Everybody has to be somewhere: before the Dutch and UK authorities cracked down on urban squatting we may be sure that they checked out just where that somewhere might be for the large number of people they were going to make homeless. One of the safety nets they no doubt had in mind was the “mixed use” occupation of city centre warehouses and factories. Live-work units make a lot of sense for self-employed people.
Everybody has to be somewhere: before the Dutch and UK authorities cracked down on urban squatting we may be sure that they checked out just where that somewhere might be for the large number of people they were going to make homeless. One of the safety nets they no doubt had in mind was the “mixed use” occupation of city centre warehouses and factories. Live-work units make a lot of sense for self-employed people. However, as planning consultant Andrew Lainton has pointed out, the mixed use tends to revert to purely residential, and developers muscle in on the process seeing it as a way to get residential permission — leading to increased rents, gentrification, and the loss of what might otherwise have been supplied as affordable housing.
The other safety net, which has undergone a massive boom over the last few years, is the lucrative business of employing property guardians. This provides accommodation which is cheap, relative to the inflated level of market rents, but also rather nasty. Property guardians are the modern version of poachers turned gamekeepers. Low income people who a few years ago might have had to resort to squatting, are now housed in empty buildings to protect them from squatters. They receive no payment for this service, in fact they pay security companies for the privilege. Their sole reward is to be allowed to live in the property at a rent lower than the market price. Meanwhile the security firm also extracts a fee for the service from the property owner.
Like gamekeepers, property guardians have to sacrifice a certain amount of independence. Caps must be doffed, not so much to the landowner, who remains invisible, but to his factor, the property management company. And the restrictions on lifestyle that guardians have to endure are more stringent than any that the most servile gamekeeper would have had to observe: no animals or pets, no fires or proper cooking facilities, no kids anywhere on the property and no overnight guests.
Property guardianship was pioneered in the 1990s by a firm called Camelot in the Netherlands, where the business is known as “anti-kraak” — ie anti squat. It is no coincidence that the Netherlands set the model for the UK and other countries by making its thriving squatting movement illegal in 2010.
Camelot still dominates the market throughout Europe — but in the UK an estimated 30 firms, such as Ad Hoc, Newbould and Orbis, have got in on the act, attracted by the profits to be made by simultaneously charging tenants for relief from the rapacity of landlords, and landlords for protection against squatters.
Here Chapter 7 brings you an exclusive (and necessarily anonymous) first-hand account of what it is like to live as a proerty guardian, and a copy of the contract the wroter was required to sign up to.
My Life as a Property Guardian
Being a property guardian can be an easy way to save some money, as the ‘licence fee’ as it’s called is usually around 50-70 per cent of the rate you would normally pay in the area, and you can get to live in some really interesting buildings or in quite up-market neighbourhoods. Also, there seems to be quite a can-do attitude, upcycling, creative repurposing of space and materials and also a fair bit of camaraderie between guardians.
That was my feeling some time ago, when I lived in London — a sort of combination between being lucky and clever to have found a way to live in London for a bit more than the price of a monthly travel card. However, in the many years of being a guardian, and with the rise in the number of companies providing it, (and perhaps due to the current socio-economico-political climate) things are looking rather different.
As a property guardian, you always have the insecurity of not knowing when the property will be handed back to the owner and you will have to move. You usually get 14 days notice and you have to give the company 28 days notice. However, there is a different, underlying insecurity in respect of the guardian company staff, who tend to have bad days and dish out half-truths. There is a feeling that if you complain that they are not respecting their part of the contract you risk being evicted, something I have witnessed. There is no clear route by which you can take complaints higher up within the company. If you do complain, for example, about not having hot water in the kitchen (a minimum requirement) you almost never get an answer. So you try again and again you have no reply. Another week goes by, and another until finally, a month down the line you receive an email asking for someone to be available to let the plumber in to install the water heater.
The buildings usually have no heating or hot water, hence the need to install a water heater. This makes the properties damp, cold and mouldy quite quickly and the overall lack of maintenance leads to a feeling of neglect, which tends to spread amongst guardians and foster a feeling of failure as a member of society for not being able to live in a ‘normal home’ — like the one pictured on Camelot’s website (above). The company is supposed to provide one shower for every seven people but there have been weeks when there was one working shower between 14 people. Showers are sometimes installed in rooms that are not suitable, leading to damp, mouldy carpets; and as the companies use the cheapest materials available and the showers get heavy use, they tend to fall to bits in no time, sometimes dangerously so. Maintenance issues don’t tend to be dealt with and can lead to injury; one guardian I knew had to go through months of therapy due to the whiplash from a fall caused by an already reported water leak.
Then there are the fees that appear out of nowhere, and you sometimes only find out about them when you get emails and/or text messages (these are charged) from their finance department, usually using threatening language. One on such occasion, I received an email at 5am on a Saturday saying in no uncertain terms that a fee I hadn’t been told about had to be paid. Fifteen minutes later I received another email telling me that this was the second warning and a failure to act on it within three days could lead to the termination of the contract. There was no invoice or explanation for the money requested. You just pay and hope that you won’t have to move again, and pay again, soon — a bit like some well known airlines. Moving out can be quite difficult as you receive the deposit up to three months after you move out so you’re a bit stuck if you can’t afford, in effect, two deposits. Also remember to cancel your standing order for your rent or you will be charged an admin fee to get your money back.
There has been a change in recent years in the sort of people that become guardians. There are more people in a vulnerable situation applying to be guardians — people who have lost their jobs, their family or their home, and who aren’t being housed or helped by the social welfare system. More often than not, the properties managed by guardian companies are council / NHS / housing association owned. Imagine being in housing need and moving into a sheltered housing flat that is due to be demolished by the council-approved housing association that owns it, but as a guardian! There’s something not quite right with that picture. You would think that such public bodies would have more ethical rules on how their properties are being used.
At the moment no laws seem to be in place to protect the rights of the guardians, and there is often no way of dealing with problems. If you are to respect the contract you are not allowed to contact your local authorities about it as they are often the owner of the buildings which the contract forbids you to get in touch with. And you are not allowed to express your opinion about any planning application concerning the building you live in. You can’t even choose who you work for in the next five years? All these restrictions appear in the contract you sign.
Extract from Camelot’s Property Management Terms and Agreements, September 2014
• No pets or animals are allowed.
• No people under 18 are allowed onto the property.
• Guardians are not allowed to hold parties or meetings in their living space, or to have more than two people visiting at any one time.
• No guest is allowed to stay on their own in the property and all guests must be escorted off site.
• No person, other than the guardian is allowed to stay in the property overnight.
• Guardians are not allowed to decorate the property or attach pictures etc to the walls with pins or nails.
• Guardians are not allowed to display any signs or posters without Camelot’s consent.
• Guardians are not allowed gas cookers or heaters and are limited as to the electric cooking equipment they can have. For heating they are allowed only an electric oil filled radiator.
• Guardians are not allowed to smoke in their home.
•Guardians are not allowed to contact the owner of the building.
• Guardians are not allowed to speak to the media about Camelot, the property they are in, or the owner of the property.
• Guardians are not allowed to make any representations to the council about planning applications relating to the property.
• Guardians have to inform Camelot if they cease to be employed and are not allowed to remain voluntarily unemployed for more than four weeks. They are not allowed to seek job-seekers allowance or other benefits without Camelot’s written consent.
• Guardians must agree not to “carry on or be engaged concerned or interested in any business or organisation in competition with Camelot” for a period of five years from the signing of the agreement.
Do Prince Charles’s Property Guardians Require Planning Permission?
In February 2014, Lambeth Council issued an enforcement notice against the owners of Tintagel House, a 12 storey block on the south bank of the Thames that had previously served as offices for the Metropolitan Police. The enforcement notice alleged that 11 self-contained flats, reportedly occupied by property guardians, represented a change of use. The enforcement notice attracted attention only because one of the named parties was the Duchy of Cornwall, namely Prince Charles, who owned the freehold. The notice was also served on Live-In Guardians Ltd, and on leaseholders Galaplace Ltd, part of the billionaire Reuben Brothers empire. In May 2015 the Reuben Brothers sold Tintagel House for £20 million.
There was no appeal against the enforcement notice, nor was it complied with by the December deadline. However Lambeth Council have taken no action. Questioned in May 2015, they told us:
“At this stage we consider legal proceedings to be premature and not in the public interest . . . If the council were to proceed with legal action before the new owners have an opportunity to comply, the result may be an empty property at risk of squatting.”
In other words, a breach of planning control may be acceptable if it deters squatters.
The Letter from the Ministry
What was curious about the enforcement notice was that it has always been accepted that installing property guardians into a non-residential property does not involve a change of use, and hence does not require planning permission. The only official basis for this view is a letter from Andrew Gough of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, dated 14 July 2003, addressed to Camelot in response to a query from them as to whether planning permission was necessary if guardians were installed in an empty school. The letter states:
“We are not able to comment on specific cases; that would be a matter for the local authority . . . In the case of an empty school that is occupied by guardians, if the guardians are resident merely to ensure the security of the building as a school, and there has been no conversion to other uses, the building therefore remains a school, and there is no change of use. Planning permission is therefore not required.”
This statement has been erroneously transcribed onto the Camelot website, still attributed to Andrew Gough, as follows:
“If the Guardians reside at the property merely to ensure the security of the building, then the primary use of the building remains the same. Therefore, planning permission is not required.”
This misquotation from the Ministry’s letter has been copied and pasted onto the websites of at least three other guardian firms. Apart from the Tintagel House episode, it seems to have been remarkably successful at deterring local authorities from pursuing enforcement action against property guardian companies.
It is, however, plainly obvious that guardians do not reside on the property “merely to ensure the security of the building”. If that were the case they would have to be paid to do so by the people who have an interest in securing the buildings — as is a conventional security guard, who, though he or she may stay on site overnight, has a home elsewhere. Property guardians do not have homes elsewhere, their only home is the building they are protecting, and that is the sole reason why they pay rent to remain there.
The matter is confirmed by the fact that if someone moves onto an agricultural holding, for example to protect material or livestock from being stolen, or for any other reason ancillary to the primary purpose of agriculture, for longer than a “season”, their residence is immediately and unquestionably classified as a change of use which requires planning permission. Chapter 7 would be keen to see someone argue the case for caravans for wwoofers, for example, on the basis of Mr Gough’s advice.
To what should we attribute this radical difference in interpretation between rural and urban planning authorities? Could it be because city councils are themselves enthusiastic employers of property guardians in their own empty properties?
NB Some office buildings now benefit from permitted development rights to turn them into dwellings. However prior approval requiring the submission of an application form accompanied by detailed plans and other information is still required. Office buildings in Lambeth and many other London boroughs do not benefit from these permitted development rights.