Empty Homes Register
We do not maintain a register of all empty properties within our area; however, we do hold information about those properties which we have been advised are empty in relation to Council Tax and Business Rates
Pursuant to section 31(1)(a) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOI Act), public authorities are not obliged to release information that would be likely to prejudice the functions of law enforcement, namely the prevention and detection of crime.
Disclosures under the FOI Act are considered to be to the whole world. If the information were to be disclosed details of empty properties within the area would be disclosed and could be used by individuals with criminal intent.
The release of this type of information where buildings are situated, would increase the potential for:
- Buildings to be targeted by squatters
- Buildings to be targeted by criminals or terrorists, intent on hiding or depositing proceeds of crime of terrorist materials
- Premises to be identified as short-term hiding places by criminals or terrorists
- Premises to be targeted by vandals or street artists
We have taken into account the Information Tribunal Case No. EA/2011/0007 ('the Camden case'), in which the Tribunal was satisfied that the evidence suggests that disclosing this information would have the effect of assisting at least some of those wishing to engage in squatting, leading to an increase in the instances of such activity.
Squatting in residential property has itself become a criminal offence which demonstrates the destructive nature of squatting and the associated crimes. Information on empty commercial properties could also lead to crime associated with squatting such as vandalism and the theft of fixtures and fittings. The Tribunal concluded that an increase in squatting would also lead to various categories of associated criminal activity. As a result, the Tribunal found that section 31(1) (a) was engaged in that it was likely that disclosure of the disputed information would have a negative impact on the prevention of crime.
The Information Commissioner’s Office has also re-confirmed section 31 is applicable for information about empty properties in a recent decision involving the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
As Section 31(1) is a qualified exemption so we are also required to decide whether the public interest in maintaining this exemption outweighs the public interest in its disclosure. The Information Commissioner has suggested that the factors that would weigh in favour of disclosure would include:
- Furthering the understanding and participation in the public debate of issues of the day.
- Promoting accountability and transparency by public authorities for decisions taken by them.
- Promoting accountability and transparency in the spending of public money.
- Allowing individuals, companies and other bodies to understand decisions made by public authorities affecting their lives.
- Bringing to light information affecting public health and safety.
There are general arguments in favour of disclosure, in relation to promoting transparency and accountability of public authorities, which we have noted in relation to this information; and in relation to raising the profile of unused or vacant properties to encourage public debate.
It is our view that there are strong arguments that weigh in favour of maintaining this exemption.
In the Camden case the Tribunal noted that there is an inherent public interest in crime prevention. It was also found that there were many costs associated with squatting, such as repair, security and eviction costs. The negative impact of squatting was not only directed towards to the property owners affected but also the surrounding community and public authorities involved. Ultimately the Tribunal found that the combined factors in favour of maintaining the exemption contributed very considerable weight to the public interest in withholding the information.
Considering the above issues, we consider there to be no over-riding public interest in releasing this information. Any public interest would be best served by upholding the exemption under Section 31 of the FOI Act as disclosure of the information would be likely to prejudice the prevention of crime by enabling or encouraging the commission of offences.