1. Governance
May 22, 2017updated 04 Aug 2023 8:53am

How the creative industries could offer a way out of the dangerous property guardianship trend

By Jennifer Plowman

It was the hip new housing trend that nobody really wanted.

Property guardianship, with its unregulated, exploitative system, should have been a short-lived phase that had ended by 2017, a phase that had been brought to attention so regularly that some sort of intervention had already forced it to end.

But of course this isn’t the case and the ongoing housing crisis means that tenants, though they must technically be called ‘guardians’, have essentially bargained away any rights in order to afford housing which is often unsafe and uninhabitable, with little or no security.

A recent government housing survey brought to light the continuing problems of overcrowding in the rental sector, and the trend of younger people continuing to live in unaffordable rental properties, unable to save money to buy their own home.

The figures are even more surprising than you’d expect.

In 2005-06, 24 per cent of those aged 25-34 lived in the private rented sector and by 2015-16 this had almost doubled, to 46 per cent.

It is many of these young people, forced to rent and thus unable to afford sky-rocketing payments, that have turned to what has been referred to as ‘legal squatting’.

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The question as to whether it should even be legal – with practically no regulation, the power to evict a ‘guardian’ without prior warning, and the ability to ban any visitors – is a pertinent one. There is a very high price to pay for such cheap rent.

And, as rent is now often reaching near market-level, whether the rent can even be called cheap is also questionable.

Sian Berry, the Green Party London Assembly Member, recently researched the use of property guardianship by local authorities in London along with activist Samir Jeraj, and found that in 2016 over 200 local authority buildings were being used.

Sian Berry AM, pictured at a protest in 2016. Image: Garry Knight.

The pair also discovered that over 1,000 ‘property guardians’ are being charged to live in what they deemed ‘precarious conditions in empty public buildings owned by councils across London’.

The findings are pretty bleak, and demonstrate that even property guardian companies considered to be ‘better’ treat their guardians as what Samir describes as ‘essentially unpaid security guards’.

He said: ‘Councils should not become second-class landlords by allowing their properties to be used to exploit people let down by the housing crisis.

‘Property guardians should be treated like any other tenant, with proper health and safety rules, notice periods and protection from exploitation.’

Berry and Jeraj’s research clearly points to an exploitative and unsafe system, and they both call on London councils to step up and put an end to it.

What is interesting, however, is the suggestion they make for the use of the public buildings.

They argue that councils should put the buildings to more creative use, where community or cultural organisations in need of short-term spaces for projects could take on the care of these buildings.

With councils rejecting proposals for art studios or creative spaces in favour of luxury apartments or retail spaces, this could be a solution to both ending exploitative housing, and creating opportunity for space where there is currently very little.

Especially now, with our looming exit from the EU likely to threaten the creative industries – as described at length in this concerning House of Lords debate, these buildings could provide the essential space for creatives in the city. 

London’s councils must stand up to the dangers of property guardianship and commit to making better use of our under-loved public spaces: a utilisation of the space which does not perpetuate the exploitative and dangerous housing for those most affected by the housing crisis. 

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