THERE'S nothing like a few squatters to make an absentee landlord sit up and pay attention.

For something like 20 years, the White Swan Hotel in Piccadilly has stood empty. For such an important building in the heart of York to have remained unused for so long is unacceptable.

The hotel's shadowy and elusive owners have done just enough down the years to meet their minimum legal requirements to maintain the building. Just enough, and no more.

Yet the moment a few squatters appear on the scene, promising to clean it up and turn it into a massive arts project, those same owners move with the speed of greased lightning.

Before the squatters even have the chance to utter the words "'peace hotel", Bircham Dyson Bell, the lawyers acting on the owners' behalf, had begun legal action to get them evicted.

What for?, you may ask. So that the once-proud hotel can stand empty for another 20 years?

Somebody once described the British as a nation of shopkeepers. Even more than that, we are a nation of property owners. To the respectable, middle-of-the-road British, property is sacrosanct: a source of stability, security, order and pride.

So squatters, who flout the rules of property ownership with such abandon, are always going to have trouble winning much sympathy.

But there is something wonderfully refreshing about the people who have taken over at The White Swan, renaming it the Rainbow Peace Hotel and offering to open it up to the public and turn it into an arts project to replace the York Arts Centre in Micklegate which closed down three years ago.

Be honest, can you think of a better use for this beautiful old building?

Even such pillars of the community as Steve Galloway and Dave Merrett, respectively Liberal Democrat and Labour rivals for leadership of the city council in the upcoming council elections, couldn't help showing a glimmer of sympathy for the squatters this time.

Coun Merrett admitted the owners of the hotel had in the past been 'uncooperative' when the council tried to deal with them. Coun Galloway went further. Prefacing his comments with the obligatory "we don't condone squatting other than as an occasional way of making a point", he added: "In this case, we think the point is well made. This is the kind of property which should be brought into use."

Many in York will agree. The inevitable reality is that, before long, the due process of law will have ground on its way and the squatters will have been evicted. But until then, all power to their elbow. And let's hope their example can finally shame the real owners into doing something with this fine old hotel at last. An arts centre would do nicely, thank you.

So, the nation's favourite supersonic airliner could soon be winging it's way to York, eh? The Yorkshire Air Museum at Elvington may be the only museum in the country that could accommodate Concorde, because of its long runway.

It would be wonderful if the world's most famous airliner, which is to be grounded after nearly 30 years of supersonic travel, could make its final home here.

It does make you think, though. If the Elvington runway is good enough and long enough to accommodate Concorde what else could it be used for?

A York International Airport, perhaps?

In Chris Titley's absense, his column this week was written by Stephen Lewis.

Updated: 10:43 Wednesday, April 23, 2003