Last reviewed 8 December 2014
Despite signs of recovery in the economy, it is estimated that 10–15% of all commercial properties, including offices and industrial sites, remain empty in the UK.
Without adequate protection these properties can be subject to misuse and either deliberate or unintentional damage. For the owner and/or organisation responsible for managing these properties, this can create legal and business-related risks.
As such, empty properties require suitable management to ensure that the threats are identified and assessed, so that appropriate precautions can be developed and implemented to ensure adequate protection.
Threats and responsibilities
There are many reasons why a property may be empty, including end of lease with tenants, or decanting for disposal/demolition or renovation/refurbishment etc. Empty commercial properties can provoke unwanted attention for the purpose of:
theft from the property of assets, eg fixture and fittings, structural elements
unauthorised occupation from squatters or illegal traders
vandalism and/or arson attacks
trespass, eg by children using the property as a playground, or by drug dealers.
As well as deliberate misuse, properties can be subject to unintentional harm through the invasion of vegetation, infestation from wildlife, decay of structural elements, for example due to rain coming in, or damage from broken utilities.
For the property owner/managing agent these threats can pose both legal and financial burdens.
Under the Occupiers Liability Acts 1957 and 1984 an occupier owes a duty of care to all authorised visitors and also to unauthorised visitors, ie trespassers. Reasonable care must be taken to see that trespassers do not suffer injury while on the premises from dangers present, or from things done or omitted.
It should also be borne in mind that health and safety legislation will apply to any employees and contractors required to enter the premises for work purposes.
Where empty properties are subject to either deliberate or unintentional damage, this can impose increased financial burdens, for example through repair and replacement of assets (which may not be covered by insurance) and lost revenue due to the property potentially being uninhabitable.
There can also be increased legal costs, for example due to the eviction of squatters while the reputation of the owner/managing agent with neighbouring organisations must also be considered.
When a building becomes empty and occupancy is not imminent, it is necessary to manage the shutdown in an orderly and structured fashion.
Assessing the risk
Risk assessing will play an important element in the overall managed shutdown procedures and identification of protective measures. There may be many aspects of risk that require assessment, including:
fire risk assessments to take account of arson risks in particular
security risk assessment for unwanted access issues
premises risk assessment to take account of unintentional damage issues.
There can be many elements to consider when undertaking the risk assessments but security issues, in particular, will be of most importance as these will have a key influence on the protective arrangements.
Factors to take into account may include the history of any unwanted events while the property was occupied (eg break-ins, vandalism, arson attacks), its location, current or proposed future use and current security measures.
When considering the location of the premises, thought should be given to the following.
Is it situated in or close to premises that could attract large numbers of people, particularly young people (such as sports venues, music venues and large housing estates)?
Is it in a quiet, remote location away from emergency services and the general public (this could make unauthorised intrusion/arson more likely)?
Is it located in an area that has had a high level of crime/arson attacks in recent years (help may be sought from the police and fire service)?
Do surrounding premises carry a high risk of crime/arson that may impact on the unoccupied premises?
The assessment should also identify whether there is anything about the organisation that owns the property or the property itself that might attract unwanted attention. This could include:
the organisational activities, which may attract the attention of pressure groups, activists
the assets within the building, which that may attract either organised or opportunistic theft attempts
the structure itself, which that may have materials that could be of worth (such as lead, copper and other metals).
As part of the risk assessment, the current security measures for protecting the perimeter and the building itself should be given consideration and these will remain operational once the property is vacated. The same principle will also apply to other protective systems such as fire detection systems and fixed fire-fighting systems.
The impact of overgrown vegetation should not be overlooked. Trees and climbing plants, for example can, if uncultivated, impact on the structural elements of the property while infestations of animals cause health issues for those entering the property.
Strategies and precautions
The risk assessment process will assist in developing the most effective strategy to secure the property. However, this may not necessarily involve full closure and securing of the property.
The Fire Protection Association/RISC Authority Code of Practice for the protection of empty buildings states that “where buildings look likely to remain empty for lengthy periods, it can be useful to grant a temporary licence for a short-term let, particularly as use of a building is one of the best precautions against the problems that can beset empty buildings.”
Another option, particularly if the property is to remain empty for a short period of time is to maintain the property as if it was still occupied. This would very much be a “managed solution” that is more cost-effective than total closure although it may require additional security measures to be adopted, continued care and maintenance arrangements for grounds/property, and could also be resource intensive in terms of manpower.
The final option is to “put the property to sleep”, which happens when security measures are perhaps the most important aspect to consider. This is based on the principles of:
target hardening through the installation of physical security measures on the perimeter
target removal, ie the removal of valuable assets
reducing target value by reducing the amount of material and substances available
removal of the means of access to the property through protective measures (eg boarding up windows)
surveillance of the property through remote electronic systems (eg CCTV, sensors) and security guard services
management of the environment through continued care and maintenance, eg removal of graffiti.
The premise can be protected against unintentional damage by continuing to monitor them for signs of structural decay/damage. Decisions will also have to be taken as to what utilities and services should remain operational and how often these need to be monitored. Pest control and the cultivation of vegetation should also be built into any closure programme.
Finally, the options chosen should be discussed with the organisation’s insurers as this may impact on current insurance coverage and any increase in premiums, as some insurers may stipulate the controls they require to have in place to protect empty properties.
Code of Practice for the Protection of Empty Buildings: Fire Safety and Security, Fire Protection Association, available at www.community-safety.info
Good Practice Guide to Vacant Property Management, British Institute of Facilities Management, www.bifm.org.uk
S4 — The Selection and Use of Electronic Security Systems in Empty Buildings, RISC Authority, available at www.riscauthority.co.uk
Vacant Historic Buildings — An Owner’s Guide to Temporary Uses, Maintenance and Mothballing, English Heritage, available at www.english-heritage.org.uk