Economic and Social Research Council
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Everybody needs good neighbours

As the nights start to draw in and with the clocks set to change plunging us into darkness by 17.00, observant neighbours are a greater deterrent to would-be burglars than expensive alarm systems or security patrols, according to a study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

The research found that whether neighbours - or even passers-by - can see a property’s entry and exit points has a big influence on the likelihood of it being burgled. Factors that made it easier for people to see any trouble - such as better street lighting and lower boundary walls - were also valuable. But some measures that might be expected to put off burglars, such as paying for a private security patrol, had little or no effect.

The research looked at burglaries of non-residential properties, such as shops, petrol stations and warehouses. It found that 50 per cent of them were burgled again within six months.

Businesses that have suffered a break-in often spend money to deter or repel future burglars, such as installing stronger locks on doors and windows. But the research suggests they might be better off spending their money helping to catch offenders.

That could include hidden CCTV cameras and "silent" alarms that tell the police when a break-in is taking place but don't alert the burglars.

"About 88 per cent of burglaries do not result in an arrest, so offenders know this is a relatively 'safe' crime," said Dr Tim Coupe, who led the research at Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge. "Because they know they are unlikely to get caught, they keep hitting the same properties again and again."

"If they are determined to break-in, it can be difficult or even impossible to stop them. Sometimes, the only way to stop them coming back is to catch them," he added.

A better understanding of the factors that made a repeat burglary more likely would help the Police to target their resources, he believes.

"Even with improved intruder detection systems, there are so many false alarms. Our research could help the Police to decide which ones are more likely to be crimes in progress, so they can respond to these first," said Dr Coupe. "It should also help them to give better advice on what property owners can do to protect their premises."

The factors that increased the chances of a repeat burglary included the kind of business conducted at the premises, whether neighbours and passers-by could see the entrances and exits, and what kind of property there was to steal.

The UK planning system tends to keep residential and non-residential areas separate, but mixing them together more could help to reduce burglary, suggested Dr Coupe.

"We can learn a lot from countries that take a more mixed approach to development. Offices and shops would be less likely to be burgled if they are below a residential apartment, for example. Friendly neighbours are nice to have, but just knowing you have any neighbours at all can be enough to make a burglar think again before attacking your premises," he said.

For further information contact:

  • Dr Tim Coupe
    Telephone: 01223 762968 (available from 22-24 October 2013)

ESRC Press Office:

Notes for editors

  1. This release is based on the findings from 'Offenders' targeting strategies and risks of detection at non-residential burglaries,' funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and carried out by Dr Tim Coupe at University of Cambridge. The findings have been discussed with senior police officers from the UK, US, Hong Kong, Australia, Sweden and elsewhere, with a particular focus on repeat burglary and how to increase arrest rates.
  2. Methodology: The findings are based on data collected from police incident logs, burglary site surveys, and questionnaires completed by police officers and burglary victims.
  3. The Economic and Social Research Council is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's total budget for 2012/13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.
  4. The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peers review. This research has been graded as good.

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