Vacant Retail Property Security Dilemmas
Making your way through the centre of any major city while the country was in lockdown over the past 15 months, especially the business and commercial district, was undoubtedly a strange, almost eerie experience. Deserted and silent streets, empty of traffic and the normal bustle of office workers and commuters yattering into their phones or hurrying to and from appointments or the nearest station.
Although office lights were on in some buildings, you could see through the windows that there didn’t seem to be anyone inside. As for visitors and tourists, they were a temporarily extinct species.
However, since the summer, slowly and very gradually, office life appears to be picking up again, but working from home still seems to be the preferred option for many, certainly for part of the week if not all of it. Quite whether life will ever return to pre-pandemic times is anyone’s guess as companies take all this into account and review their accommodation requirements, many now choosing to downsize.
But where does all this uncertainty leave the many small businesses that fill the street-level units of many city office blocks or the ticket halls of the various tube and mainline stations? Sandwich and coffee shops, bars and restaurants, florists and dry cleaners, hairdressers and barbers, card shops and newsagents… all are small retailers who rely on the day-to-day trade the office workers, commuters and visitors used to bring. Many are teetering on the brink of serious financial trouble, whilst many have already given up and closed down, unable to sustain their operation with too few customers and rising levels of debt.
It is estimated that 50% of retail rents from 2020 remained unpaid going into 2021, and of course, the lockdown continued for months after that. Resolution of this continues to prove painful, with landlords either aggressively chasing what is due to them or formally taking the pain themselves on their balance sheet. Meanwhile, at the beginning of August, amendments to planning regulations came in that should make it easier for change of use development from commercial to residential. The new class MA (‘Mercantile to Abode’) now allows the conversion of many empty Class E commercial premises into new homes without planning permission. Because of this, some landlords might take advantage of the planning law change and decide not to renew the leases of some of their other surviving tenants because the prospect of conversion to residential property is an attractive and potentially profitable option. This could, however, add even more to the amount of vacant retail space.
Therefore, until life returns to some semblance of pre-pandemic normality and trade picks up, these vacant retail units sit dormant and empty, abandoned and unwanted… and a magnet for all types of trouble.
Risks to vacant property
Security has never been more important than in quiet and deserted streets, especially at night and especially in city centres. Trouble comes in many forms: thieves, mindless vandals; anti-social behaviour of all types, from drug dealing to fighting; arson; and squatters – the list is long and varied.
Do you know the scrap value of some common metals? Take copper, for instance. Its current average value is somewhere in the region of £4 per kilo. You could get £2 for brass and £1 for lead. In fact, everything metal has a value. So what, you might say, but vacant property is likely to have quite a lot of the stuff in it, possibly all three metals in the shape of pipes, radiators, wiring and interior fixtures and fittings. It wouldn’t take much to collect it into a nice little pile and toddle off to the nearest scrap dealer. Cushtie. A nice little earner, as a certain Mr Trotter might say.
With fewer people passing by anyway, no one is likely to take much notice of what they presume to be builders clearing out an empty shop unit, except they’re probably not builders nor shopfitters. The mess that’s left behind for the landlord or facilities manager to put right is a nightmare, especially in terms of inconvenience and cost. And don’t forget, insurance on vacant property is notoriously lacking.
It normally only covers FLEA (Fire, Lightning, Explosion and Aircraft impact) unless you pay an expensive premium to cover further risks. And that’s just an example of one potential form of trouble.
The question is, how do you best secure your vacant retail shop or unit until it either gets re-let, or re-purposed?
Many city buildings bristle with the latest in security technology and access control. For example, estimates suggest there is anything between half and three-quarters of a million CCTV cameras in London alone. But are the cameras on empty retail units with ‘for sale’ or ‘to let’ signs above them still working?
Were they operated by the landlord or his erstwhile tenants, and are they still monitored 24/7? It takes a mere minute for an opportunist vandal to push a firework or flammable substance through a letterbox, and junk mail on the mat goes up in flames, setting the rest of the premises on fire. Unfortunately, CCTV won’t stop that unless security personnel can be on the spot in record time.
And the other problem these days is face masks. Eighteen months ago, anyone lurking in or around a property, especially a vacant one, with a mask on or their face half-covered, would immediately arouse suspicion. Nowadays, it’s the complete reverse, and it has made the identification of thieves or troublemakers virtually impossible, no matter how good the CCTV images are.
Budget is another consideration while business and the British economy struggle to recover from the combination of Brexit and the pandemic. It’s fine if the building is occupied by paying tenants, but an issue if it’s vacant. Expert and tailored advice on how to secure a vacant building from break-ins or vandalism is what’s called for, without having to spend money unnecessarily. If the security solution is tailored to the individual premises after a comprehensive risk assessment by the right professional, the most appropriate protection can be put in place.
Deterrent is the key word here and affordability the pertinent point, with peace of mind the result. We are living and working in unusual and strange times when security has to be flexible and take account of new and different circumstances, and sometimes technology needs a helping hand with more traditional solutions.
Commercial Sales Manager
Clearway Services, and Chairman of the Vacant Property Protection Section of the British Security Industry Association.