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Squat comment

A new law is about to come into force, making squatting a criminal offence. From September 1, 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). Under the act, a person commits an offence if they are in a residential building as a trespasser having entered it as a trespasser; the person knows or ought to know that he is a trespasser, and the person is living in the building or intends to live there for any period. But the offence is not committed if the person is holding over after the end of a lease or licence (even if the person leaves and re-enters the building). 

 

 

For the purposes of the act, a building includes any structure or part of a structure (including a temporary or moveable structure), and a building is “residential” if it is designed or adapted, before the time of entry, for use as a place to live. Even if people have the permission of a trespasser, this does not mean that they themselves cannot be treated as a trespasser. 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. 

 

Mark Cosh, director of vacant property protection contractor SitexOrbis, said: “We welcome the new legislation which will help social housing landlords to involve the police at an early stage and evict squatters, freeing up social housing properties to those most in need on council waiting lists. But as a result of the new law, commercial properties are likely to become an even greater target for squatters and therefore commercial property owners, managers and occupiers must ensure that their properties are properly protected and vacant buildings are not left to become derelict and a target for squatters.” 

 

In response the company 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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