Islington squatters take over former art gallery on Upper Street and vow to stay ‘as long as possible’

Squatters have taken over a former fine art gallery on a busy London high street.

The group of European migrants today vowed they would stay “as long as possible” in the former Hart Gallery in Islington’s Upper Street.

Some admitted to living off money sent from family back home, while one said he had dodged tax for two years by working cash in hand.

Nearby café owners and neighbours attacked their claims of being homeless and destitute saying they had been seen taking “selfies” with the latest iPhones.

The group cannot be immediately evicted from the four-storey building – which displayed paintings, sculpture and studio ceramics by a host of top modern artists – as it is classed as commercial property.

In August 2012 the law was changed to make squatting a criminal offence in residential properties, but not commercial ones.

One squatter, 26, who gave her name only as Sonia, said she came to England two months ago from Reggio Emilia in north Italy after losing her job as a waitress.

She said: “We intend to stay here as long as possible. Until the court tells us to go.

“The owners came and told us they are not happy but they can’t do anything about it. This is a non-residential property.

She added: “I tried to get housing benefit but it takes months. When I get a National Insurance number then of course I will claim benefits.

“I came to get out of Italy because there is no jobs and so I came here to find one. I thought it would be better but I’m now in the same situation.”

Another squatter, Luca, revealed how he worked up to 55 hours a week on building sites across London and had never declared he was in the UK since arriving two years ago.

The 29-year-old, also from Italy, said: “I try to find a job again, but it is difficult because the Government doesn’t know me. I have never paid taxes.”

He added: “It [the gallery] was open, we didn’t force our way in.

“It’s legal here, it’s easy. The police here are soft. They talk before making any decision. In other countries the police are really rude and aggressive.”

Islington Council was today criticised for refusing a planning application to turn part of the gallery into a restaurant last year meaning it has lain empty.

Angry local business owners accused the new tenants of “playing the system”.

Senol Deniz, 33, manager at Gallipoli Again café, said: “It doesn’t look nice, it brings the area down, people here pay a lot of money for their premises, why should they get it for free?

“That gallery was lovely and now the building has been taken over. The law is ridiculous.”

Alper Mestan, 27, manager of La Farola Cafe and Bistro, said: “There are no rules and they try to get benefits. They’re not homeless. They have mobile phones.

“They’re just trying to be clever by playing the system. We’re worried their friends will see them come here and then even more will come.”

Islington Council today declined to comment.