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Survey shows squatting rise

02 January 2013

Facilities managers are predicting a sharp increase in squatting in empty commercial buildings, following the law change in September last year which saw squatting in residential properties become a criminal offence.

That’s according to a recent survey of facilities professionals by SitexOrbis. Some 30 per cent of the 156 FM professionals who responded expect an increase in squatters targeting their properties, with 27 per cent saying that they had been targeted by squatters over the past two years. London (37%), the south-east (22%) and the Midlands (19%) are the most targeted areas by squatters, but many also expressed concern about the threat of Travellers and Gypsies on their sites.

CCTV (57%) and mains alarms (55%) were the most popular security solutions that respondents are using or planning to use to protect their properties against squatters. Other options included manned guarding (43%); perimeter fencing (38%); warning signs (37%); security boards or screens (33%); battery alarms (21%); battery cameras (8%); temporary live-in caretakers (8%); and dog patrols (8%).

Mark Cosh, SitexOrbis director, argued that with The Advisory Service for Squatters estimating that there are now 22,000 squatters in England and Wales, and an estimated five squatters per property, more than 4,000 commercial properties are needed to accommodate those currently in residential buildings. “It is now more important than ever that owners and managers of vacant property review and where necessary upgrade their security.”

SitexOrbis would like to thank to all those who took part with this valuable research, which took place in October 2012, and to congratulate Robert Coles from Lambert Smith Hampton, whose name was randomly selected from the list of respondents to win an iPad 2.

From 1 September 2012, through Section 144 of the amended Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, squatting has been criminalised for residential buildings (including social housing properties). People convicted under the act can be imprisoned for up to 51 weeks, or fined up to £5,000, or both. But the act does not include an offence for squatting in a commercial or non-residential building and this will remain a civil offence.

In response SitexOrbis has issued a four-step guide to keeping your vacant property secure:

? Conduct a risk assessment and take precautions
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. Property owners may be liable if a squatter or intruder injures himself within the property so it needs to comply with health and safety legislation – if a property owner can prove that he took reasonable precautions to prevent intruders, he may be protected.

? 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. Sealing up the letterbox ensures that a pile of post doesn’t become fuel for an arsonist. Keep the building and its surrounding clean and tidy and if waste is dumped or the area is targeted by graffiti artists, clean up the damage quickly to prevent the problem escalating.

? 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 portable alarms, which link through to a 24/7 monitoring centre, allow the monitoring centre to monitor what is happening and call the police where necessary. Protect outside areas with perimeter fencing, concrete blocks on driveways and, for determined squatters, videofied alarms which captures short video footages on detecting intrusions. 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.

In addition keep a track of the entry/exit details to the premises. Catching and dealing with a break-in is essential to prevent squatters gaining access. Although the initial break-in is, in theory, a criminal matter, in reality the Police will treat it as a civil offence and will not intervene with squatters until the law changes. Make regular visits to the property to inspect it, and make sure these visits provide an audit trail, such as by using a time and date-stamped camera and/ or hand-held computer, in case there is an insurance claim later on. Demonstrating to potential intruders or squatters that you are serious about security means they are likely to move on to an easier target. It also reassures neighbours that the property is being well-looked after while it is empty.

? 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.

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