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‘Empty’ Hoxton HQ of anti-squatting firm Camelot taken over – by squatters

PUBLISHED: 16:04 29 September 2016 | UPDATED: 12:09 30 September 2016

Rich sits with some of the other occupiers at 20 Westland Place

Rich sits with some of the other occupiers at 20 Westland Place

Archant

There’s an obvious irony to the fact “property guardian” firm Camelot has been occupied by squatters. Emma Bartholomew visited ‘Camesquat’ in Hoxton and spoke to the community that has sprung up behind its doors.

Occupiers have placed signs on the windows of 20 Westland PlaceOccupiers have placed signs on the windows of 20 Westland Place

The former Hoxton HQ of Camelot, a company whose mission is to keep squatters out of empty buildings, has itself been occupied by protesters.

Activists have not revealed how they gained access to the Westland Place offices but insist they did not break any laws.

They say the occupation they have dubbed “Camesquat” aims to highlight the homelessness crisis in the UK.

The squatters want the estimated 1.5million empty buildings in the UK to be used for temporary accommodation and arts activities.

Occupiers at 20 Westland PlaceOccupiers at 20 Westland Place

They are also complaining that “property guardians” – short-term tenants who pay Camelot for the right to live in empty, often non-residential buildings – are not getting a good deal and do not have full tenancy rights.

Property guardianship was once considered a good option for priced-out tenants, but rents have been rising in the sector. Green London Assembly member Siân Berry from the Green Party has dubbed the schemes the “zero-hours contract of housing” because occupants can be evicted at short notice.

Police were called out at 9pm on Monday night, as security personnel employed by Camelot clashed with demonstraters outside the building.

They complained the activists inside were being “held hostage” by the presence of security.

"I had to explain to him what squatting was. He was like: ‘This would never happen in Barbados where I’m from.’ He said if you went into someone’s building the police would just come and gun you"

Squatter Rich

But yesterday afternoon, in a surprise move, Camelot’s chief operating officer Mike Goldsmith invited the group to stay and establish an arts and culture space in the building, which is currently on the market.

The squatters now plan to hold art workshops, yoga classes, theatre classes, exhibitions and acoustic concerts there.

As the Gazette arrived on the scene, 10 or so people could be seen sitting on sofas inside the huge open plan space, behind the glass door decorated with a defaced Camelot castle logo.

Other notices state their rights as squatters, including one proclaiming “section 144 does not apply” – referring to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act brought in four years ago, which prohibits squatting of residential buildings.

Valeria Keller and Zizy at 20 Westland PlaceValeria Keller and Zizy at 20 Westland Place

Security is tight and they had to consult between themselves before allowing access.

Meanwhile, Edward Fenner, Camelot’s head of sales, was outside negotiating with “Rich”, who came up with the idea to occupy the building he says has been vacant and unused for six months. Camelot claims staff were still using the building for meetings.

After agreeing on a time to meet up at the company’s Dalston offices, Mr Fenner seemed keen the meeting went smoothly.

“In terms of access needs, are you bringing anyone with a wheelchair? Are you bringing anyone who needs an interpretor? Are you bringing anyone who’s visually impaired?” he asked.

Rich sits with some of the other occupiers at 20 Westland PlaceRich sits with some of the other occupiers at 20 Westland Place

Mr Fenner, a krava expert, then “threw a couple of ideas around” on what activities could be held at the cultural centre.

“At the moment knife crime is a big thing we all think about. Someone gets stabbed every week, so one of the things I’d like to pitch in, is why not get someone down here who can prevent you being attacked by a knife?

“We are in the security industry so I can get an instructor down free of charge to actually teach you guys how to defend yourselves properly.”

Back inside the building, a guitar jamming session was in full swing, and the resident dog had snuggled up on the sofa which was donated by a neighbour, who was moving house the night they arrived.

Rich said: “I had to explain to him what squatting was. He was like: ‘This would never happen in Barbados where I’m from.’ He said if you went into someone’s building the police would just come and gun you.”

Anais from France and Jonathan from Peru were just leaving to “finally get some fresh air”.

Anais said: “It’s nice we can finally open the door. I was feeling a bit like a hostage. If we opened the door they were trying to get in.”

Before leaving Jonathan warned me: “Remember at all times – close the door.”

A spokesman for Camelot said: “The general trend for guardian licence fees in the London area is moving closer to market rental rates.

“However, Camelot has not followed that trend and strives to keep its rates as low as possible. These are well below 95 per cent [the figure alleged by the squatters].

“We firmly believe that ‘guardian living’ with Camelot is a cost-effective alternative to private rental arrangements.”

He added: “Camelot has no influence on government legislation or homelessness.”

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