*Please note this article was published in 2004 and the legal situation has now changed. For up-to-date advise see the Advisory Service for Squatters*
It's still legal, necessary and free. Squatting is a matter of civil law, not a crime. You might be a single person without the capital for private renting. You might be a family declared "intentionally homeless' or otherwise excluded from public housing. You might be a destitute asylum seeker. You might be displaced from your home by "regeneration'. Or perhaps you've moved to find work. Squatting is hard work and has its problems, but it's better than the alternatives. Some people find that the closeness and teamwork involved, the laughs as well as the crises, open up a whole new world and change their lives.
Squatting an empty building without any information may be necessary in an emergency, but your prospects will be better if you do your homework and choose carefully. You can usually discover who the owner is from the Land Registry (call 020 7917 8888 for your nearest office; enquiries cost £4 in person, or £2 with a credit/debit card). It's best to pick places owned by public bodies (including housing associations) or commercial organisations. Privately owned places are rarely worthwhile unless they've been empty a long time or you have some extra information. Most empty buildings can't be returned to use without planning consent, so check the statutory register of planning consents at the local council.
Don't go for council or housing association homes in good condition. There's a quick and nasty way of getting you out without a court case if you squat a place for which a new tenant, or protected intending occupier (PIO), has signed up. However, most attempts to use the PIO procedure are bogus. Contact the Advisory Service for Squatters for advice. Generally, the worse condition a place is in, the better your prospects are.
It's best not to squat on your own: get together with a few others. A squat is only a squat while there's someone on the premises. If nobody's in, there's nothing to stop the owner breaking in and repossessing the place. However, if anybody - including the owner - tries to gain entry when someone opposed to their doing so is in, it's a criminal offence. So, you need enough people to make sure someone is always at home - at least for the first few weeks.
Once you've found a suitable place, how do you get in? Many buildings are less secure than the owners think. Check the back if possible, and consider upper windows or the roof. Remember, squatters never do criminal damage; local kids do that, and squatters just come along the next day and take advantage of it. People dressed as building workers usually have less hassle than suspicious types sneaking round at night. Once you're in, steel doors and window screens can be removed from the inside, but your first job will be to make sure your entry route is secured.
You'll need to change the lock or fit some big bolts inside the door temporarily. Then you can start making a home. It's best to sign up for a legitimate electricity supply. Otherwise, it gives the owner a chance to get you arrested for abstracting electricity so they can repossess the place while you're in the cells. Make friendly contact with the neighbours, who can turn out to be your best supporters. Making the outside of the place attractive helps this along.
Squats get evicted sooner or later. Normally, this will be the result of the owner issuing proceedings in the county court on the grounds of trespass. You might get only a few days' notice of the court case. Owners often make mistakes, and it can be worth defending cases to gain extra time or to highlight the waste of useful buildings. Sometimes a court case can be an opportunity to do a deal with the owner, so you can stay until the place is actually used. This is most likely with commercial organisations, for whom you could act as free caretakers and could be far preferable to the crack dealers who might occupy the premises otherwise. Defending court cases can be complicated, so it's important to get immediate advice. Usually, bailiffs will come to evict you between one and four weeks after the case, which gives you time to find another place.
For more detailed advice, get the Squatters Handbook from the Advisory Service for Squatters, or contact the service: www.squatter.org.uk