by | May 1, 2021 | Safer Renting

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I have read a couple of things this week online, talking of low rates of legal action by local authorities in a variety of circumstances relating to housing and renting in general.

I agree with all of them.

Rates of landlord prosecution or advocacy for renters is extremely low and the articles are correct in identifying lack of staffing in local authorities as one of the main culprits and yes, the local authorities themselves can often be overly bureaucratic to their own detriment and yes, individual staff can be inflexible and unhelpful but no more so than any other organization. Its just people being people. It isn’t peculiar to local authorities.

The articles I read regularly not just this week, usually give a cursory acknowledgement of the lack of staffing and resources as a softener but the emphasis is mainly skewed towards the view that really, it’s the council who are at fault and this is where I part company with those views.

I speak from a position of someone who has spent the lion’s share of his working life in frontline housing services for local authorities and as someone who has on occasions delivered consultancy services to help them improve the way they work.

Having acknowledged that some criticisms are appropriate I want to provide a bit of reality check for critics.

Councils have always been under funding pressures but never more so than over the past 10 years with austerity measures being the prevailing economic system.

So many jobs have gone because of these measures and the remaining staff put under such pressure that they opt for early retirement as soon as they can or even just get out of the game and do other things.

In many London boroughs, letting agents number in the several hundred. Agents are policed by trading standards officers but those same boroughs are often only able to employ one or two TSOs, so dodgy letting agents get away with more than they should be allowed to, simply because there isn’t the funding to create effectively staffed trading standards teams. Govt would rather such services were privatized so they wouldn’t have to provide any funding at all.

Also you need to understand that a lot of dubious agency workings go on using online portals, including websites that aren’t even based in the UK.

Property conditions are down to Environmental Health Officers. The size of EHO teams varies from borough to borough as does their approach to rogue landlord activity, which can often be driven by elected cabinet members in different authorities, who decide on the policies their council should adopt, meaning that some councillors, as you can infer from press quotes, prefer to “Work with landlords”. A phrase that as a zero-tolerance kind of guy, makes my blood boil.

Leaving aside limp policies imposed by members, you also have to also look at the staffing levels among EHOs themselves. Something which Dr Stephen Battersby and Karen Buck MP did in 2018 when they produced their troubling findings in a report revealing that, using information on the size of the PRS based on the 2011 census that the reported staffing levels in local authorities of EHOs, based on 2016 figures, the only ones available at in 2018, there were only 2.4 EHOs for every 10,000 PRS lettings in London, slightly more elsewhere.

12 years on from the census, the size of the PRS, as we are about to find out thanks to the current census, is much bigger and staffing levels continue to fall, so those 2.4 EHOs per 10,000 properties is likely a much wider disparity than the Battersby/Buck report.

Imagine being an EHO with a potential caseload of around 5,000 properties each. Its no wonder so many are seeking greener pastures, when the vicissitudes of dealing with just one rogue landlord eats up weeks of your time in reports and enforcement paperwork.

True, government introduced the ability for council’s to opt for Civil Penalty Notices (CPN) as an alternative to fines, enabling the council to keep the penalty money to fund enforcement but there is one big Devil in the detail that government didn’t factor in, the real world difficulty of recovering money gained through those very penalties.

Serious rogue landlords, the ones you really want to be concentrating on, are often skilled fraudsters as well, employing a battery of aliases and utilising limited company status with no assets, to both evade detection and avoid having to pay anything if the council are successful.

Getting a CPN, is only stage one; actually recovering the money quite another thing, requiring a different skill set AND the time to do it.

In just 2 recent Rent Repayment Orders, successfully obtained by Safer Renting through the same Tribunal mechanism as CPNs, it took weeks to go through the debt recovery process and freeze the bank accounts of landlords who refused to pay up. One was successful but in the other case, despite the award, there wasn’t enough money in the bank account to recoup the debt.

More commonly, where the subject of the penalty is a limited company, they simply dissolve before paying.

So the notion of council’s being able to fund enforcement through CPNs is seriously flawed as a working model.

Finally Tenancy Relations Officers, TROs, the persons charged with dealing with harassment and illegal eviction.

Thanks to austerity cuts, the majority of councils either no longer have a TRO service or have tacked that function onto a different officer who is doubling up on duties and doesn’t really have the specific knowledge or skill set to really make a decent fist of it.

In addition, TRO work, like that of the EHO, is also plagued with dodgy characters using aliases and chains of responsibility between fake companies, so that even something as basic as being able to identify who the landlord is becomes a war all of it’s own before you are able to do anything else.

In the past year we have turned to using the excellent services of Rightway Compliance, a tracing company who help us sift through the fog of identities, just so we can identify the right person to negotiate with.

I have never known things to be this bad, such is the growth in fraudulent practices in the private rented sector and it continues to get worse as the rogues get more practised at being rogues.

So when you criticise local authorities for not doing an effective job I would prefer it if you would point the finger of blame where it really should be, incessant government cuts.

Yes government have gifted enforcement officers all manner of new laws and penalties in the past few years but they wont seriously change the rogue and criminal landscape unless councils are given enough resources to use those laws.

Many local authorities that I know, tell me how hard it is to recruit new people into posts, because so many people have gotten out of these jobs in recent years, recognising what a futile task it is so much of the time. That perception not being helped by articles blaming councils for being incompetent – an all too lazy target.

When you just bash the council, you are giving ammunition to govt. Cursory asides acknowledging lack of funding arent enough, you need to change your focus

 By Ben Reeve Lewis

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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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