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Tragedy on the streets

31 August, 2011
As riots spread across the UK last month, forecourt retailers battened down the hatches and braced themselves for night after night of violence and looting. Amy Lanning reports

Images of Dudley Road Service Station in Birmingham fenced off by Police cordon after three men were mown down and killed in front of the forecourt, hit home the tragic consequences of the violent disorder that spread across England last month.

After the incident in the early hours of August 10, the Jet-branded site in Winston Green, which had been attacked by looters the previous night, was closed while police carried out a murder investigation. The three men killed were protecting local businesses, including the Jet site, following unrest in the close-knit community the night before.

After a planned protest over the death of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, north London descended into anarchy on the night of Saturday August 6, violence and looting scattered across the capital, spreading as far north as Manchester. Night after night rioters continued to attack businesses and terrorise local communities.

A stop-and-search of a local youth was reported to have sparked clashes in Hackney, north London on the Monday afternoon. Youths responded with a march of destruction, smashing windows, looting shops, setting fire to cars and bins, and hurling missiles at the police. Gangs looted a Texaco/Spar petrol station in Mare Street and rumours on Twitter indicated that kids tried to ignite petrol pumps but luckily "wimped out".

Petrol stations throughout the UK voluntarily suspended sales of petrol in cans and many sites were forced to close. Top 50 Indies Park Garage Group and MRH Retail both closed sites in London as rioting intensified in the capital.

John Lynn, managing director of MRH, said the group closed 10 sites in the proximity of the riots. "We were lucky to avoid any damage and all the sites were okay," he said. "There was some rioting nearby but not close to the sites. We lost afternoon and evening sales on the 10 closed sites and we suspended all container sales during the riot period. We told staff to increase use of the night pay hatch where necessary and close the site if they were worried because their safety comes first."

Police also used MRH's site in Southall as a base for dealing with the violence and looting in Ealing, West London. "We ceased trading there but we were happy to co-operate with the police," said Lynn.

Park Garage's Sevenways Service Station in Stretford, Manchester suffered minor looting when opportunisitic youths smashed a window and robbed cigarettes. Miles Harvey, operations director of Park Garage Group, said: "We are fortunate not to have been in the worst of it. A group of no more than 10 youths so not a mass crowd broke a window and took some cigarettes; it was nothing catastrophic. It was nothing on the Richter scale of what other people suffered."

Park Garage closed five sites around London early under the advice of local police. Instead of closing at 10 or 11pm, sites in Old Kent Road, Croydon, Sydenham and two in Enfield shut up at 7pm two days' running.

"The police were very proactive and we heeded their recommendation to be diligent and close early to ensure staff got home safely in daylight hours," said Harvey. "We suffered moderate losses but considering what the climate was like around those sites there wouldn't have been many people out shopping anyway."

All sectors of the retail industry pulled together to help affected businesses rebuild their livelihoods. Richard Hayhoe, marketing director at Palmer and Harvey, says: "Palmer and Harvey sent out guidance to our Mace shopkeepers via email to ensure they were well-informed and taking practical measures to keep themselves, their stock and their property safe.

"We rearranged deliveries to affected areas; ensuring retailers' goods arrived when it was convenient for them. We also ensured all our lorry drivers were fully aware of safety procedures and were never putting themselves in danger while continuing to do everything within their power to deliver for our customers."

The Association of Convenience Stores called for government to promote the message that 'people are more important than property' in a meeting with Home Secretary Theresa May on the Tuesday. Attended by ACS chief executive James Lowman and other business representatives, the meeting was called to discuss the impact of the riots on retailers and look at how businesses could stay safe in the continuing volatile climate.

ACS chief executive James Lowman said: "Retailers need to hear a consistent message from government that the safety of people is more important than property."

On August 10 Prime Minister David Cameron announced a package of measures to help communities and businesses affected. Any individual, including businesses, were told they would be able to make a claim under the Riot Damages Act even if they were not insured. The time period to reclaim losses was extended from 14 days to 42 days.

The representatives of the British insurance industry promised government they would process claims quickly, and a £20m high street support scheme was announced. Local councils were given the ability to offer business rates relief for affected premises, and the liability for council tax and business rates was stopped. Cameron also said unnecessary planning regulations, which, for example, make it difficult to install security shutters, would be weeded out and a £10m fund was to be made available to help repair communities.


PROTECT YOUR PREMISES: CHECKLIST

Robert Botkai (pictured right), head of Commercial Property & Licensing at solicitors Winckworth Sherwood, said the implications of the riots for individuals and businesses alike can be huge. In a briefing note he revealed what owners or occupiers of commercial property need to be aware of when seeking to protect their business:

Insurance

A commercial lease will usually prescribe the risks against which the landlord must insure. Riot, civil commotion and malicious damage are standard risks you can expect a landlord to insure against. Where the lease does not prescribe the risks, it does not necessarily mean a landlord is not insuring against them. You will need to see a copy of the policy to assess the risks covered. If the risk is covered you should speak to the landlord about making a claim to the insurance company.

Rent suspension

If a lease requires a landlord to insure against loss of rent, it will usually provide for the rent to be suspended until the damage has been repaired or, if earlier, until the end of the loss of rent insurance period. A commercial lease will usually allow parties to terminate the lease where rebuilding works have not commenced or completed within a certain period or the landlord considers rebuilding impossible.

Keep open

It is important to check your lease obligations. While your lease may require you to trade at certain times, there can be exceptions set out in the lease. A common exception is where the property has been damaged. If a lease contains an unqualified obligation to trade, a tenant may have great difficulty in complying with it. In the circumstances, a tenant should speak to its landlord without delay.

Notifying landlords

It is common in almost all commercial leases for a tenant to be under an obligation to notify a landlord when a property has suffered damage. Although the riots have been widely broadcasted, a tenant should ensure its landlord is aware that the property has been damaged and the extent of that damage.

Boarding up

Boarding up is a quick and cost-effective way of protecting property. However, this may be seen as an alteration or addition to the property, which is prohibited under the lease without the consent of the landlord. In the circumstances, a landlord is likely to grant consent to you boarding up a property to protect against damage from rioters. However, there is no harm in informing a landlord if you have, or intend to, board up a property for protection.

Valuable goods such as alcohol, tobacco and mobile phones need to be secured. Keeping your stock safe in order to restore your business is key. Media footage has shown that boarding up properties is not sufficient to deter looting. It is therefore imperative that valuable goods are locked away, out of sight.