Following the creation of a criminal offence of squatting in residential premises* punishable with up to six months in prison and/or a fine of up to £5,000, there is a real concern that squatters are turning their attention towards occupying commercial buildings instead. Typical development sites such as empty office, retail and industrial premises are often seen as prime targets for travellers, protestors and squatters, particularly where there is a relative lack of security and ease of entry. In our third in a series of posts relating to vacant possession, this post sets out some tips for landowners on how to avoid trespassers entering onto land or into buildings in the first place.

We set out our advice in our previous post in relation to landowners' options should they find that their premises have unexpectedly become occupied by squatters. Unfortunately, once squatters have entered and begun to occupy a building, they can be reluctant to leave, and removing them can be time consuming and expensive, leading to delays and increases in the cost of a development project.

Furthermore, the owner of an occupied building will owe a duty of care under the Occupiers Liability Act 1984 in respect of any personal injury incurred by trespassers which is "caused by reason of any danger due to the state of the premises or to things done or omitted to be done on them". This duty could arise of any or all of the following conditions are met:

  1. The owner is aware, or ought reasonably to be aware, of any danger;
  2. The owner knows, or ought reasonably to know, that the trespasser is, or may come within the vicinity of the danger;
  3. The risk is one which the owner may reasonably be expected to protect the trespasser from.

If these conditions are satisfied, the landowner is under a duty to offer some degree of protection to any trespasser, for example, putting up warning signs or barriers. This is particularly relevant in development projects, where buildings are more likely to have already been stripped out or allowed to become dilapidated in anticipation of development work starting.

Prevention of squatters therefore remains the best cure. It is advisable that landowners do all that they can to prevent trespassers entering onto land or buildings in the first place. We have the following tips:

  1. Whilst it can be seen as imprudent to spend money on a site which will soon undergo extensive development, it would be worthwhile in the long term to ensure straightaway that premises are as secure as possible. Depending on the nature of the premises, this could involve installing steel security doors and tamper proof locks to windows, skylights and doors, CCTV and alarm systems.
  2. Consider whether it would be worthwhile employing security guards to live on site round the clock to patrol the premises to ensure that there is no opportunity for trespassers to take possession of the site.
  3. Remove anything of value from the premises.
  4. Put up signs to alert trespassers to the security measures which have been put in place, with the intention that they might then find the building unappealing.
  5. Decommission utilities like water, gas and electricity, to make squatting at the premises as uninviting as possible.
  6. Carry out regular inspections of the premises internally and externally to make sure that they remain secure and free from occupation, so that any necessary civil action to remove squatters can commence as early as possible.

Should you require any further information in relation to removing any unauthorised occupiers, please read our previous blog entry here or contact any member of our Real Estate Dispute Resolution team for specific and comprehensive advice.