For property owners and businesses across the UK, empty property security is a major concern as the numbers of vacant commercial premises continues to surge.
Data revealed following a Freedom of Information request made to UK local councils showed that there were 617,527 empty and unused buildings in the UK up to September 2019. Of these it was estimated that 172,217 of these were commercial premises. Recent factors including Brexit and Covid-10 containment measures will affect these figures dramatically – for the worse unfortunately.
According to a RICS market survey, demand from occupiers for UK commercial property saw an overall decline over Q1 2019. The decline largely stemmed from the retail sector, where 57% of respondents reported a fall in demand. The below diagram published by RICS shows the variance in demand from occupiers going back to 1998.
*credit for the image: RICS market survey
2020 brought no improvement to the commercial property market, in fact, Savills reported Q2 2020 as being the weakest quarter on record for investment activity in the UK commercial property market. Investment volumes in the first half of 2020 were 43% below the five-year average.
With so many commercial properties standing vacant, empty property security is front of mind for many land and business owners during these current times, but to effectively plan for adequate security – it is worth understanding the threats to vacant property.
Key threats impacting empty property security
Leaving commercial properties vacant and unoccupied for periods of time put them at risk as highly attractive targets for squatters, fly-tippers, thieves, vandals, arsonists and even thrill seeking opportunists. The costs to property owners from damages caused, repairs and even legal action can be significant, time consuming and very frustrating. We look at some of these threats in more depth to help define and understand the key risks to vacant property security:
How squatters threaten empty property security
According to Property Reporter a rise has been recorded in commercial building squatters in cities across the UK. Since anti-squatting laws made it a criminal offence in 2012 for squatters to occupy residential buildings, empty commercial buildings have become more of a target for squatters, costing owners thousands of pounds in damage and legal fees.
Squatting in a non-residential building is classed as a civil offence, putting the onus on the building owner to pursue the offender, resulting in heavy costs that often run to the tens of thousands to cover repairs, rubbish removal, legal fees and bailiffs.
A Director of the civil enforcement company, Burlington Group, commented, “Squatting is still a huge problem – there are more trespass claims coming through at the moment than I have seen ever before in my 30-year career.”
Many squatters know the law and make it hard for property owners to get them removed, often involving costly and lengthy claims at County Court and enforcement then being transferred to High Court.
The proactive prevention of squatters gaining access to commercial properties far outweighs the potential costs and frustration in removing them and cleaning up afterwards.
Surge in Fly-Tipping incidents impacts empty property security
Fly-tipping or the illegal dumping of liquid or solid waste has soared during lockdown by 300% according to Real Insurance Group. With many commercial buildings temporarily unoccupied being temporarily closed due to the pandemic, rubbish is being dumped on industrial estates, as well as agricultural land and even car parks.
Vacant land and unoccupied commercial properties pose an easy option for fly-tippers which has seen an surge, not just in recent months, but over the past few years according to a recent House of Commons briefing report (28 April 2020).
In fact, in 2018/19 local authorities in England dealt with over 1 million fly-tipping incidents demonstrating a surge in fly-tipping incidents. Clearance and disposal of fly-tipping cost local authorities £12.9 million in 2018/19. There were 499,000 actions carried out against fly-tippers in 2018/19 with only 22,397 prosecution actions costing in excess £1million.
Source: Defra, Fly-tipping statistics for England, 2018/19, 7 November 2019, figure 1.1
The briefing report acknowledges that fly-tipping on private land is thought to be a major problem, but Defra outlines that neither the local authority nor the Environment Agency is under any legal obligation to remove waste from private land.
On private land it is the responsibility of the landowner to remove fly-tipped waste and dispose of it legally. Landowners should ensure that they use an authorised waste carrier to remove the fly-tipped waste. For further information see GOV.UK guidance on Fly-tipping on private land:landowner responsibilities. This guidance sets out the limited circumstances in which the Environment Agency will remove the waste.
Concern has been raised about the costs involved to private landowners of clearing fly-tipped waste from their land and several campaigns have been launched calling for change in this area, but until that happens fly-tipping on vacant land and unoccupied commercial premises is a problem that can cost land and property owners significantly in time and expense.
Fly-tipping is a criminal offence punishable by a fine of up to £50,000 or 12 months imprisonment if convicted in a Magistrates’ Court. The offence can attract an unlimited fine and up to 5 years imprisonment if convicted in a Crown Court, but catching the culprits is not easy – it is far better to deter them in the first instance with proactive security measures being employed.
Threats to empty property security from burglary, vandalism and malicious damage
Burglary, vandalism and malicious damage is costing UK businesses a fortune. It is estimated that 1 in 5 businesses will be negatively affected by crime and vacant or unoccupied commercial premises are particularly attractive – making security a crucial consideration to minimise loss, damage and danger from opportunists, anti-social behaviour and indeed criminal gangs.
Our ‘Who is watching your business?” article outlined a recent study by leading insurer RSA showing that petty theft, vandalism and malicious damage is costing businesses £9.8 billion a year, costing individual businesses anything between £20,000 and £66,000 each per annum.
The latest crime figures show that there were just under a million criminal damage & arson offences reported to police and a staggering 356,017 burglary offences in 2019/20. One important factor too for vacant property owners is the spiralling trend in metal thefts which are driving vacant property burglaries.
The ONS revealed that 16,552 incidents of general metal theft were recorded across England and Wales between 2017-2018, up 25 per cent on the previous year’s figure.
The theft of scrap metal is one of the fastest growing crimes in the UK. Items composed of lead, copper, nickel, scrap iron, stainless steel and aluminium have become preferred targets of opportunistic thieves looking to make some quick cash, as well as for organised crime groups operating in this sector.
3. Ensure Adequate Lighting
When used in conjunction with CCTV, lighting becomes a powerful tool for security operators to quickly identify and act upon illegal or dangerous activity. Especially when that security lighting is IR. Without security lighting, CCTV during night time hours becomes a tricky game of “spot the intruder”. We have published an article to help with lighting considerations for your site:
4. Monitored Alarm System
Fire & intruder alarms present at an empty property should be regularly tested and maintained to ensure they are working. Alarm monitoring is a key service that gives peace of mind 24/7 that if the worst should happen at your empty property, trained security monitoring professionals can respond quickly and escalate the situation to relevant emergency services. It is worth noting that current UK fire alarm regulations state that all business premises must have ‘an appropriate fire detection system’ – especially if the property is vacant.
5. Access Control
Controlling access to your vacant property is essential. This may be a simple as ensuring windows and doors are locked and secure, but the harder it is for unauthorised intruders to gain access the better. It is advisable to board up windows or install steel shutters were possible and even permanently block up letterboxes. Locks and access codes should be changed to ensure only authorised persons can gain access.
In some circumstances, where it is necessary for various people to access the vacant property, such as trades or letting agents etc., remote access control can be employed to give peace of mind that only authorised access to the site is possible, without the need for keyholders to be in attendance or keys being shared.
6. Perimeter fencing & barriers
Ensuring good perimeter security is a basic necessity to deter easy access to an empty property by opportunists. The type of perimeter security will vary depending on the type and locations of the empty property. This can range from wooden hoardings like those used on construction sites to wire mesh, palisades or high specialised security perimeter fencing. It is also advisable to display warning signs as a powerful visual deterrent around the perimeter of the property.
Where there may be open access, such as entrances to car parks for example, barriers are good idea. These can be anything from concrete blocks to water filled containers, but it is important to stop to deter fly-tipping and unauthorised vehicle access to the property.
7. Ensure regular checks and maintenance
It is important to visit the empty property regularly to ensure there are no signs of entry, damage or theft. In addition, enlisting the support of neighbours to keep an eye on the property can be worthwhile too. Regular maintenance checks on fencing, security equipment is essential to ensure your empty property security is optimised and working.
Looking out for graffiti, rubbish or waste present on the property is crucial as this can show signs that the property is vulnerable to trespass. Prompt removal of these is key to minimising the risk of fire, arson and criminal damage.
8. Isolate non-essential services
To minimise risks such as water damage and fire from gas supply, it is advised that all non-essential services are isolated. Remember to consider what services may be required however, for example for security lighting, alarms or CCTV for example.
9. Removal of equipment, fittings & fixtures
Whilst many empty properties may be void of equipment like tools or furniture – equipment such as radiators or sinks may be valuable to metal thieves. Where possible these should be removed to reduce this temptation. Lead work such as guttering, pipes or roofing can be coated with silver paint which vastly reduces their metal resale value.
Using anti-climb paint on equipment and metal work to stop both thieves and thrill seeking trespassers from gaining access to your site. This paint is non-drying and marks clothes and skin. (This should only be applied above 2.4 m from the ground and must be clearly signposted to comply with the Occupiers Liability Act 1984)
10. Using a forensic solution
Forensic solutions, such as SmartWater or SelectaDNA (a Crimestoppers supported product) can be used to security mark your property which may provide a deterrent to would be thieves as well as aiding the recovery of stolen equipment or goods.
It is not easy protecting empty properties from trespass, theft and criminal damage, but taking the time to plan the best security measures to employ for your empty property will pay dividends and give you peace of mind that you have done everything possible to secure your site. We hope the above article has given you some insight into what to protect your site against and how.