Last reviewed 18 April 2020

An empty property can quite easily go from being an asset to a liability as such buildings are prime targets for anti-social behaviour. Laura King reviews some of the latest statistics and considers the options for protecting vacant sites from unwanted visitors.

What are the risks?

Lockdown saw the temporary closure of most businesses, with many more buildings than usual standing empty. Most owners of these buildings will be all too aware of the cost and damage that can be caused to empty properties, especially from people. From vandalism, theft and arson, to urban exploration and squatting, trespassers can be a significant source of worry when trying to manage an empty building.

Many of these problems were, unfortunately, on the rise before the current pandemic, and presumably will be an issue after it. For example, after an encouraging sharp decline in reports of scrap metal theft following the introduction of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act, the crime is once again thought to be on the up. Although nowhere near the staggering 62,000 instances recorded in 2012/13, official figures from England and Wales showed that between 2016/17 and 2017/18 the number of reported incidents rose by 25% from 13,242 to 16,552.

Similarly, the number of deliberate fires attended by the fire and rescue services has increased. Although empty properties are not teased out of these figures, the Arson Prevention Forum’s 2017 State of the Nation report states that deliberate fires in buildings (including commercial buildings and offices) has increased by 19% from 2014 to 2017. Worryingly, not only have the numbers increased, the costs have too. According to the organisation, the average commercial fire insurance claim was £25,544 — a 165.4% increase since 2004.

Urban exploring, urbex, or place hacking, is also thought to be increasing in popularity mainly due to its alluring presence on social media, where urban explorers showcase photos and videos of unusual and forgotten places. Although strict codes of conduct exist within explorer communities — namely that those entering derelict buildings should “take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints” — it’s a dangerous pastime (there are a number of instances where urban explorers have died) and the establishment of a route into a building can in itself mean that it becomes a target for criminal damage. Furthermore, with a growing number of followers, it is inevitable that these rules, however well-intentioned, will not be adhered to by many.

Squatting too is becoming an increasing concern. In the 2015 vacant property survey carried out by the British Institute of Facilities Management (BIFM) and Orbis, 16% of facilities and property managers reported an increase in commercial squatting, compared to an increase of just 7% for residential buildings.

Responsibility for trespassers

Of particular concern to owners of vacant properties is public liability. Under the Occupiers Liability Act 1984, a building owner has a duty of care to people on its premises, whether they should be there or not. This duty is activated if he/she is aware of a danger, could reasonably be expected to offer protection against the danger, and could reasonably assume that someone — including a trespasser — might come into the vicinity of that danger.

Although the law is relatively straightforward, it can cause problems when children are involved. For example, whereas it might be argued that an adult knows that they are somewhere potentially dangerous, and can read and understand any safety signs, the same cannot be assumed for children. In the words of Lord Hoffman, when reviewing a case of a 14-year-old boy that went to appeal to the House of Lords: “it has been repeatedly said in cases about children that their ingenuity in finding unexpected ways of doing mischief to themselves and others should never be underestimated” (Jolley v Sutton Borough Council, 2000).

What are the solutions?

Clearly, a coherent and robust solution needs to be adopted to protect the asset owner as well as those entering the property. Valid insurance will cover empty properties, so it is important to make sure that your insurance company is aware that the building is vacant. There might be some requirements to remain compliant with the policy — regular inspections, for example — and so it is important to fully understand the implications of these and keep a comprehensive audit trail.

Some options for deterring people from entering empty buildings include the following.

Risk assessment and shut-down

When conducting a risk assessment, consider how people might gain access and whether there are any aspects of the building that would make it prone to trespass, criminal damage or theft. Where these risks are found, consider how best to mitigate them.

To help with the risk assessment, it is worth checking if any nearby empty properties suffer from problems, and to speak with the local police to find out if there are any hotspot areas for trouble. Many urban explorers will seek out the unusual or historical, so if you have a particularly interesting building, extra care might need to be taken.

To reduce risks in the first instance, make sure that you follow a good shut-down procedure. For example:

  • remove all material and machinery from the building and grounds to deter arson or theft

  • cut back vegetation to make it harder for trespassers to gain access without being seen

  • disconnect all services that are not essential for fire-fighting or security to make it hard for unauthorised reconnection.

Make sure the property is secure

Critically, the building must be as secure as possible. This does not just include windows and doors, consider any ways to enter the building, however unlikely. Other ways to improve security might be through the use of security patrols, CCTV or intruder alarm systems.

Conduct regular property checks

Once secure, make sure that the building is maintained in a good state of repair and that there are regular checks of both the interior and exterior. Keeping the building looking tidy will make it a less obvious target for would-be intruders, and dealing with signs of vandalism or unauthorised entry quickly is key to nipping any problems in the bud. It’s a well-known concept (the broken windows theory) that visible signs of crime and anti-social behaviour will encourage further misbehaviour. Keeping a close eye on vacant properties will help halt this cycle of decline.

Remember that any employees conducting regular checks or security personnel accessing the site are covered by the employer’s duties under health and safety legislation. This means that a proper risk assessment will also need to be undertaken including hazards such as unsafe structures, risks from pigeon droppings or Weil’s disease, and potential for contact with drug paraphernalia, etc.

Avoid vacancy completely

This, obviously, is not necessarily an option in the current situation. However, generally, this could be achieved by using a reputable property guardian company or by identifying a community use. For example, the increase in numbers of boarded-up shops on high streets in the UK has led to the promotion of “meanwhile use” that allows the use of properties for a limited time for local communities. The idea is growing momentum and a pilot scheme called Open Space has been launched to match landlords with empty properties with community groups looking for space.

Conclusion

Empty properties can quickly become a liability if not properly managed. Of particular concern is the issue of public liability and a duty of care towards anyone — whether invited or not — accessing the building. Measures to properly protect empty buildings should be put in place to avoid trespass wherever possible. Measures include:

  • avoiding buildings becoming empty in the first place

  • conducting a risk assessment and following proper shut-down procedures

  • good site security

  • regular checks of the building and maintenance.