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Void Property & Crime Prevention: The Basics & Beyond

Updated: Nov 22, 2023

As property owners, there’s a lot you can do to protect your empty property from potential crime. Let’s dive into the basics by looking at the Principles of Crime Prevention and how they can be used to protect your vacant property from theft, vandalism and unauthorised occupation.

 

empty property with broken window

Risks to Empty Property


You might think that an empty property poses less risk than one that’s occupied, after all it has less contents and no risk of damage by occupants. Unfortunately, this is not the case.


Here are the five main risks to a vacant property:


Fire


Fires could be caused by intentional arson, or accidentally by squatters trying to keep warm during winter months. Fires can quickly spread endangering occupants (including unauthorised) and neighbouring properties. Home Office figures show that there are on average 60 fires a day in or next to vacant and derelict buildings in the UK.


Vandalism


Property crimes account for a large percentage of all recorded crime in the UK each year, from vandalism, graffiti to burglary and theft.


Squatting


Currently the unauthorised occupation of commercial property is not a crime in England and Wales (unlike residential property). The number of people squatting in the UK is estimated to be in the region of 25,000, a substantial figure!


Water Damage


Water damage caused by burst pipes, leaking roofs or blocked drains is a growing problem for void properties, especially if they have fallen into a state of disrepair.


Liability


The Occupiers Liability Act 1957 & 1984 places a duty of care on an occupier of a property (owner) to safeguard people on their property including unauthorised visitors. The Act deals with trespassers on your land and in your property in terms of personal injury and associated liability.


Property owners are therefore responsible for the safety of anyone entering their property, including trespassers.



The Principles of Crime Prevention


There are a number of different crime prevention principles that can be used to reduce the likelihood of property being targeted by criminals. These include:


Target Hardening


Target hardening is a crime prevention technique that involves making buildings, vehicles, and other targets more difficult to enter or access. This can include adding locks, lights, and other physical barriers.


Void properties are particularly vulnerable to crime and should be secured with target hardening measures such as motion-sensitive lighting, locks, security fencing, boarding up of windows and doors, CCTC systems and intruder alarms. Regular inspections should also be conducted to ensure that security measures remain effective.

These steps can help ensure that properties are protected from both external threats and from the risks posed within.


Target Removal


Target removal is a crime prevention strategy used to reduce the likelihood of criminal activity by removing assets that may be attractive to potential adversaries. In the case of void properties this would entail the removal of easily disposed of valuable assets such as kitchen equipment, furniture, electrical equipment, machinery etc.


I often come across void properties that contain expensive kitchen equipment and machinery, attractive targets for thieves!


Removing the means to commit crime


Promoting good housekeeping practices is a simple yet effective crime prevention measure, by ensuring that items that could be used by criminals in the execution of their crime are not easily accessible. For example: ladders and tools should be secured within outbuildings, or better still removed off site.

I recently surveyed a large void property which had been secured with metal hoarding along its perimeter. The hoarding not only prevented natural surveillance from neighbouring properties but was also weighted down with numerous concrete blocks, a convenient readily available source of ammunition for youths breaking into the property by throwing the blocks through windows. Not a great idea!


Reducing the payoff


Reducing the payoff essentially means increasing the probability of being caught. This is achieved through the installation of control measures designed to delay adversaries and in doing so increase the likelihood that Police or private security will reach the site and apprehend the intruders.


This is achieved through a range of measures from fencing to steel boarding. Other measures that reduce payoff by increasing the risk to adversaries include innovations such as asset marking which make it more difficult for criminals to dispose of stolen goods, or technology such as SelectDNA that directly links perpetrators to a specific crime.


Controlling access


Void properties can become a magnet for criminal activity if they are not properly secured. It is therefore crucial to use physical security measures such as locks, gates, and barriers to block entry points. However, controlling access to vacant properties is only one part of the fight against crime.


Regular inspections of the property are also critical in ensuring that physical security measures are being maintained.


Surveillance


Surveillance is critical in crime prevention. When we talk about surveillance we are not only referring to the use of CCTV, but also the promotion of natural surveillance. This brings to mind the Harry Enfield comedy sketch featuring Michael Paine, 'My name is Michael Paine, and I am a nosy neighbour'.

For those of you unfamiliar with the reference, I am referring to the importance of neighbours in protecting property. Neighbours are a great source of intelligence, they are often the first to notice when something is out of place.

By encouraging natural surveillance we can increase the likelihood that intruders will be detected and reported to the Police.


Formal surveillance in the form of CCTV cameras and video verification systems also play an important role in the protection of vacant property. Advancements in off-grid surveillance technology is increasingly proving to be a game changer in this field.


Environmental design


Environmental design refers to the use of physical features and the layout of a building or area to reduce the opportunity for crime. Void properties are often targeted by criminals due to their lack of security, visibility, and community presence.


Various strategies can be used to make void properties more secure, such as better lighting, security fencing, and landscape design. Other steps may include installing locks on doors and windows to deter crime.


It is possible to adapt void properties with a focus on crime prevention, introducing measures such as improved lighting and signage to discourage trespassing and installing alarm systems or surveillance cameras.


Rule setting


Rule setting in the context of void properties involves the use of prohibition signage warning trespassers that the property is being monitored and that trespassing is not permitted. Prohibition signage could also include signs warning of potential dangers, from unstable structures to the risk of Asbestos contamination.


Increasing the chances of being detected


Rational choice theory (Felson and Cohen) argues that criminals make a rational choice to commit a crime based on whether they will be detected and the potential consequences of being caught.


The chances of being caught can be increased by applying a combination of the other principles such as target hardening, surveillance etc, designed to detect and delay intruders increasing the likelihood of them being apprehended.


Deflecting offenders


Deflecting criminals from targeting void properties involves applying one or more of the other principles discussed above, as well as targeted initiatives designed to modify an environment to influence criminal behaviour.

In the case of void property, deflection is achieved by altering the perception of the risk/reward balance to one that favours the potential victim rather than the perpetrator, examples of which include measures designed to delay, such as security fencing, steel security screens, boarding-up windows and doors and others to detect, examples of which include video verification systems, perimeter detection technology, intruder alarms etc.


Conclusion


Properties that are empty for long periods can be a safety and security concern. Not only do they attract unwanted visitors, but they also present an opportunity for criminal activity.


There are a number of ways to address this problem, but the most effective approach is a comprehensive one that takes into account all of the potential safety and security concerns.


This includes everything from making the property less attractive to criminals in the first place, to making it more difficult for them to gain access and increasing the chances of them being detected if they do break in.


 

About the writer: Justin Quigley, is a recognised security expert in the protection of property through the introduction and deployment of technical and non-technical security measures, including CCTV towers, video verification systems, fencing, perimeter protection technology, hostile vehicle barriers, alarms and analytical camera systems. He is a prolific writer on the subject of crime prevention, security technology and void property security.



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