by | Oct 21, 2020 | Safer Renting

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Working at the coalface of criminal renting you find yourself plugged into trends like a piece of landlord/tenant litmus paper.

We had a team meeting this morning, as we do at 9am every day, where we throw our questions, stories and downright moans, out to the 10 people that constitute our team, seeking advice, ideas, support and sarcastic responses that keep spirits up.

Today we were talking about how we are seeing a bit of a spike in cases where landlords and agents are disconnecting utilities in order to drive renters from their properties. None of which is that unusual as a tactic but we have more than our fair share of cases where this is coming to the fore, in a way that we weren’t seeing at the start of 2020.

A spike is not a trend per se but you cant help noticing and wondering where this is going and I’ve often wondered if there is some form of social club where the little scamps meet to swap ideas. Such is the situation with criminal activity.

I remember years ago seeing a spate of tenants being served with s33 notices to end assured shorthold  tenancies, which works fine if you live in Scotland, where they are the local version of s21 but in England a completely useless document.

Somehow they had become de rigeur for idiots and you cant help wondering if they are gathering behind the bike sheds swapping ideas like old Pink Floyd bootlegs.

The problem we are hitting is that the renters often don’t know how the disconnection of utilities has taken place and restrictions on home visits mean we find it difficult to actually see how they have done it.

All people can tell us is that they have no heating or hot water.

In the old days it was common practice for landlords or agents to just pull out fuses  but in more modern times consumer units AKA Fuse Boxes, are mainly of the trip switch variety, where you can isolate different parts of accommodation, not just the lights or power switches.

In some of our cases the consumer unit is locked into a cupboard under the stairs, so the renter doesn’t have access without prising the cupboard door open and being accused of criminal damage.

In a couple of cases we have just now, the landlord is resident in the same building with only one meter but the renter doesn’t have heating while the landlord still does. So it’s difficult on a technical level to figure out how they have pulled that one off.

Sometimes the supply is cut off by the energy supplier but if the bill is in the landlord’s name the supplier wont discuss the case with the tenant or their representatives, ie, us, so you cant even find out why the supply has been cut or investigate a remedy. You just meet “Computer says no” at every turn.

We are currently fighting the corner of one tenant, resident since 2011 on the basis of rent inclusive of bills, where there is only one meter for the 2 residential units and the landlord’s shop on the ground floor.

In December 2019 the landlord, who hadn’t paid the bill for 9 years, running up a tally of £15,000 arrears, contacted the supplier, EDF and told them that the tenant was the one responsible for the bill, so EDF are now pursuing the tenant for £15,000 for 2 residential units and a shop, solely on the premise that the landlord told them it wasn’t his responsibility, a claim that EDF have swallowed hook, line and sinker, which is the equivalent of putting your week’s shopping through the till at Tesco and telling the cashier that the bloke behind you in the queue will be paying and the cashier accepts this without question.

The tenant never approached EDF about taking on a supply, EDF have just taken the landlord’s word for it.

So here is the nub of the problem:-

·         Criminal landlords and agents are disconnecting utility supplies to drive renters out.

·         The renter doesn’t usually know how they have done it.

·         Restrictions on visits mean we cant always check to see how it is done and photographs aren’t always useful.

·         There is usually no information on who has done it. Landlords and agents deny any knowledge or responsibility.

·         The energy companies wont talk to anyone not named on the account.

At the bottom of all this is a family living without heating and hot water.

Obviously this is a Category 1 hazard under the Housing Health And Safety Rating System which takes you down two roads:-

·         The council can serve emergency remedial notices to remedy the problem.

·         While the household are without heating or hot water a case can be made that they are homeless within the meaning of the Act on the basis that it is not reasonable to remain.

Remedial notices give a landlord a certain amount of time to fix the problem and a homelessness unit are allowed to presume that what might be unreasonable in the long term, might not be unreasonable in the short term, particularly where the EHOs are taking steps to remedy the problem.

Plus, being blunt, many homelessness units don’t get the nuances and will not accept a homelessness application without a possession order, a bailiff’s warrant or a family with black bin liners sitting in reception.

EHOs can serve notices but then usually get dragged into the usual bullshit of “Its not me its him” and the slew of aliases and fake companies that bedevil the shadow private rented sector.

Meanwhile you have a family with no utilities, EHOs desperately trying to gain evidence on who is who in the chain of responsibilities, courts that are so  dragged down to the bone that often injunctive relief is a pipe dream, let alone procuring a legal aid solicitor with capacity, utility companies that wont talk to anyone but an account holder and criminal landlords and agents who literally laugh all the way to the bank.

Of course the council also has the option of fixing problems themselves under general provisions known as “Works in default”, which allows the council to remedy problems and bill the landlord, except most councils don’t use this facility because they

a) cant guarantee getting the money back and

b), don’t have anyone in their teams to chase third party debt orders.

So here we are folks, a growing spike and maybe a trend, in criminals driving people from properties by disconnecting utilities where the practicalities of getting redress are wholly inadequate.

I’m starting to dread referred cases of utility disconnection because I know that procedurally they will end up nowhere for the most part.

Its an emergency situation with no emergency resolution. Everything is procedural, while the family sit around a candle with the kids waiting for justice that is not swift in coming.

Stopping this would be greatly enhanced if energy suppliers had a facility in place that bypassed account holder details and just focused on “Family without utilities. Sort the problem, make them safe and comfortable”, sort out the technicalities later but its just business, they dont understand how their services are being weaponised by criminals, let alone have the flexibility or focus to concentrate on the abuse of housing regulations underpinning their services.

If a situation of a family without utilities could be resolved by emergency intervention by utility companies in the same way that they can if the problem is called in by the account holder, this trend would be stopped overnight.

  Ben Reeve-Lewis

Safer Renting



About Cambridge House Safer Renting

The Cambridge House Safer Renting team present the ‘go-to’ blog on the world of the Shadow Private Rented Sector.

We monitor the world of rogue landlord and agent activity, publicise developments, circulate innovative ideas, keep readers abreast of changes in laws and regulations, raising awareness of criminal trends and scams, celebrate successful actions and interview people working in the field, connecting up anyone involved, from tenants and their advisers, to enforcement officers, lawyers and journalists.

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