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Squatting to become less civil

30 September 2011

A new consultation document (that is still open to contributions until October 6th 2011) could lead to squatting being a criminal offence. Mark Cosh looks at the proposals and the consequences

IN JULY, THE MINISTRY OF JUSTICE published long awaited proposals to change squatting from a civil to a criminal offence. This will make it easier for commercial property landlords to evict the estimated 20,000 squatters in the UK as the police can be involved at an early stage.
Squatting is not a criminal offence currently because trespassing is not a crime in English and Welsh law (although it is a level 1 offence in Scotland with a fine not exceeding £200 and a penalty for non-payment of 21 days in prison).
The notion of ‘squatters’ rights’ comes from section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, which makes it an offence to use violence or threats of violence to gain access to premises when there is someone on the premises who is opposed to such entry. It was aimed at preventing unscrupulous landlords from using violence or intimidation to evict legitimate tenants. But it has also been used by squatters to oppose violent entry on the part of the property owner.
Currently property owners have to go through the process of obtaining eviction through the civil law process which takes considerably longer.
In the consultation document ‘Options for dealing with Squatting’, the government puts forward for discussion a number of plans to better protect home and business owners including:
● Creating a new offence specifically targeted at trespassers who occupy other people's buildings without permission, thereby criminalising the act of squatting.
● Amending section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 so that a squatter who refuses to leave nonresidential property when requested to do so by the property owner would be guilty of an offence (it is already an offence for a squatter to refuse to leave residential property when required to do so by a displaced residential occupier or protected intending occupier of the property).
● Amending section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 so that the offence of using or threatening violence to secure entry to a property against the will of the people inside does not apply to wider range of property owners seeking to enter properties which have been occupied by squatters. (The offence already does not apply to displaced residential occupiers and protected intending occupiers).
● Working with the enforcement authorities to improve enforcement of existing offences commonly committed by squatters such as criminal damage or burglary.
● Do nothing, but continue with existing criminal and civil law mechanisms.
The consultation paper asks for views on a range options for overhauling outdated laws, some of which date back to the 1970s. The deadline for comments is 6 October 2011.
The proposals follow an Early Day Motion in March from Brighton and Hove MP Mike Weatherley whose own constituency suffers from the problem of squatters in both commercial and residential buildings. In the past 20 months, there have been 10 instances of squatting in council owned properties in Brighton and Hove, which has cost more than £30,000 in legal bills alone.
But squatting is not the only problem facing property owners with empty buildings in their portfolio. Property managers have seen a dramatic increase in theft of copper and lead from properties over the past year, thanks to a 30 per cent increase in its scrap value.
These thefts not only cause costly damage to property but have resulted in life-threatening situations. In March an explosion in an empty flat in a three-storey Liverpool Housing Trust property in Runcorn was blamed on copper piping being stolen. The theft of cables near Woking station in Surrey last month led to busy commuter trains grounding to a halt, while severe train delays and a fire in a signal box was the result from theft of cables near Colchester in August.
The substantial sums it costs to replace the stolen metal is only half of the story. Lost lead from a building’s roof can cause severe leaks resulting in the cost of replastering and redecorating; property contents can also be damaged.
Despite the damage caused by metal thieves, a landlord’s statutory obligations remain, even when a property is vacant – empty buildings are covered under the Defective Premises Act and Occupiers Liability Act – and failure can prove costly. One trespasser injured in a vacant commercial property received £600,000 in compensation. Someone falling off a roof while attempting to steal lead or someone injured when trying to remove stolen pipes could end up suing your organisation.
Empty buildings are also vulnerable to break-ins, vanadalism, fly-tipping and graffiti. The Metropolitan Police recently revealed that burglaries and robberies are on the rise in London after years of falling crime. In May 2011, compared to the same month last year house burglaries jumped by 18.5% and nonresidential burglaries by nearly 9%, with a total of 8,250 burglary offences being reported.
All of which means that keeping empty buildings secure and preventing intruders, squatters and break-ins is cheaper and easier than dealing with problems after they occur. Facilities managers with vacant properties, even when they’re only going to be empty for a short time, should consider the following:
Conduct a risk assessment
Carry out a risk assessment looking at both how squatters or intruders could access the property and other potential sources of damage. Disconnect services to the property to prevent water damage or fire risk and check protective installations such as fire detection and alarm systems.
Keeping up appearances
Don’t advertise the fact that the property is vacant. A pile of post by the front door, a clear view into an empty space, unkempt external areas including graffiti, fly-tipping and even long grass and untidy planting, together with broken windows all show potential squatters that the property is unoccupied.
Secure the premises
Make sure you are complying with your insurer’s requirements and that the premises are adequately protected. This could mean everything from putting up net curtains in a council house to create the appearance of occupancy, to installing demountable steel screens to prevent intruders. Wireless alarms, which link through to a 24/7 monitoring centre, allow the monitoring centre to watch what is happening and call the police where necessary.
Protect outside areas with perimeter fencing, concrete blocks on driveways and, for determined squatters, dog patrols. Security must be flexible – heightened security when a property becomes vacant or after an incident, may be enough to put off further incidences. It can then be scaled back once the threat has reduced.
Inform your insurer
If you know a property in your portfolio is going to become vacant, tell your insurance firm so that you are covered in the event of an intrusion. Regular inspections with a full audit trail are often necessary to remain compliant with insurance requirements and health and safety regulations.
If the worst happens, and squatters get into one of your properties,take legal advice straight away. Although squatting remains a civil issue until the law change, there are several legal avenues to explore, the most common of which is a Possession Order. The police can also arrest squatters if an offence has been committed – for example, if squatters in a shop have drilled into walls (criminal damage) or used the utilities (theft). If the squatters are excessively noisy or there is evidence of fly-tipping, property owners can report it to the local authority who may be able to take appropriate enforcement action under the Environmental Protection Act 1990.
A property owner can also seek an interim possession order from the courts within a few days. It requires a squatter to vacate premises within 24 hours of receiving the order. If they do not they are committing a criminal offence and may be arrested. Last year 360 applications for interim possession orders were made in the civil courts. However, an interim possession order does not give the property owner final possession of the property. The owner must make an application for possession when applying for an interim possession order. Advice on applying for an interim possession order can be viewed on the HM Courts and Tribunals Service website at www.hmcourts-service.gov.uk
Mark Cosh is European director at vacant property management specialists SitexOrbis


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