Show Squatters the Red Card
As the recent occupation of Premier league footballer Joey Barton’s property goes to show, no one is immune to the threat of having their property taken over by squatters.
In a recent outburst on twitter, the star revealed that his property had been overrun by squatters. Although they were removed before serious damage could be done, the incident demonstrates the very real threat that squatters still pose.
Dating back to the English Civil War, squatting developed as a result of radical moves by the proto-communist Diggers and Levellers, involving the occupation of an otherwise unoccupied property without title, right, or payment of rent. Although no longer ideologically driven, squatting is still an issue, causing hassle and distress to property owners across the UK.
At the moment squatting is classed as a civil offence rather than a criminal offence; the entry into a private property with no authority but without any accompanying criminal conduct or intent is trespass, but not in itself a criminal offence under current legislation.
However, there are concerns that government plans to illegalise squatting in domestic properties may well cause offenders to target commercial buildings, which is bad news for businesses which may own properties which are currently unoccupied.
The eviction process can be a lengthy one - especially if there has been no obvious ‘criminal conduct’ - and is a hassle that nobody wants. Frequently, by the time the owner regains access to their property, significant damage has been caused and they are left to foot the bill. With this in mind, the Master Locksmiths Association (MLA), the UK’s biggest trade association for the locksmithing profession, have issued guidelines to those looking to protect their properties and circumvent the legal quagmire surrounding squatters and their rights.
MLA’s top tips for preventing squatting
Squatting is currently a criminal offence only if an illegal act is carried out in order to gain access to the property. Manipulation of a locking system is considered an offence as is damage to doors or windows. As such, professionally fitted, high quality, manipulation resistant locks on doors and windows are pivotal to denying access. For commercial properties you may also want to ensure that yards and perimeters are secured with appropriate fencing and any gates are chained/locked shut using high quality, 3rd party tested products such as Sold Secure approved devices.
Review the exterior of your property to ensure there are no broken windows or gaps through which someone could slip. This is particularly important in disused commercial units such as factories or warehouses where damage may have been caused over time and gone unnoticed.
Keep an eye on plant growth surrounding the property, if the building has been vacant for some time there is a risk that vegetation may have created damage that could be exploited to gain access. Trees also provide access to high windows or the roof where access may be sought. It is wise to cut back overhanging branches and cut back bushes to reduce hiding places.
It may be wise to invest in additional security measures such as CCTV or alarm systems that not only deter entry but aid in prosecution should a criminal act take place. These systems should be professionally monitored so that any activity is noticed immediately.
If leaving the building unoccupied for a time, consider when your keys were last replaced. In the case of commercial buildings, former employees and staff may still have access to the property. It’s also worth noting whether anyone could have made copies of the keys without your knowledge. If this is a concern, ask a professional locksmith to change your locks and fit a patented system whereby keys can only be copied with proof of ownership, meaning that ultimately only those who you choose to have access to your key will do so.
Consider your own influence on the level of security of your property. Ensure you always set alarms, frequently change codes and lock all doors, windows and gates to prevent unwarranted access to the building. Such simple practices can make a substantial difference and deter intrusion.
If you do find your property occupied by squatters, we wouldn’t recommend you force entry to your property as violent entry to secure a property can be a criminal offence (Section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977). If you can gain access to your property unopposed, contact your nearest MLA locksmith and change the locks to peaceably secure the building. If however your entry is opposed you may find it necessary to go through court proceedings to evict the squatters, this can often be a lengthy process so prevention is always better than the cure.
Take note of the number of your nearest MLA licensed locksmith by visiting www.locksmiths.co.uk or ringing the MLA’s free phone number 0800 783 1498.
Finally, you may want to consider the reasons why people squat in the first place, and contemplate making a donation to housing charities such as Shelter to aid them in providing alternative housing solutions and reduce the reliance people have on squatting for shelter.
This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by Dr Steffan George .