Squatting in commercial units is on the rise according to evidence from the leading High Court Enforcement Officer firms.
The problem is becoming more evident in central London, where higher levels of homelessness are exposing commercial properties to higher and more aggressive incidents of squatting.
Last week, Mike Weatherly MP, wrote to the Prime Minister to press the government to consider making squatting in commercial properties unlawful.
Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing & Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 made squatting in residential properties a criminal offence, but does not address commercial property.
Further legislation does not appear realistic, in fact there are even campaigns on foot to get section 144 repealed. In order to lawfully evict squatters from commercial property in a case where the police are unwilling to intervene a court order will be required. Given that enforcement costs on substantial squats can be significant, here are some simple steps to reduce the risk of your property falling victim to squatters:
1) Security: For larger commercial buildings, consider 24 hour on site security. The initial break-ins are often committed by a small number of squatters, with more following once they have the word that the building has been taken. Drive by security checks are good, but on site security is better.
2) Accessibility: Ground floor windows, easy access to less secure first floor windows and roller shutters are all key weak points for any building. Ensuring that these areas are properly secured to reduce the chances of an easy break in is vital. If possible consider whether partial demolition of ground floor features, for example shop fronts, might either take away, or prevent access to shelter.
3) Visibility: The more visible your security and the more obvious the steps you have taken to prevent a break-in, the less attractive the building will be to squatters.
4) Planning: Depending on the circumstances a court order for possession can be obtained within 24 – 48 hours. The earlier your lawyers can be made aware of the precise details of an incursion into a building, the sooner a court order can be obtained. Ensure your security staff are briefed to take careful note of any incursion, who has entered the building, how they did so, how many there are etc. Whilst the police will be very reluctant to intervene in a commercial squat, they do have powers to move squatters on in certain circumstances. Early contact and consultation through the police, alongside your lawyers, can sometimes yield good results and get you your property back without the need of a court order.