Retail takeovers explained… why squatters now target empty shops rather than flats

Mrs Le’s Banh Mi, at 178 Lavender Hill, is unusual in that it’s the only shop on the street that is currently in use as a temporary home! Here we explore, for our readers’ curiosity, the occasional phenomenon of shops being surreptitiously taken over as flats.

The restaurant was only open briefly, for the first half of 2018 – but was generally well reviewed. It was branded very similarly to Mien Tay next door (Mr’s Le’s was run by the same people as Mien Tay, but with a shorter and more focussed menu)  – but the interior re-used most of the equipment that was left when Salisbury’s Fish and Chips closed. 

After it closed in summer 2018 most of the interior fixtures and fittings were removed, leaving a rather messy shell with no lights and dangling wires.  And our readers may have noticed that it’s now been taken over and converted to a makeshift flat – with a “squatters’ rights” notice attached to the door (pictured above – though we’ve edited it to remove any personal details).

These notices used to be a familiar sight on all sorts of empty and abandoned buildings, but following concerns that ‘professional’ squatters were emerging – and that the line between squatters and burglars was becoming rather blurred, and that the effect was pushing up insurance premiums (and hence the cost of renting flats), the law was changed in to make squatting in houses or flats illegal – punishable by 6 months in prison, an chunky fine or both.

The government did, however, recognise that many squatters had a genuine need for somewhere to stay (and it’s worth noting that at the time the law was changed your author knew of several buildings along Lavender Hill and Wandsworth Road at the time where squatters were living quietly and respectfully).  So they deliberately left open an option for squatters in non-residential buildings – which was not made a crime (although it’s a crime to damage the property – obviously it’s hard to gain access without causing some damage, but the well worn line is “oh, the lock was already broken…”).

The thinking was that these kinds of buildings will have professional landlords and (when not empty) tenants, and the risk and potential cost of squatters can be more easily accommodated.  Most squatters go for low-grade office buildings in the inner suburbs, but factories and even shops are sometimes occupied, as is the case here.  By and large this compromise approach seems to be working reasonably, despite a few horrifying cases where working businesses have been trashed and held to ransom by ‘squatters’.  We haven’t heard any reports of the residents at Mrs Le’s causing chaos, and in the current crisis are safe and have a roof over their heads.

One day, the unit will get back in to retail use.  Frankly it doesn’t look particularly appealing for a prospective new business at the moment, and it’ll certainly need some TLC, but the current shabby state seems to be more a result of flyposters – and what was left behind when Mrs Le’s left – than the current residents.

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