Central London properties, minus the sky-high rents. But what’s the catch?

Arthur Duke, MD of Live-in Guardians, at a London property inhabitated by a live-in guardian. Image: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images

“Not many people can afford to live in a 10,000 square foot property in the heart of London like Robin – but actually, she can’t afford to either, which is why she became a property guardian.”

So began a recent Sky News report on property guardians, the latest in a series of upbeat features on the practice of recruiting people to live in empty commercial or residential buildings for a fee. There are agencies that exist entirely to find and vet potential occupants; now photo-heavy features regularly appear in papers and magazines, showing guardians living the high life in rural mansions and Kensington apartments. But is everything quite as bright as it looks?

The practice first emerged in the Netherlands in the 1990s. At the time, squatters were occupying empty Dutch buildings in huge numbers, and gained legal status through a ruling that stated owners could only evict them by taking them to court. Property guardianship was a way of preventing this problem: to this day, Dutch property guardianship agencies are still known as “anti-squat agencies”.

In the UK, property guardianship has been around for about five years – and, in a country which has the apparently paradoxical combination of a homelessness problem and an empty-building problem, it doesn’t sound like a bad idea. According to local council data, there were 635,137 empty residential properties in England as of 2013, 2.8 per cent of all the homes in England. Almost a third of these had been empty for more than six months. And that’s before we even get to commercial properties. 

For the building’s owners, it’s a good deal: leaving a building empty can reduce its value by up to 5 per cent, while installing security can cost £6,000 a month.  For the property guardians, it’s not too bad either, as they pay between 30 and 60 per cent of a standard market rate in what is, especially in London, one of the worst renters’ markets in living memory. But what they pay isn’t rent, and they’re not technically tenants – the fees go to the agencies, not to the building’s owner, in exchange for keeping the guardians in check and popping in for inspections every month or so.

Arthur Duke, managing director of Live-In Guardians, says his customers tend to be aged between 25 and 35. “About 80 per cent are saving for a deposit, and the other 20 per cent are fed up with expensive rents.” Low fees are the draw for pretty much all potential guardians. Most stay with the company for around 6 to 9 months; some stay in just one property, others move through several. When a building is finally needed by its owners, the guardians are notified and offered other properties to stay in.

Even if you make it past the checks, there are a fair few rules to contend with. No pets, no parties, no smoking, no candles... Oh, and you can’t leave the property for more than 24 hours without explicit permission. Most agencies also carry out unannounced inspections at least once a month. Until recently, several also had clauses in their contracts forbidding guardians to speak to the press; as far as we can tell, this is no longer the case. 

The rules highlight the big catch with property guardianship: even its strongest advocate would admit that the exchange is, essentially, reduced rents (sorry, we mean fees) for reduced rights. Property guardians aren’t tenants – they’re “licensees”. In human-speak, this means they are given the right to use the building, but the building’s owner doesn’t take on landlord responsibilities. This legal compromise was constructed specifically to allow such schemes to operate: agencies need to be able to boot out tenants when a building is due to be reoccupied, sold or demolished.

"Policy makers only see the stories where people live in Westminster palaces - they ignore the fact that it’s creating guardians without rights or security."

Real life is not always that simple. Giles Peaker, a UK property lawyer, was approached in 2012 by a guardian from one of the larger agencies, who’d been locked out of the property after being given only two weeks’ notice by telephone. Her belongings, which were still inside the locked property, then went missing.  She sued the company for unlawful eviction, and received a substantial payout. (One of the conditions of the settlement was that no one involved could name which agency it was.)

In court, Peaker argued that the 1977 Eviction Act applies to guardians, even if agencies prefer not to describe them as tenants: that gives them the right to at least four weeks’ notice before being asked to leave. Despite the outcome of this case, several of the property guardian agencies currently operating in the UK still maintain a two week eviction policy.

Peaker believes that legal hiccups like these are emerging because property guardianship has become bigger business. “It’s a maturity thing – it wasn’t exactly below the radar before, but... since the 2008 property crash, it became a big thing. Agencies are starting to realise that there are regulations that apply to them.”

This professionalisation seems likely to continue. Many agencies now offer themselves to councils as a way to fill large estates in regeneration areas, or occupy temporarily empty council homes. Ad Hoc is responsible for around 2,000-3,000 UK properties at once; almost all their properties in London are part of large, empty housing estates.

Colum Anglin, the agency’s operations director, says that the company’s size requires it to stick to a rigid legal framework, claiming: “We invest in an in-house legal team, while smaller competitors don’t.” (Every agency we spoke to had sought legal advice before drawing up their contracts, though some didn’t have full-time legal teams.)

The practice remains controversial. In 2009, filmmaker Abel Heijkamp  made a documentary following seven guardians with Ad Hoc and Camelot in the Netherlands called Leegstand zonder zorgen or Carefree Vacant Property (we get the sense this title was slightly ironic). The interviewees complain about the unannounced inspections, lack of privacy and the possibility of being kicked out at short notice.

After the film’s release, Heijkamp was contacted by more guardians. Later the same year, he founded something called the Bond Precaire Woonvormen (“The Union of Precarious Renters”), which helps find legal support for guardians and campaigns for the practice to stop, and which has successfully forced some local authorities and landlords to stop using the schemes. Recently it also released a document accusing Camelot of using people in need of housing as “real estate pawns”. In essence, the organisation objects to property guardians being given substantial responsibilities, yet living without full tenants’ rights.

Heijkamp says he has been contacted by guardians in the UK as well as Belgium and the Netherlands (impressive, as their website is almost entirely in Dutch). In the UK, he says, “Policy makers only see the stories where people live in Westminster palaces - they ignore the fact that it’s creating guardians without rights or security. In London, where the rents are ridiculously high, people see it as a solution. But they should protect the rights of citizens, not of private enterprises”.

The agencies do come across as being more concerned with their clients than their guardians. Arthur Duke of Live-In Guardians says he is anxious to show the public and his clients that guardians are “not immigrants or asylum seekers but professionals, young graduates”; meanwhile, the Camelot website boasts that “our guardians are very flexible and have a sense of adventure".

Despite these problems, however, lawyer Giles Peaker still sees the schemes as viable housing options, and a convenient way to kill two birds with one stone. But, he adds, the system needs regulation: “Once it becomes something that people are looking at as a serious housing option, there have to be questions about how they’re operating. Like so many things, it’s an arrangement that can work – if it's done properly between consenting adults.”

 
 
 
 

More than 830 cities have brought essential services back under public control. Others should follow

A power station near Nottingham: not one owned by Robin Hood Energy, alas, but we couldn't find anything better. Image: Getty.

The wave of cities worldwide rejecting privatization is far bigger and more successful than anyone thought, according to a new report from the Transnational Institute, Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation. Some 835 cities in 45 countries have brought essential services like water, energy and health care back under public control.

The persistent myth that public services are by nature more expensive and less efficient is losing its momentum. Citizens and users do not necessarily have to resign to paying increasingly higher tariffs for lower standard services. The decline of working conditions in public services is not an inevitability.

And the ever larger role private companies have played in public service delivery may at last be waning. The remunicipalisation movement – cities or local authorities reclaiming privatised services or developing new options – demonstrates that cities and citizens are working to protect and reinvent essential services.

The failure of austerity and privatisation to deliver promised improvements and investments is part of the reason this movement has advanced. But the real driver has been a desire to meet goals such as addressing climate change or increasing democratic participation in service provision. Lower costs and tariffs, improved conditions for workers and better service quality are frequently reported following remunicipalisation.  Meanwhile transparency and accountability have also improved.

Where remunicipalisation succeeds, it also tends to inspire other local authorities to make similar moves. Examples are plentiful. Municipalities have joined forces to push for renewable, climate-friendly energy initiatives in countries like Germany. Public water operators in France and Catalonia are sharing resources and expertise, and working together to overcome the challenges they meet.

Outside Europe, experiments in public services are gaining ground too. Delhi set up 1,000 Mohalla (community) clinics across the city in 2015 as a first step to delivering affordable primary health care. Some 110 clinics were working in some of the poorest areas of Delhi as of February 2017. The Delhi government claims that more than 2.6m of its poorest residents have received free quality health care since the clinics were set up.


Local authorities and the public are benefiting from savings too. When the Nottingham City Council found out that many low-income families in the city were struggling to pay their energy bills, they set up a new supply company. The company, Robin Hood Energy, which offers the lowest prices in the UK, has the motto: “No private shareholders. No director bonuses. Just clear transparent pricing.”

Robin Hood Energy has also formed partnerships with other major cities. In 2016, the city of Leeds set up the White Rose Energy municipal company to promote simple no-profit tariffs throughout the Yorkshire and Humberside regions. In 2017, the cities of Bradford and Doncaster agreed to join the White Rose/Robin Hood partnership.

Meanwhile, campaigners with Switched on London are pushing their city to set up a not-for-profit energy company with genuine citizen participation. The motivations in these diverse cities are similar: young municipal companies can simultaneously beat energy poverty and play a key role in achieving a just and renewable energy transition.

Remunicipalised public services often involve new forms of participation for workers and citizens. Remunicipalisation is often a first step towards creating the public services of the future: sustainable and grounded in the local economy. Inspiration can be found in the European towns and villages aiming for 'zero waste' with their remunicipalised waste service, or providing 100 per cent locally-sourced organic food in their remunicipalised school restaurants.

Public services are not good simply because they are not private. Public services must also continuously renew themselves, grow, innovate and recommit to the public they serve.

The push for remunicipalisation in Catalonia, for example, has come from a movement of citizen platforms. For them, a return to public management is not just an end in itself, but a first step towards the democratic management of public services based on ongoing civil participation.

Evidence is building that people are able to reclaim public services and usher in a new generation of public ownership. The momentum is building, as diverse movements and actors join forces to bring positive change in communities around the world.

You can read the Transnational Institute report, “Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation”, on its website.