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True cost of squatting

Just before the New Year commercial squatting made headlines when activists travelled from all across London to take up residence in the former Royal Mint. The grade II listed Johnson Smirke building, built in 1807, was transformed as banners were draped from the windows, reading slogans about climate change and homelessness. Subsequently, the media has been awash with news stories outlining concerns around rising property prices, increased demands for housing, fears of unemployment and changes to the benefits system. Between the politically charged protests and the financially fuelled UK property crisis, squatting has now risen to higher proportions and become costlier than ever

In 2012, squatting was made a criminal offence following government concerns ‘about the serious direct financial and emotional impact squatting can have on the owner and occupiers of property’. Despite this, however, squatting in non-residential buildings is still not a criminal offence under current law.

Following the changes in the law, a property litigation partner at CRS (Charles Russell Speechlys) made a report to the Financial Times claiming that there had been a 100 per cent rise in the number of instructions relating to commercial property squatting. Insurance groups confirm that claims as a result of squatters have increased in recent years and in some cases claims for more than £1 million have been made. Commercial premises are becoming the primary targets of squatters as they are a ‘safer’ alternative, leading to property managers now needing to re-evaluate the security solutions being implemented on their portfolios or risk huge financial costs.

It is estimated that the number of people squatting in the UK has increased from 9,500 in 1995 to around 20 to 50 thousand today. Figures from a recent BIFM (British Institute of Facilities Management) survey show that 16 per cent of respondents were experiencing an increase in commercial squatting. Unsurprisingly, according to property managers the highest rate of commercial squatting is in London (83 per cent), followed by the South East (78 per cent), Wales and the North West (75 per cent), and the Midlands (73 per cent).

Evicting squatters in commercial properties is not easy in England and Wales, and may involve a protracted county court process. Squatting in these buildings is only a civil offence and, as a result, the police can only become involved if another crime, such as breaking and entering, has occurred. Squatters can be arrested if another offence is committed, this can include criminal damage caused by drilling holes, for example; or theft if anything is removed from the property, like fixtures and fittings. Furthermore, under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, local authorities can take action if squatters fly-tip or create excessive noise.

In 2015, around 40 alleged squatters were removed from a Leytonstone branch of a London supermarket chain; it was thought that they had been using the building for residential purposes for over a year. Considering the amount of damage that had occurred and the ad hoc alterations to the electricity, the estimated costs to the landlord would have been substantial; all of which could have been avoided had the space been properly secured to prevent anyone from entering in the first place.

In the more recent case of the squatters in the former Royal Mint, a court ruling ordered the activists to leave the premises by New Year’s Eve. The ruling came after concerns were raised that an illegal rave was planned to take place in the £75 million building. The estimated security costs, had the rave managed to go ahead, were thought to be in excess of £100,000.

The best method when dealing with the issue of squatting is to take a proactive approach and remove the risk of it happening in the first place with a bespoke vacant property solution. To help ensure your empty property is safe from intruders some key considerations are:

1. Carry out a risk assessment looking at how squatters could access the property and what damage or injury could be caused. If a squatter or intruder is injured within the property, the owners may be liable.

2. Check the compliance of protective installations such as fire detection and alarm systems, and disconnect services to the property to prevent water or fire damage.

3. Maintain the building to give it the appearance of being occupied. Unkempt exteriors, damaged windows and empty spaces are a clear indicator that a property is vacant.

4. Place property guardians to live within the property.

5. Physically secure the building against break-ins. Boarding up a property with demountable steel screens may look unappealing, but they are an effective way of preventing squatters from entering a property in the first place.

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Empty homes spike in London commuter belt

Sam and Rachael Kamau revamped a once-dilapidated four-bedroom terrace they bought for £1 under a scheme to bring empty homes into use.

London’s commuter belt has seen a spike in the number of homes left long-term empty despite a downward trend across the UK since 2010.

Fourteen of 20 local authorities that saw the largest percentage increases in vacant homes from 2015 to 2016 are in the South East, analysis shows.

“Buy-to-leave” investors were active in those areas, experts said.

The government gave councils new powers to charge a 100% council tax premium on empty homes in Wednesday’s budget.

From 2010 to 2016, the number of long-term empty homes – defined as unfurnished and unoccupied for more than six months – fell from around 300,000 to 200,000.

However, analysing official data from the Department for Communities and Local Government, the BBC‘s Shared Data Unit found wide regional variations.

Jeremy Leaf, north London estate agent and a former Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors residential chairman, said there was evidence of the “buy-to-leave” phenomenon in the commuter belt. This sees investors leave property empty while the land’s value increases.

He said: “Buy-to-leave generates considerable negative publicity, but it constitutes a relatively small part of our ‘broken’ housing market.

“It is often forgotten that many of the foreign investors in the firing line for leaving these homes empty are the very people helping to finance developments, which include many affordable units and which may not otherwise be built.”

Property agent Henry Pryor said: “For those investors who are only interested in capital appreciation, rather than rental yield, the South East is all the more attractive.”

“The only place where it makes sense is where there is rapidly-increasing land value and that’s happening more than anywhere else in London and the South East because the sheer amount of demand is outstripping supply,” said Dave Smith, of the National Housing Federation.

In 2016 one in 10 English councils had recorded the highest number of long-term empty properties per square kilometre for five years.

What is being done?

Since April 2013 English councils have had powers to charge an extra 50% council tax premium for homes that have been empty for two years or longer. The November 2017 Budget allowed councils to double council tax on empty homes.

Helen Williams, from the Empty Homes charity, said the announcement “recognised the importance of taking action, however it is unlikely to be a sufficient enough deterrent for some wealthy investor buyers”.

She said: “A more thorough review of what would stop people from buying properties to leave empty, or hardly ever used, is needed.

“The announcement also did not address the blight of the high level of empty homes in lower house price neighbourhoods, often linked to the poor standard of housing in those places.”

Mr Pryor said: “For wealthy individuals able to have the luxury of keeping these homes will see the extra premium as the cost of doing business in the UK, not really a tax. For them it’s pocket change.”

“Housing in this country has become a commodity and an investment rather than a basic necessity. Where we have landlords incentivised to provide housing [like housing associations] we have lower rates of empty homes and we can chip away at this phenomenon,” said Mr Smith.

“We bought our house for £1”

Councils in Stoke-on-Trent and in Liverpool have sold former property for £1.

Nurses Sam and Rachael Kamau had previously not been able to buy their own property before they qualified for Liverpool’s scheme, under which they have promised not to sell for five years.

Mother-of-two Mrs Kamau said: “We’d been renting for a long, long time and we didn’t have a clue about how to restore a house. The journey has been a real rollercoaster. It’s been very tiring because we both work and we came every single day since we got the keys.

“Even by March, we could only walk in the middle of the hallway because there were no floorboards but when that was done and the new windows went in we felt like we’d turned the corner. Then it started to feel like a house. Not yet a home, but a house and that was a big moment.”

What the councils say

  • Harrow Council said it had seen a sharp rise in new developments and the jump in six-month empty homes was due to the lag between these new properties being completed and being occupied.
  • Watford Borough Council said vacant homes made up 1.5% of all the homes in the area due to its “buoyant housing market”.
  • A regeneration project in Tamworth saw residents temporarily moved from 136 council homes, which led to them being empty “for a period of time”, its borough council said.
  • Canterbury City Council said its most recent count – not yet published by the government – saw it reduce the number of vacant homes by 26% on its 2016 figure. “We estimate that only 20% of the total are truly empty, when you take out those that are up for sale, being refurbished, in probate or not suitable for residential letting due to their location,” a spokesman said. It has an empty homes officer tasked with bringing properties back into use.
  • Runnymede Borough Council said the government’s statistics represented a “snapshot” in time and therefore included “blips”, adding that long-term empties in the borough had since been reduced to their lowest number there since 2004.

Across the UK

In Scotland, 22 out of 32 councils saw a percentage increase in the number of long-term empty homes in 2016, with Aberdeenshire seeing an increase of 20%.

Bob Fraser, senior partner at law firm and estate agents Aberdein Considine, said a fall in the price of oil and gas was behind the rise.

“The property market follows the fortunes of the oil and gas industry, it always has,” Mr Fraser said.

“People who would wish to sell properties are unable to sell due to lending, or they can’t because of negative equity. Some people opt to leave matters until the property market recovers.

“The largest fall of 20% has been the upper end of the market. The market was very buoyant and was one of the most expensive in Scotland and outside the South East.”

In Northern Ireland, five out of 11 councils saw an increase between 2016 and 2017. Northern Ireland’s Land and Property Services was able to provide figures up until 31 March 2017.

In Wales, eight out of 22 council areas saw the largest number of vacant homes for six years.

A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government responding to the data for England said: “We have given councils powers to bring empty homes back into use, and the number is now at its lowest since records began and has fallen by a third since 2010.”

This article has been taken from

By Alex Homer BBC News
  • 24 November 2017
  • From the section England
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Providers Cooperate to Raise Standards

white paper published today sets out the legal & safety obligations for guardians and property owners. It has been issued by the UK’s seven leading property guardian companies to drive up standards, and to help inform and safeguard the interests of both property owners and guardians.

‘The Law on Property Guardians’ details the current legal status for guardians, the compliance requirements and the health and safety obligations that providers of property guardian schemes must meet. Written by a prominent, independent legal team, comprising a leading housing lawyer, a QC and a barrister, the white paper sets out to ensure better practice in the industry through a minimum common standard.


The Property Guardian Providers’ Association

“The group has been meeting during the year to set up a property guardian providers’ association” explains Graham Sievers, spokesman for the group. “First, the providers wanted to benchmark what is the current legal status of a guardian, and what the obligations are for the owners or management companies for premises being used to house guardians. This document, we hope, will help inform all stakeholders and support our aim to promote best practice across the industry, advocating that all legal and safety standards and regulations are adhered to, or exceeded, by property guardian providers.”

“Essentially, we want to ensure that running a property guardians’ programme not only provides one means, albeit very small, to alleviate the pressure on housing, but does so ethically and safely.” Mr Sievers concludes.

The 40-page paper is freely available on the seven providers’ websites. Three key points emerging from it are:

i)Health and safety requirements apply to all buildings where Property Guardians live, whether they are commercial, residential or other types.

ii)Fire safety, gas safety and any potential on-site hazards fall under the same regulations as tenants, and are enforceable by the same authorities.

iii)Property guardians sign-up as licensees, not tenants; two of the key differences include non-exclusive occupation of the premises and shorter notices to leave. In return, guardians live in low-cost accommodation.

The group commissioned top housing lawyer, Giles Peaker, and a principal QC and barrister-in-law from Arden Chambers, Andrew Arden and Andrew Dymond.

Property guardian companies match up property owners who have temporarily empty vacant properties on their hands, with people seeking low cost accommodation, but who can be flexible in their stay. Often, such properties’ living costs are around half that of similar accommodation in the private rental sector.

For further information, or to arrange an interview with one of the managing directors of the property guardian providers, contact the secretariat.

m: 07722282946 

Download White Paper: The law on property guardianship

About the Property Guardian Providers’ Association:

Seven of the UK’s leading property guardian providers have been meeting during 2017 to discuss the issues within the sector and to explore setting up a property guardian providers’ association. The providers aimed to benchmark the current legal status of a guardian, and what the obligations are for the owners or management companies for those premises being used to house guardians. This document, we hope, will help inform all stakeholders – including building owners, local authorities, and policymakers – and support the providers’ joint aim of promoting best practice across the sector, advocating that all legal and safety standards and regulations are adhered to, or exceeded, by all providers.


Published by seven UK property guardians’ providers


Ad-Hoc –
Dot Dot Dot –
Guardians of London –
Live-in Guardians –
Lowe Guardians –
VPS Guardians –