The secret weapons in burglary war

The garden strikes back. Richard Phillips on the Metropolitan Police's new plan to combat crime with brambles, thickets and climbers
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The Independent Online
At the Chelsea Flower Show this month, the Metropolitan Police will launch a bold new initiative to combat burglars: plants. Or, more precisely, plants that can inflict injury, slow down a thief, or otherwise make his job that much harder.

In conjunction with Essex police, the force has concluded a two-year study into the effectiveness of plants as a deterrent to thieves. The Met already has produced a leaflet for homeowners - The Garden Strikes Back - on how to make use of plants in the fight against crime.

Front windows at ground level can have suitable shrubs planted in flower beds beneath them. Garden fences can have climbing plants planted below, such as rubus, an ornamental bramble, or cultivars, a medium-sized shrub with prickly stems. You should also talk to your local nursery about the best plants for your needs.

Using these plants may not only be useful in stopping a thief gaining access. Every thief will check a property for an escape route before breaking in. A route blocked by thickets of unpleasant thorns is one less getaway route - as well as one less way into your home.

Indeed, much of the work you can do starts outside your house, before you look at the details of securing your home on the inside. Use shingle on your drive and in any flower beds abutting your property; the noise it makes from people's footsteps is a deterrent, and may alert you to a burglar's presence.

Garden fences, as a first line of defence, also need careful consideration. High fencing is best. Try to avoid lattice-style horizontal fencing which is easy for the thief to climb. Instead, use a strong upright trellis- type fence; if you already have a lattice fence, then put a trellis fence on top of it. Fences can also have what is called an arris rail at the top. Make sure this faces into your property, or the thief can use it to gain a grip.

Install such devices as razor-barbed wire at the top of your fence, trained guard dogs and anti-climbing paint and you move into a murkier area.

Clearly, a slavering Rottweiler may be enough to put off all but the most determined thief. But if the dog is roaming free in the garden and it catches and hurts an intruder, you may find yourself on the receiving end of a damages claim. The same can be true for anti-climbing paint and other potentially injurious devices. If you do use these, you should have signs up that warn any intruder that the property is thus protected.

Garden sheds also need to be secure; thieves often break into them first to get the tools they need to force open windows - in preference to walking down the street carrying a crow bar.

And even before you buy a property, there are steps you can take to limit your exposure to theft. It may sound obvious, but the estate agent's cry of location, location and location is equally true for the thief.

So when you are house hunting, be wary of houses with alleyways running around the back or side; houses where there are large gardens at the back; or homes with hedgerows in the front garden which could shield an intruder from passers-by. All of these make ideal locations for the thief. Likewise, windows or a point of entry at basement-level are attractive to burglars.

But if you live in a flat you're fairly safe, unless it's on the ground floor.

You can contact the police for information about the area into which you are moving. They will not comment on individual properties but they will tell you if the area is high or low risk, and they may give you some information about the street. They can also provide details about any local Neighbourhood Watch schemes.

In conjunction with local councils, some residential areas now have closed- circuit television surveillance, as part of a project called the Inner City Challenge launched by the Home Office three years ago. Some of these schemes have been highly effective at reducing burglary rates.

After taking these initial steps, contact your local police station and ask for a crime prevention officer to visit you. He or she will go over every aspect of your property, and give you advice on internal security.

Glass in doors should be laminated, or coated. Grills come in all shapes and sizes, from shields suitable for glass-door frames, to those made for windows and back doors. Many are aesthetically acceptable, as well as offering sound defence.

Apart from seeking advice from the police, you should also check the small print of your household contents and buildings insurance for the discounts available for different types of protection.

The better protected you are, the cheaper your policy will be, and most insurers offer advice of some sort on crime prevention. Norwich Union has a video, Beat the Burglar, made with help from three men who know their subject: they are reformed burglars.

Be aware that the front door of your home should be at least 1.75" thick, and be supported by three 4" hinges. It must have a sound timber frame, and be securely bolted or screwed to the door frame. Fit a door viewer and/or limiter, and always use them when answering the door to strangers.

The growing popularity of sliding patio doors has been a godsend for burglars. Many are relatively easy to open. If you have a sliding door, make sure it is secure.

For the front door you will need a good quality automatic dead-latch cylinder lock, fitted about one third of the way down the door. As well as that, fit a good quality five-lever British standard 3621 mortice deadlock, about a third of the way up the door. You can also use metals strips or plates to reinforce the door against being kicked or pushed in.

The police have leaflets which outline the different locks and fittings you can use to bolster your windows.

And, whenever you are in any doubt or have a security question, call in your crime prevention officer for a professional opinion.

None of this work can guarantee against a break in. As one locksmith wearily informed me, as he replaced the mortice lock following a burglary: "It wouldn't take me 20 seconds to get through this with a good skeleton set, and it's the same for a good professional thief."

But at least you are keeping out the opportunist thief, who is thought to account for up to 80 per cent of all break-ins.