Home Security – Alleyway Access Problems
Access From an Alleyway
Communal back alleyways can range from narrow, muddy paths to concreted roads for garage access. Before the spread of car ownership, most of the alleys associated with terraced housing were included in an estate to provide essential access to drains and for, the residents to get to the backs of their houses to save them having to walk through their houses with garden rubbish. They were also used for refuse collections and essential deliveries. In some cases, where alleys have long been used as short-cuts, they have become established rights of way.
Although until recently nearly all the nation’s alleys had open entrances, which allowed anyone to wander down them, many were actually built with gates, but over the years these have been removed, many during wartime in scrap-metal drives, and to allow access for firefighters and air-raid wardens during bombing. After the war, with reports of burglary being much lower than they are today, it is understandable that only a small number of gates were put back.
The alleyway can provide a burglar with a means of reaching his target unseen, and often a choice of escape routes without having to emerge into a road where he might be noticed. Some burglars carry out break-ins during the day when people are out and hide their ill-gotten gains in an alley, returning to collect them under cover of darkness. Of course, the alleyway itself can often be the scene of inappropriate behaviour.
Recently, a number of alleyway gating projects have been set up, with very impressive results. In some instances where gates have been installed, rear-access burglaries have stopped altogether. It has even been shown that where some alleyways in an area have been gated, burglaries from all the surrounding alleyways have dropped as well, the burglars clearly having assumed that all have been protected.
ARE THE ALLEYWAYS CAUSING THE PROBLEM?
This is an elementary question, but it is the key to the solution. You can find out more about crime in your neighbourhood by speaking with your local police and the community safety department of the local authority. They probably won’t be able to give you specific addresses due to the confidential nature of the police reports, but they should be able to tell you the total number of burglaries in the streets around you and what percentage of them involved alleyways. This is vital information, particularly if your alleyway has a right of way over it; you will have to prove that it is clearly linked to the levels of crime before you can have the right of way removed.
Having obtained some official crime figures, it is worth speaking with anyone whose home backs on to the alley to obtain further information about antisocial behaviour in the area. Remember that a significant number of incidents are never reported to the police.
Plot the crimes you know of on an Ordnance Survey map, with a scale that is large enough to show individual houses. Take photographs of the alley entrances, and of any graffiti that you find or any other clue that could indicate anti-social activity. If the alleyway is maintained by the council and it attracts drug users, the council may have a record of the numbers of needles they have picked up along with other drug paraphernalia. You need to build a watertight case to prove to your neighbours, and possibly to the highways authority, that the problems in the alley are so bad that the only solution is to gate it.
If your house backs on to an alleyway and burglary is a problem, there are a number of issues to consider before embarking on an alleyway gating project. First, don’t try to do anything on your own. Get together with your neighbours, and approach the local police and the council’s community safety department. If you have a Neighbourhood Watch scheme operating in the area, get in touch with the organiser, as they are likely to have links to the local police and may already know about the problem alleys.
INFORM YOUR NEIGHBOURS
Once you have obtained the crime information, and consulted the local police and council, you will need to meet with your neighbours. In the first instance, write to all of them (see example letter below) who have a right of access along the alley, bearing in mind that a wider consultation will have to take place if it has an established right of way. Summarise your findings and the response from the police and local authority in the letter, and ask for your neighbours’ views and support. If there is somewhere you can use for a public meeting, arrange a date and time, and invite them to attend. It’s a good idea to add a tear-off response slip at the bottom of your letter for them to reply.
The response to your letter is likely to be positive from the vast majority of your neighbours. Even those who are not at first supportive (often because they are worried about the cost of the scheme) usually come around in the end. Be prepared to knock on the doors of those who do not respond to your letter. In most cases, it won’t be because they don’t support the idea; it is more likely that they’re very busy people who have simply forgotten about it.
RE: GATING OUR ALLEYWAYS
You are probably aware of all the crime that’s been taking place in our area and in particular in the alleyways. I have been speaking with the police and council about it and it seems that in the past 12 months our 110 houses have had 12 burglaries! The police told me that 9 of these were committed from the alley. Only two weeks ago my neighbour had her son’s bicycle stolen from the back yard and just yesterday Mrs Sharp found a used syringe outside her back gate! I’m sure you would agree with me that we have to do something about this and the police seem to think that by gating the entrances to our alleys we could really make a difference. They’ve shown me some gates already installed in some streets in Safetown, a mile away, and I was really impressed. I spoke to the lady who organised their gating project and she told me that since they were put up crime is much lower and everyone feels much safer.
I would very much like to know what you think about the idea and to start off I thought it would be right to drop you a line. I’ve organised a meeting at the Village Hall for 7pm on Thursday the 24th March and would love to see you there to get your views. In the meantime I would be most grateful if you could fill out the tear off slip and return it to me as soon as you can so that I’ve got some idea of how you think about it.
For a gating scheme to go ahead, you need the support of all those who may be affected, and protracted discussions may be necessary to achieve this. Quite rightly, everyone needs to be sure that what is planned is legal and that they will not suffer any detrimental side-effects. In some cases, you may need the services of a solicitor, or perhaps the advice of a senior fire officer about fire safety.
PLANNING PERMISSION AND PUBLIC RIGHTS OF WAY
Once you have obtained the support of your neighbours, you need to consult your local authority planning officer to determine if the gates require. If you do not live in one of the London boroughs, you also need to see the rights of way officer to establish if the alleyway has a public right of way running along it. In London, the planning officer can help with rights of way matters. A right of way can exist regardless of whether an alleyway is privately owned or adopted by a council.
Normally, planning permission will be required in the following circumstances:
- The gate is more than 2m (6 ft 6 in) high – the most effective gates usually are.
- The gate will abut a highway – normally a footway or a road.
- The buildings are listed.
- The location for the gate is in a conservation area.
Therefore, in most cases, you will need planning permission. If the planning officer advises you that planning permission is required, try to deal with all of the gates in one application to save costs.
Until very recently, it would not have been possible to remove a right of way for the purposes of preventing crime.
Of course, nothing is as simple as it may first seem, and for a local highways authority to obtain a closure order for an alleyway, they have to follow a set procedure. First, the highways authority have to submit a report to the Secretary of State detailing the area in which they want to close or divert a right of way and giving all the reasons they wish to do so. If this is to prevent crime, they must show how the rights of way are contributing to the crime and specify the types of crime involved.
Once the Secretary of State has designated the area, the highways authority must seek an order from the Magistrates Court to close or divert the right of way. Once again, they have to make their case, this time specifying the right of way involved. At each stage of the process, the highways authority must invite objections from interested parties by posting notices at the entrances to the alley and placing adverts in local newspapers. In most cases, they will receive objections, and it is for the magistrates to consider these when making their decision about issuing an order. Until the courts have ruled on the matter, there can be no guarantee that you will be able to remove the right of way and gate the alleyway.
If you are faced with determined opposition, you may need to seek a compromise. Very often, a network of alleys will comprise a main ‘through’ alley which runs from street to street, with narrower paths branching off it to run behind the houses. In this situation, it might be possible to gate the branch paths and leave the ‘through’ route open, improving security by upgrading the walls and fences on each side of it.
Some organisations that are likely to oppose the gating of any alleyway will often state that there is no evidence to support police claims of reduced crime levels. However, there are many websites that provide a wealth of independent research giving clear evidence of the positive impact of gating. These can be found by searching the Internet for ‘alleygates’ or ‘alley gates’. Make sure you print off and keep this information and use it to back up your case.
WHO OWNS THE ALLEYWAY?
You must make all reasonable enquiries to establish ownership of the alleyway, as you will need permission from the owner to erect the gates. In many cases, however, it may not be possible to find out, as ownership would have remained with the original house builders, who may no longer exist. Sometimes, half each belongs to the owners of the houses that back on to it; in other cases, it belongs to the house owners along one side only, the others merely having rights of access. Examine your house deeds to establish what rights of access you have. If difficulties arise in respect of ownership, you should consult a solicitor in the first instance.
HOW MUCH WILL IT COST?
It is not possible to say exactly how much a gate will cost. It is important to tell the manufacturer exactly what you want the gate to do by setting out the requirement. From this, the manufacturer will develop a suitable specification for you to examine.
You may be able to get a grant to help with your gating scheme, and the first step is to approach your local authority’s community safety department. Some local authorities actively support gating projects and may be able to help in other ways. You could also seek the help of local businesses, which may benefit from an overall reduction of crime in the area.
There are, of course, other aspects to be costed. These include administration, such as letters, photocopying and stamps; maintenance – repainting, oiling and repairs, including clearing and cleaning the alleyway and its future maintenance; insuring the gates against claims of injury; and various legal fees for the planning application and, if necessary, removing a right of way. You may have to consider an annual charge on the residents, and many successful gating projects have led to the setting up of residents’ associations not only to oversee the installation and maintenance of the gates, but also to act as a voice for all the residents on any issues that arise in future. Indeed, it is a good idea to set up a ‘gating committee’ or residents’ association from the outset, with an elected chair, treasurer and so on. It should have its own bank account too.
Many alleyways become totally overgrown or filled with rubbish, all of which will needbefore the gating scheme can go ahead. Some local authorities will provide a free community skip for this purpose, so it is worth asking.
SETTING OUT THE REQUIREMENTS FOR AN ALLEY GATE
Writing down the requirements for a gate will ensure that the maker of the gate knows exactly what you want it to do and where you want it installed. When the manufacturer has produced a suitable design, you can evaluate the gate against your needs; only when you are satisfied that all your requirements have been met should you part with the money. This is particularly important when you are handling a fund that has been donated by a large number of people. It is essential to keep your neighbours informed at every step of the way.
See ‘typical example of the requirements for an alleygate’, which will covers most of your needs. Use it as a basis for discussion with your neighbours before writing your own. The explanation and reasoning behind various points are given in italics.
You may not consider this an essential requirement, but it would be useful to install a low-energy light above the gate. Almost certainly, you will have to rely on one of the adjacent householders to do this, and although the gating funds can repay them for the cost of the installation, it is more than likely that they will have to accept the responsibility of maintaining the light, unless you can come to some financial arrangement to pay them for theconsumed and the cost of replacement bulbs.
DEALING WITH TUNNELS
In some cases, an alleyway starts as a tunnel that passes below an overhead building. In this situation, because climbing will not be a concern, you can have any design of gate you like. If there is a window directly above the gate, it would be wise to fit it with locks, even though a break-in through a front first-floor window is unlikely. The fire brigade may insist that a gate in this situation is only bolted from the inside, rather than locked, to enable an easy escape from the alley in an emergency.
WHO WILL MAKE AND INSTALL THE GATE?
Locksmiths who are members of the Master Locksmiths Association can provide and install alley gates. They know about locks, think along security lines, normally are local to the area they serve and have a good knowledge of the potential crime risks. Some make gates themselves, while others may take the design to a steel fabricator. Alternatively, you may decide to approach one of the many specialist manufacturers that have sprung up in recent years. If so, start by going to the Police Secured by Design website and the gate manufacturers listed in the Useful Contacts. It is advisable to get three.
During the planning stage of your gating project, you must consider the non-residents who will need access to the alleyway. Depending on the type of alley, this can be quite a long list:
Firefighters will always use the shortest route possible to reach the seat of a fire or someone who is trapped. This is unlikely to be an alleyway unless the building on fire is next to it. However, if the alleyway is wide and contains fire hydrants, you must ensure that the fire brigade have access to them. This may mean fitting a lock to the gate for which the brigade have keys. Normally, they are very positive about gating schemes and will do all they can to help. The important thing is to inform the local fire station commander about your plans and ensure that you follow his or her advice.
Wide alleyways will often contain electricity cables,pipes, drains and sewers, and telephone and television cables and cabinets. In this situation, you must allow provision for their maintenance, and one way of doing this is to fit each gate with a sign giving contact details for several people locally who can open the gate. Bear in mind that the houses adjacent to the gate will be the ones whose doors are knocked on most regularly by non-residents wanting access, and their residents must be prepared to take on this responsibility.
Council refuse collection and maintenance
Some alleys are still used as routes for refuse collection, the bins being left out by the back gates of the houses. Since gating, some councils have switched the bin collections to the fronts of the houses and have benefited from unexpected savings in time and costs for the operation. Additional savings have been made by not having to collect fly-tipped rubbish from alleys and destroy associated vermin. Fire brigades have reported big reductions in small rubbish fires, often set by children playing with matches. Moreover, a gated alleyway becomes a much safer place for children to play, because they cannot run out into the road and are less likely to encounter strangers.
Expect to take at least six months from the conception of the project to its completion. After the gates have been erected, you will need to meet with your committee on a regular basis to keep an eye on the gates and sort out any problems as they emerge. When they have been up for a year, reassess the crime information to see if things have improved. Let your neighbours know the results of the assessment.
There are huge advantages to be gained from gating a network of alleys that is blighted by anti-social behaviour. The good news is that, nowadays, most local planning authorities will not approve applications for new developments that include ungated pathways to the rear of houses and other buildings. It seems that the lessons of the past have been learned.