A former headquarters of a property management company that rents empty buildings to tenants who act as guardians to prevent them from being squatted has itself been occupied by protesters.
The upmarket building in Shoreditch, east London, was used by Camelot Europe and has been targeted by activists who say the property guardians are not getting a good deal and do not have full tenancy rights.
The squatters say they simply entered the former Camelot building through an open door. The building is empty, but the Camelot logo is still displayed clearly on the front of it.
“It’s not what we would expect from Camelot, a company that prides itself on supplying property guardians to landlords of commercial and residential buildings to prevent them being squatted,” said Frank Freeman, 29, one of the activists who has moved into the property.
“We are doing this on behalf of dispossessed, homeless people and guardians who are being exploited,” Freeman said. “We hope to run art workshops, yoga classes and exhibitions. London is built on culture, but artists and creative people can no longer afford to live here. It is becoming a sterile and unaffordable place.”
Property guardianship was once considered a good option for priced-out tenants, who were offered low-cost temporary homes in return for protecting empty buildings, but rents have been rising and concerns growing about the limited rights occupiers have.
The Green party’s Sian Berry recently described the schemes as the zero-hours contract of housing, because occupants tenants can be evicted at short notice, if they are deemed to have violated the licence agreement.
The irony of targeting a property guardian business has not been lost on the squatters, who have adapted Camelot’s castle logo, inserted the squatters’ sign and renamed the premises Camesquat.
Literature from the estate agents Currell, whose marketing materials the squatters found when they moved in to the building, show that it has been marketed for sale for £3.1m, exclusive of VAT. The activists have cracked jokes about the irony of Camelot’s failure to protect its own building from squatters, but they say their occupation has a serious purpose.
Dr Sarah Keenan, a lecturer in law at Birkbeck, University of London, said: “The rights of tenants and licensees are generally very weak in England and Wales. In January this year the government voted against a proposed amendment to the housing and planning bill, which was designed to ensure properties are fit for human habitation. Because guardians are licensees rather than tenants, they can be easily evicted and they don’t have the right to have their deposits protected.”
Complaints by current and former property guardians for Camelot in a number of different buildings in the London area include allegations over failure to repair fire alarms, asbestos removal work carried out while they were in the property, and recently an accident involving Mace Richards, who was looking after a property in Walton-on-Thames. On 22 August, a glass panel broke on his hands causing severe injury. He had to have reconstructive surgery at St George’s hospital.
“I was in absolute agony,” said Richards. “I work as an actor and a hand model – my hands appeared in the opening of a Jimmy McGovern series called Banished – but I can’t get any work at the moment because of the damage to my hands. I hope that I will recover enough to be able to work again but I have lots of scarring on my hands and I have been evicted by Camelot after I asked for their insurance details so I could make a personal injury claim about my hands.”
On Monday night security guards appeared at the door of the premises barring entry to a group of squatters who had congregated on the pavement to support those inside occupying the building.
Mike Goldsmith, chief operating officer of Camelot Europe, said: “Camelot are not planning to evict the squatters. We have security staff outside the building (no member of staff or security company have entered or attempted to enter the building) to prevent further squatters from accessing the building illegally.”
Commenting on the specific allegations made by the squatters, Goldsmith said: “Mr Richards was told by the property manager that his licence was being terminated because of his injury. The manager wrongly assumed this, as Mr Richards received his injury in an area of the building which was clearly marked out of bounds.
“When this was brought to my attention Mr Richards was informed that his claim would be forwarded to Camelot’s insurer [and was done a number of weeks ago]. The claim will still be processed irrespective of Mr Richards’ status with Camelot. Mr Richards is having his licence revoked because he was in a clearly signed out of bounds area and because he has stated that he can’t pay his licence fee going forward. As a gesture of good faith we have already written off £1,500 of his debt.”
Squatting residential buildings is now a criminal offence, but squatting commercial buildings remains a civil offence. In order to remove squatters from a property such as Camelot’s in Shoreditch, an eviction notice will have to be sought from the county court.