lines serving Heathrow would be catastrophic for the capital. And it will not be welcomed by Londoners who already face a daily ordeal of crowded tubes and traffic-delayed buses. In the unlikely event that the government agrees to fund this shortfall, this would be salt in the wound for the South-West, the North, and other parts of the country already deprived of funding for improved rail and road links.

Increased congestion in the capital will not only raise the collective blood pressure of Londoners, but will have severe detrimental effects on our already dire levels of air pollution. During each of the last ten years, air pollution levels have been breached at multiple sites around Heathrow. While a large proportion of this air pollution is caused by surface transport serving Heathrow, a third more planes arriving and departing adds yet more particulates to the air. Even without expansion, it is imperative that we work out how to clean this toxic air. Barrelling ahead without doing so is irresponsible, doing nothing but harm our planet and shorten the lives of those living in west London.

We need an innovative, forward-looking strategy. We need to make transferring to a train to Cardiff after a flight from Dubai as straightforward and simple as transferring to another flight is now. We need to invest in better rail links so travelling by train to the centre of Glasgow or Edinburgh is quicker than flying. Expanding Heathrow means missing our climate change targets is a certainty; it makes life a misery for those who live around the airport and it diverts precious Government spending from other more worthy projects.

The Prime Minister would be wise to heed her own advice to the 2008 government and “recognise widespread hostility to Heathrow expansion.” The decision to build a third runway at Heathrow is the wrong one and if she refuses to U-turn she will soon discover the true extent of the opposition to these plans.

Tom Brake is the Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton & Wallington.