Commercial property owners need to be on the alert, as new legislation could potentially make empty commercial properties a target for squatters. From 1st September 2012 squatting in residential buildings became a criminal offence in England and Wales.
Under Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 the offence is now punishable by a maximum prison term of up to 6 months, a maximum £5,000 fine or both. The new legislation will protect residential owners and lawful occupiers, including homeowners and tenants who might have been excluded from their homes by trespassers. It will also protect landlords, second homeowners and local authorities who discover trespassers living in a residential building that they own or control, even if no one was living there at the time the trespassers occupied the building.
Police and other agencies will now be able to take swift and decisive action to deal with residential squatters meaning that owners and lawful occupiers will no longer face time consuming legal battles to reclaim their homes.
First Person Jailed Under the New Law
In September the first person to be jailed under the new law was sentenced to 12 weeks in prison just a few weeks after squatting in residential buildings became a criminal offence. Alex Haigh the defendant was prosecuted for squatting in a London and Quadrant housing association flat in London. Two fellow squatters were also prosecuted. All three were arrested on 2nd September the day after the new squatting law came into force.
Commercial Buildings Remain Unprotected
An unforeseen product of the new legislation is a potential marked increase in squatting in commercial buildings. This remains a civil matter leading to fears that squatters may target vacant commercial buildings in an attempt to avoid criminal prosecution. There is already evidence to show that squatter support groups are providing practical advice on how to do this.
In October 2012 squatters moved into a former bank in the Clifton area of Bristol owned by Lloyds TSB. Police visited the building but left after confirming that there was no damage to the property and since it was a commercial property the occupation was a civil matter. A security company also visited the building but no action was taken to remove the squatters.
Also targeted was The Upper Bell Inn in Kent, a disused public house. In cases where a property has both residential and commercial elements squatter support groups are advising squatters to only occupy those parts of the building that are classed as commercial. If squatters claim not to be living in the residential part of the building then the police are unable to prosecute them under the new law. Squatter support groups have gone as far as to provide legal warnings which squatters can download for both general non-residential buildings and specifically for pubs.
Extra Protection Needed
It is still a criminal offence to force entry into the property so owners of commercial property need to ensure appropriate security measures are in place to deter intruders and protect against unauthorised access. This may include physical security measures such as steel screens, doors, fencing and alarm systems.
Once premises become vacant existing insurance policies may become invalid unless you can prove you are managing the associated risks to the standard required. Insurance companies usually stipulate regular vacant premises inspections are made at the property.
Metro Safety’s Vacant Property Check service can help you meet the requirements of your insurers and demonstrate that your premises are regularly monitored and reported on. We are able to identify and record potential hazards at the property at the frequency specified by your insurers. Our VPC service can include internal and external inspections of the building as well as peripheral areas such as walkways, car parks and yards. In addition to satisfying your insurers this helps to reduce the risk of arson, vandalism and building deterioration.
The key thing that differentiates our service is consistency in the people we send to site. Metro Safety uses the same people week in and week out to inspect your property. Intuitive site knowledge means they can recognise when something has changed.
Problems Evicting Squatters May be Time Consuming and Costly
It may take months to get squatters evicted; often squatters can cause damage to a property and if they resist eviction may leave a trail of devastation in their wake. Robert Brown, General Manager of Metro Building Maintenance Reactive Division talks about the experience one of his clients’ had when squatters took over one of their buildings.
"One of our Managing Agent clients recently contacted us to seek help with an issue they had with squatters at one of their managed properties. The property in question was a seven storey vacant office block on Grays Inn Road, in the heart of London. The property had been empty for 12 months and the ground floor front doors and windows had been boarded over and secured, awaiting demolition and redevelopment. However, 6 months ago, a large group of squatters gained entry to the property by an apparent open rear window.
Our client had gone through all the correct channels but it had still taken them over 5 months to get the approval to evict them.
I’m grateful to Robert and his team for their speedy and professional response in helping us to deal with a difficult situation.
On eviction day, it was assumed it would to be a straightforward eviction with two bailiffs in attendance. However, the squatters ‘fought back’. Items were thrown from top floor windows and the squatters barricaded themselves in. It was deemed too dangerous to continue so the bailiffs left. We were contacted and asked to support the Court’s appointed Sheriffs who were to send in a twelve man team, complete with two dog teams, to carry out a forced eviction.
It was all very last minute. We received a call on Tuesday afternoon, asking if we could provide a team to be on site at 7am on the Wednesday to meet with the Sheriffs.
A team of carpenters, along with the MBM General Manager, met with the Client and Sheriffs on site at 7am. Our carpenters freed-up the entrance and the Sheriffs stormed into action and took over the building. A total of 35 squatters were evicted from the property in less than an hour. Once the Sheriffs were happy the property was empty, they then handed control back to the Client who then instructed us to board-up all doors and windows, front and rear on the basement, ground and first floors. All works were completed and the property secured by early evening.
Whilst on site, we were also asked to help repair and isolate damaged electrical and water supplies to the building. Additional tradesmen were brought in to ensure the work could be completed the same day. Needless to say, our client was very happy, and relieved, to have his building back and secured!"
Our Reactive Maintenance team can help keep your building secure and conduct any vital repairs that may be necessary following forced entry or occupation by squatters.
An emergency hotline is open 24 hours a day 7 days a week. For urgent assistance call 0800 083 9642.
For more details of any of our Vacant Property Services please call 0845 058 9999 and speak to one of our advisors.