We are frequently asked for lists of all empty properties within the borough.
We do not hold a list of all empty properties, however we do hold information about those properties which we have been advised are empty in relation to Business Rates or Council Tax.
We are unable to provide names of businesses or addresses of empty commercial and residential properties as we consider disclosing this information would make them a target of crime. Therefore this information is exempt from disclosure under section 31 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
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.
We have previously made enquiries to the Metropolitan Police which indicate the release of this type of information where buildings are situated, would increase the potential for:
We have also 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.
Section 31 is a qualified exemption and we are obliged to consider the public interest test.
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.
There are also benefits in disclosure to the wider public, in relation to raising the profile of unused or vacant properties in order 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. This decision is consistent with the advice received from the previous Borough Commander.
Taking into account 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.
Applicants should be aware that the decision to withhold this information and our reliance on exemption section 31 of the FOI Act has been upheld by an Internal Review.
Unfortunately we cannot take motives into account when deciding what information to disclose under the FOI Act as disclosure under this legislation is disclosure to the general public.
We appreciate that some requesters will have honest motives for requesting this information and as such we would refer you to our Empty Property Scheme.
Updated: 7 October 2015