I’m going to start with a slap around the face. For many of my colleagues.
Enforcing the private rented sector is the sole preserve of local authorities. Offences are many and numerous. Criminal landlord activity isn’t confined to a single piece of legislation, or a single district.
The biggest gift to criminal landlords is silo working.
The more a council officer sticks to demarcation, “Not my job, not my responsibility”, hiding behind GDPR, Data Protection, the easier it is for criminals to get away with its.
Conversely, the better connected enforcement teams are and not just in a single authority, or even in local authority districts, the harder it is for the criminals to operate.
I’ve got to say this. A huge amount of local authorities are terrible at multi agency working, that’s a fact. I make no apologies.
Not all and sense those that are will be feeling their hackles rise at this provocation but do you know what? Good! There is always room to up your game.
Its meant to be a challenge.
I usually find that the enforcement officers aren’t to blame, the fault lies with the council administration and their operational strategies.
Such strategies varying from zero tolerance enforcement attitudes, right through to the wishy-washy “We prefer to work with our landlords” pronouncements trotted out by councillors and press offices., that makes me hop up and down in anger.
No prizes for guessing where I sit in all this. I’m enforcement to my bones, I’m not a social worker.
What do I mean by “Multi agency working”? EHOs going out with planning enforcement and TROs?
That’s a bit of multi agency working and we are seeing it more and more but not the whole, creative picture.
EHOs – deal with property conditions and HMO management regs. They have a host of legal tools that enables them to demand information from landlords, agents and property owners and the ability to apply for entry warrants.
Planning enforcement officers – have powers to order demolition of structures or conversion of properties back to single dwellings.
Building control – responsible for signing off building works and are, I say again, in my experience and without apology, generally the most reluctant to apply their enforcement roles.
TROs – landlord and tenant law specialists, who can protect renters from harassment and illegal eviction and prosecute landlords and agents for breaches. Sadly rarer than a Dodo due to austerity cuts, resulting solely from the fact that there isn’t a duty on a local authority to provide such a service.
Trading Standards Officers – Empowered with a host of tools to tackle dodgy letting agents, who increasingly constitute the largest part of Private Rented Sector property fraud, who already get away with it for 2 reasons
a) TSOs are becoming rarer than TROs because of cuts and
b) often lack of vision among members who don’t recognize the importance of the role in housing enforcement. Many of the worst properties being rented out, are above shops, where TSOs more commonly ply their trade but don’t necessarily involve themselves in the residential units above.
Bear in mind that these council teams exist in each local authority and criminal landlords and agents don’t confine themselves to council borders and yet information sharing protocols between individual authorities is again, often very poor.
If inter-borough joint working is usually not very slick, partnership working outside of local authorities can be even worse.
The Fire Brigade are often dealing with the same properties as the local authority and often for the same reasons but from a different legislative background but a few creative partnerships aside, particularly Luton council, there isn’t much in the way of shared information or a partnership approach.
HMRC…..now I’m going to be contentious here and let the reader into some insider knowledge.
The tax man has a group called the “Hidden economy team”. They are divided into two sections, those monitoring landlords and agents registered but not paying tax on designated properties and a team monitoring landlords and agents who aren’t registered at all.
HMRC have always been a problem partner, in that they are happy to receive information given but by virtue of their legal processes, are completely unable to pass information back down the line.
Housing enforcement officers regularly complain that they spend months getting a landlord on the ropes, only to find HMRC take them down for their own breaches, before housing enforcement get to the finishing line, because they are unable to share information.
Or more commonly, that they provide detailed information but are never told what happened as a result.
While HMRC operate outside of the housing enforcement loop, they aren’t a popular choice for multi agency approaches, even though housing enforcement could give them more work than they could cope with.
Maybe that’s the reason.
UKBA – the immigration police are often involved with loads of properties of interest to housing enforcement but going on a raid with them is a bit unnerving, given the black uniforms, stab vests, ear-pieces and general heaviness.
They can be genuinely useful partners but most housing enforcement types, geared towards helping renters, can often find themselves feel like they are acting as an extra in “S.W.A.T the movie”.
Utility company revenue protection officers. 5 or 6 years ago, when I was Lewisham Council’s TRO, British Gas and EDF revs were our greatest source of intel. They would be hitting properties where there were no record of a utility supply, only to find massively overcrowded, unlicensed HMOs and call them in.
The best eyes and ears we ever had but most of them have been made redundant and the coup is, that if a utility company discovers theft of supply, then they have to settle the bill, so there is little enthusiasm, nay, even active discouragement, when it comes to identifying theft of electricity, unless it’s a cannabis farm of seriously dangerous.
You are more likely to be harassed for not paying a legitimate bill than you are for fiddling your meter. Trust me.
Operational difficulties aside, putting all these people together is what a real multi-agency operation looks like and this is what it takes to completely close down a criminal operation.
Criminal landlords aren’t just doing one thing and they aren’t just doing it in one area. We have a saying at Safer Renting, borne out of experience, “If they are doing one thing, they’re doing everything”.
Tackling a criminal just for planning breaches or harassment, doesn’t go anywhere near tackling all their activities and the more organisations and teams involved, the harder it is for them to operate.
Back in my Lewisham days, we had a landlord who had converted a property into an 11 bed HMO. An attending police officer told us this and I, as the TRO, told the planning officer, who approached the landlord for entry, only to be refused. He then went to the magistrates court for an entry warrant, which was refused because the magistrate refused to take the word of the attending police officer.
What we subsequently found out, was that whilst insisting to planning enforcement, that the property was a single family dwelling, he had paid to license it as an HMO, relying quite rightly, on the fact that planning and EHOs didn’t talk to each other.
Criminal landlords arent taking the piss…….when we don’t utilise multi agency working, we giving it away.
Paraphrasing Edmund Burke “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”, I would say, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of criminal landlords, is for councils to work in silos”.