Many will have heard of squatters being
evicted after briefly occupying empty properties. English law,
however, has led to a different form of this activity which has
come to be known as covert squatting.
The law prescribes that anyone living
unchallenged in an unoccupied property for twelve years becomes
its owner. If a person lives unchallenged in an occupied property
for five or more years, however, that person becomes joint owner.
This first came to public attention when
Eric the squat Norris became joint owner of
Buckingham Palace. The problem lay in the proximity of the of the
West Wing to an easily scaleable wall and the fact that the wing
contained one hundred and fifty-six bedrooms, most of which were
rarely used. Eric and others occupied an unused room, undertaking
structural alterations and decoration to hide the door. One
hundred and fifty-five rooms seemed much like one hundred and
fifty-six to the domestic staff who, though used to counting the
silver lest it be appropriated as souvenirs, had never thought to
check that all rooms remained present and correct.
Erics team occupied thirty rooms
before deciding that further expansion of door-free corridors
might attract attention. There they lived quietly for five years
before joining Her Majesty for breakfast.
Security greatly increased at royal
residences and other stately homes subsequently and covert
squatters refocused on domestic dwellings. Many of us can recall
conversations in the mid-nineties with relatives, friends or
acquaintances who had just purchased a new four bedroomed house.
Nearly all commented that the fourth bedroom was tiny. They often
joked that it was more like a cupboard. Strangely,
none of us drew the obvious conclusion that it was, in fact, a
cupboard. Covert squatters had entered properties after builders
had left and prior to arrival of the first occupants. As at the
Palace, alterations were made to hide a room in which they then
lived until it was time to introduce themselves to their new co-owners.
Again, the emergence of these squatters led
to increased vigilance. Rentokill expanded their
services to include squatter eradication. Estate
agents began to advertise properties as guaranteed squatter-free.
Five years on, the next covert squatting
strategy is becoming apparent as strangers emerge from attics or
climb out from beneath floorboards. Several groups of underfloor
squatters have excavated large dwellings beneath properties.
In geologically suitable areas these have expanded to networks of
interconnected caverns the size of small towns. Electricity, gas
and other services have been obtained by connecting into the
supplies of host properties. One subterranean village in
Hampshire was discovered when a pensioner questioned her
quarterly electricity bill which had risen from fifty pounds to
nearly one hundred and fifty thousand.
Once again homeowners are striking back. We
know from past experience, however, that squatter strategy will
again evolve into some unexpected alternative. We have no idea
what that might be, although a number of people have reported new
and strangely shaped furniture appearing in their homes.