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Addressing the growing number of vacant properties

Last year, we saw a 19% increase in risk improvements raised for vacant properties from the previous year. Our Risk Management Advisors have seen that increase continue into 2024, and after speaking with many brokers and underwriters, it’s clear there needs to be more solutions in place for the problems these properties present.

Vacant property in industrial estate

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities published statistics showing a 3.4% increase from the prior year to 699,126 total vacant dwellings in England on 2 October 2023.

Further, 261,474 of these were classed as long-term vacant dwellings, an increase of 5.4% from the previous year. These are buildings that have been vacant for 6 months or more, with some exceptions.

“Vacant buildings are open to all sorts of risks, including fire, theft, vandalism and water damage. Without regular oversight and maintenance, they are magnets for arson, theft of copper and lead and general neglect, which can lead to significant deterioration over time,” warns Kelly Haynes, Risk Management Advisor at RiskSTOP.

Fire is the biggest risk for these properties. Under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order, those responsible for commercial properties must carry out fire risk assessments. This compulsory process involves identifying hazards, assessing risks and implementing safety measures. The findings of these assessments must be reviewed and updated regularly.

The high value of metals has led to a surge in break-ins to steal copper cabling, pipework, and other non-ferrous metals. Once a property has been broken into once, it’s often a repeat target. To protect properties from these risks, security needs to be tight.

What can be done?

Managing vacant properties requires a proactive approach to security and maintenance. When assisting in risk improvements, these are the key steps we would advise to keep these buildings secure and compliant with safety standards:

  1. Appoint a Responsible Person A designated person should oversee the building. This person should carry out regular inspections, control access and promptly address any issues.

  2. Control Access Keys and access points must be controlled. All external doors should be locked with BS 3621-compliant locks. Vulnerable windows should be boarded up with exterior-grade plywood or fitted with shutters.

  3. Regular Inspections Inspections should be documented at least weekly. These will help identify and fix issues like graffiti, waste accumulation, or signs of forced entry. Inspections should be thorough, internal, and external.

  4. Utility Management To prevent hazards, non-essential utilities should be isolated. Water should be turned off and drained, and gas and electricity should be disconnected unless they are for essential services like heating, fire, or security systems.

  5. Remove Combustibles All combustible materials, including flammable liquids and waste, should be removed from the property. This will reduce the risk of fire, whether by arson or accidental ignition. Ensure that the perimeter of the property is kept clear of combustibles such as waste and wooden pallets.

  6. Perimeter Security The perimeter needs to be secure. This can mean repairing and reinforcing fencing, installing security lighting and ensuring any existing CCTV is working. In some cases, a temporary alarm system specifically designed for vacant properties can add an extra layer of security.

  7. Specialist Service Specialist contractors can provide services to increase security and manage risks. These can include sealing doors and windows, fitting temporary alarms and regular site inspections and maintenance.

Health and Safety Considerations

Vacant properties can pose hazards not only to intruders but also to authorised visitors like contractors and prospective tenants. The safety of these individuals must be considered. This means providing clear warnings about specific dangers, securing hazardous areas and keeping records of all visitors.

Property Guardian Schemes

Property guardian schemes are an alternative way to manage vacant properties. They involve placing residential occupiers in empty buildings to prevent vandalism and unauthorised entry. But they also bring new risks and need careful consideration and management.

“The increasing number of risk improvements for vacant properties shows the growing awareness and need for risk management. By securing the building and doing regular inspections, property owners and managers can reduce the risks associated with vacant properties.” Kelly Haynes added.

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