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Preventing Squatting in Britain

THE RISING NUMBER of foreclosures in the United Kingdom has led to an increase of a centuries-old tradition in Britain of taking up residence in vacant buildings. The practice, known as squatting, is being confronted with some innovative security approaches.

Squatting is a civil matter under British law rather than a criminal offense. “I think in most countries in the world, in perhaps 99 percent of countries, if anyone breaks into anyone else’s properties, it’s deemed to be a criminal offense, and you can call the police, and they’re arrested,” says Andrew Jeffrey, a partner at Stitt & Co. Solicitors in London.

British law allows squatting if entry to a vacant building is not forced, Jeffrey explains. The owner must go to court to regain possession of the building, which can take up to two months.

In addition to temporarily losing use of the property, the property owner is stuck with legal fees, including the cost of paying bailiffs to conduct the eviction.

In a recent high-profile case, squatters took up residence in a £22.5 million ($32.7 million USD) historic home in the Mayfair area in central London. Jeffrey represented the owners, Timekeeper Ltd., in court.

The property was fully secured with a sophisticated alarm system. Jeffrey speculates that the squatters may have taped pieces of paper over the motion sensors. When the owners called the police to report a break-in, the police did not investigate the claim but immediately referred the owners to civil court.

Many squatters, including those who inhabited the historic mansion in Mayfair, are students in their late teens to early twenties, Jeffrey says. They are often educated, have countercultural or antiestablishment ideals, and are well versed in squatters’ rights. Some squatters, however, are homeless and squat because they have nowhere else to go.

As the number of vacant properties in the U.K. has risen, so has the demand for effective security of unoccupied buildings, both commercial and residential. The key for property owners is to ensure that someone cannot simply enter the property. After the Mayfair squatters were evicted, Jeffrey says, his clients invested in 24-hour security with dogs patrolling the perimeter.

G4S Security Services (UK) launched a vacant-property service in the U.K. at the end of 2008. Richard Fenton-Jones, managing director of monitoring and response for the new service, says that the company helps clients plan ahead before a property is vacated.

As a part of the service, G4S clears the premises of debris, secures the property with alarms that can detect fire or intruders, and ensures that the utilities are turned off. The company also offers a 24-hour alarm center, patrol services, and keyless alarm systems.

A less traditional—and potentially less expensive—approach offered by other companies is called “property guardianship.” Guardianship providers recruit reliable people to be property guardians and move into vacant properties, protecting the buildings from squatters, fire, vandalism, and thieves.

One of the largest companies offering this type of service is Camelot Property Management, based in the Netherlands. It began offering the service in the U.K. seven years ago as a natural market expansion, says Joost van Gestel, chief executive officer of Camelot Europe.

Camelot now has 4,500 property guardians, protecting vacant commercial and residential buildings throughout Europe. It has placed people in properties as diverse as an empty airfield, a planetarium, and two pink castles at an amusement park.

Camelot recruits its guardians from “key workers,” such as teachers, nurses, firemen, and police officers, who work in high-value, low-paying professions. They undergo background and reference checks and pay a small licensing fee, which van Gestel says is about a quarter of what the rent might be.

The company accepts single guardians or couples without children or pets. Camelot asks guardians to refrain from having parties or lending their keys to others. Van Gestel says guardians in the U.K. live in one property for a year, on average. When the property owner is ready to take back the building, Camelot tries to place the guardians in a new property.

Camelot guardianship keeps the property from being vacant around the clock. The service costs about 10 percent of what the owner might pay for a 24-hour security guard.

While Camelot places guardians in a wide variety of facilities, the company cannot serve properties that are dilapidated or unsafe. They must be wind and water tight and have water and electricity. “Otherwise, we cannot find the right quality of guardians we feel comfortable calling our ambassadors,” van Gestel says.

Incidents of property damage by guardians are rare, van Gestel notes, but it does happen. Camelot requires guardians to be insured before placing them in a building. The property owners have building insurance as well, which the guardianship helps them keep, because many insurance companies will not insure vacant buildings.