Dealing with commercial squatters this winter
The growing levels of homelessness are likely to result in more people moving into squats in empty commercial premises, especially as the cold weather approaches.
Increasing levels of homelessness
Homelessness is on the rise. At the beginning of 2023, Shelter estimated that there were 271,000 households recorded as homeless. This data does not include people who are sofa surfing, so that number may well have been higher.
Crisis estimated in 2021 that there were 227,000 people in the worst type of homelessness – rough sleeping, sleeping in a van or shed, or in a B&B. For 2023, Crisis estimates that this number will exceed 300,000 due to the impact of the cost-of-living crisis and the reduction in support from the Government.
High volume of empty commercial property
Research shows that there were around 165,000 privately-owned empty commercial and business premises across the UK in early 2023, with 150 million square feet of vacant retail space, equivalent to 14.5% of retail units.
Whilst squatting in residential property was made a criminal offence under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LAPSO), squatting in commercial premises was excluded from this legislation, making it an attractive option for those on the streets in the winter.
Because it was not included in LAPSO, this also means that the Police does not have the necessary powers to remove squatters from commercial premises, as they can from residential, and the onus is on the landlord to obtain a possession order.
Landlords cannot remove the squatters themselves. Under the Criminal Law Act 1977, a landlord may not use force or violence to gain entrance to commercial premises if there are individuals present who oppose that entry. In doing so, the landlord would be committing a criminal offence.
Enforcing a possession order
Should you find yourself with squatters, your first step is to obtain a possession order in the County Court. You then have the option of enforcement, should the squatters still not leave, via the County Court Bailiffs (CCBs) under a warrant of possession, or a High Court Enforcement Officer (HCEO) under a writ of possession.
Ministry of Justice data for the quarter April to June 2023, published in August 2023, shows that the average time between making a claim to possession taking place via CCBs, who are civil servants, is currently 37.3 weeks.
HCEOs are private companies, with their HCEOs authorised by the Ministry of Justice, so can act far more quickly, and have many more enforcement agents, who are fully trained and equipped to quickly and safely remove occupiers who are resisting eviction.
How can you prevent squatters?
An important first step is to make the property look occupied and cared for, by removing rubbish and unopened post, switching lights on and having manned security patrolling, especially at night. We would suggest undertaking a risk assessment and address those risks.
If this is not possible, then ensure the security is tight, with secure locks, boarded windows and doors and alarms linked up to a security company, to deter squatters from breaking in.
To find out more
If you would like more information or have squatters currently, please call us on 0330 056 6954.
You can also download the complimentary eBook on enforcing writs of possession, by our parent company, High Court Enforcement Group.