Councils in the South East, and all areas where housing demand is high, risk an influx of squatting as an important case reaches its conclusion. The Information Tribunal has ruled that Camden Council must disclose a list of all empty properties in its constituency, despite acknowledgement of the fact that it may lead to increased crime.
The case concerns a Mr Voyias, a member of the Advisory Service for Squatters, who made a Freedom of Information Act request to the London Borough of Camden, asking the council for a list of all void (empty) properties in their area owned by a ‘non-individual’ or in which such an individual had an interest.
In the first instance, the Council refused this request on the grounds provided by s.31 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. This section concerns disclosures which would likely be detrimental to the prevention of crime. The Information Commissioner upheld the Council’s decision and Mr Voyias consequently appealed to the Information Tribunal.
The tribunal applied a two-stage test. The first stage was to determine whether the request, if fulfilled, would actually ‘prejudice the prevention of crime’. On this matter, the Tribunal agreed that the request was, in fact, likely to increase two different types of crime. They sited potential increases in criminal damage, caused by ‘motivated and organised’ squatters reading the list and entering empty properties, and property ‘stripping’ – where organised gangs enter empty properties and steal all re-usable materials such as electric wiring and floorboards.
Incredibly, despite the Tribunal agreeing that it was more than likely crime will increase because of this request, the eventual outcome of the case was a ruling in favour of Mr Voyias and a demand that Camden Council must disclose the information within 28 days.
This surprising ruling was based on the second aspect of the two-stage test. It was decided that the information disclosure would hold the council and central government to account in their performance in bringing empty homes back into use, a poignant topic at the moment with an estimated 300,000 empty homes across the country.
The Tribunal concluded that, overall, continued non-disclosure of the information by Camden Council would not be in the public’s best interest. They believed that the potential increase in crime was outweighed by the benefits of bringing empty homes to light and, hopefully, catalysing the reintroduction of some of these back into use.
The Tribunal stated: “Disclosure would rejuvenate the empty homes debate, raise awareness and bring more pressure on both central and local government to improve their policy and ‘commitment’.”
Case reference: Voyias v Information Commissioner & London Borough of Camden, September 2011
For more information on what the Government is doing to combat the empty homes problem, click here to see our article on the new Empty Homes Initiatives .