Back in 1940, when this country was again fighting a ruthless enemy, albeit of a very different kind to now, Winston Churchill’s memorable reflection on the pilots and aircrew fighting the Battle of Britain uplifted the British people and boosted their spirits at a critical time in our history.
‘Never was so much owed by so many to so few’ became an enduring and telling phrase. Today, our ‘Few’ are undoubtedly those on the front line in our key services as the country battles an unseen and deadly contagion.
However, as history has also demonstrated down the centuries, there are always a few thoughtless, anarchic or nefarious groups who go against the prevailing national spirit to pull together in difficult times, and break the law for their own selfish or unscrupulous ends.
And so it is today in this bizarre situation of national lockdown.
Landlords are facing a security threat
Many landlords are already facing difficult times as they deal with the repercussions on their finances of non-payment of rent while their tenants grapple with their own loss of business and/or income and properties fall vacant as a result, or tenants return home to self-isolate with family or escape from the inner cities where they normally live and work; reasons for empty property are many and varied in these days of lockdown.
However, in addition to this, there are the three nightmares that threaten all owners of empty property and which are experiencing a serious resurgence in these unparalleled times: vandalism, squatting and fly tipping. The work of the few but which can cause additional untold problems and financial hardship for the country’s many landlords.
Of course, one has to sympathise with the many who have lost their livelihoods because the country has locked down and they cannot afford to stay in their accommodation; and, sadly and terribly, there are now thousands who have died because of the virus. However, as the lockdown is extended and our cities are eerily silent and deserted and the suburbs and countryside equally bereft of traffic and people, the mindless and nefarious are taking advantage.
Vandalism is the most difficult nuisance to prevent. A can of spray paint can make a property look more than undesirable, desecrated or abandoned, but other vulnerable parts of an empty building can be protected easily. Metal screens for windows, and keyless security doors will prevent breakages and are easily, cost-effectively and quickly installed. They will also prevent visibility of what is on the inside, perhaps worth breaking in for to steal…. such as furnishings, furniture and electricals, wiring and other items with a second hand or scrap value. Finally, along with secure locks they should prevent ingression and possible arson. If these security measures themselves get covered in graffiti, that will disappear once the steel screens and doors are removed and premises is re-let. Whatever happens, the building inside is protected. Simple and efficient.
Squatters can be a costly nightmare to deal with if trespass takes place. It requires Court action and bailiffs to carry out an eviction. All an expense to be avoided if possible. Squatting in residential properties is against the law, unlike in commercial property which has to be handled differently, so going to Court for a repossession order for a residential property should be straightforward. If there are trespassers in a commercial property, which is not a criminal act, it is likely they have broken in and therefore caused unlawful damage, in which case the landlord should call the police to take action to remove them. On no account should a landlord try and evict the trespassers by force himself, only try peaceful methods, otherwise the force could be construed as a criminal act. If either this or the police cannot help or are unsuccessful, then, once again, it requires Court action, an Order and bailiffs.
This was all quite straightforward, if time-consuming and expensive, but everything suddenly changed at the end of March and the landscape became difficult for landlords seeking to protect themselves.
As of March 27, 2020, a new civil procedural rule was brought into place – Practice Direction 51Z, part of the Coronavirus Act 2020. PD 51Z came in with immediate effect, putting a 90-day stay on all possession proceedings, seemingly including squatting cases, as they are somewhat inseparable from trespassing cases. The question still remains as to whether a Writ that has already been issued in the High Court can still be enforced by bailiff companies (the High Court Enforcement Officers Association believe they can be). There is the risk that without a legal framework in place, there is the possibility of a rise in illegal evictions as landlords take matters into their own hands which could be both risky and dangerous for all concerned.
Under a regular Section 8 Eviction for renters there is a two-month notice period, thus the Coronavirus Act 2020 only grants a further four weeks’ notice. This still leaves many landlords, tenants and squatters, in a tense situation knowing that, come the end of the grace period, there will be a lot of landlords looking to make up for lost time in pursuing rent owed and repossession or eviction orders and a deluge in the courts is expected. For landlords in particular, having squatters in residence in their property for such a period of time can potentially cause untold damage to it as the fabric of the building is stripped of anything valuable from the tiles on the roof to anything internally with a scrap value. Not to mention unofficial use of the utilities which will have to be paid for, and the mess squatters tend to leave behind invariably needs a professional cleaning service to deal with as drug detritus and other waste matter can be potentially harmful.
Securing a vacant property during the lockdown
Getting a vacant property professionally secured should therefore not be regarded as a waste of time or money. It could save a landlord £’000s and a lot of stress in the long run. For any landlords currently already facing issues with trespassers or squatters, legal advice should be sought immediately given the current temporary changes to the law. Also, insurance policies should be checked as many do not give extensive cover for vacant property.
Protecting property from flytipping needs a different type of security, but again, with professional advice it can be quickly, easily and cost-effectively installed.
Concrete barriers across a driveway will prevent ingress by vans and small trucks used by individuals seeking to dump waste and rubbish illegally.
If necessary, certain concrete barriers can have the addition of security fencing attached which will offer an even greater level of prevention against any type of trespass, squatting or vandalism.
Last but not least, prominent CCTV cameras should also be installed on the property with notices to alert potential transgressors that it is monitored 24/7. CCTV towers are particularly effective for car park security.
Doors and windows are the main point of entry for trespassers. If you’re expecting your premises to remain closed during the whole of the lockdown period, these areas should, ideally, be secured with steel security screens.
There are a number of other temporary security solutions such as video verified alarms (alarms that, when triggered, send a video clip directly to a landlord (or security firm).
Security is a must as the news every day contains stories of empty property being vandalised or broken into. It’s all about the deterrent factor and being safe, not sorry. Landlords should take professional advice and install whatever security systems fit their needs before, and not after, the event, which unfortunately is what so often happens.
Clive Wilson is the UK Group Marketing Manager at Clearway.
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