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A Man of Few Words - by Swan Morrison

Covert Squatting

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.

Eric’s 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.