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Enforcement – a thankless task

The other week, I had the opportunity to shadow the Harrow Council Housing Enforcement Officers, who feature with me on for Channel 5’s ‘Nightmare Tenants Slum Landlords’.

Whilst my day to day job revolves aroundhelping landlords take back possession of their properties, I’m also acutelyaware of the lack of enforcement that exists to rid our industry of the roguelandlords.

I wanted to learn more about what HarrowCouncil’s team of Housing Enforcement Officers do on a daily basis and whatchallenges they are up against.

The overarching challenge was glaringlyobvious from the moment I arrived – resource!

A local authority may designate the wholeof their district or part of their district to be subject to selectivelicensing. In Harrow, different wards go through a consultation process todetermine what measures are necessary.

Harrow Council’s selective licensing aimsto tackle a significant and persistent problem with anti-social behaviour (ASB)associated with private rented homes. Research by the council found that somewards within its borough suffer from high levels anti-social behaviour, aboveaverage rates for serious crime, high levels of fly-tipping and noise nuisance.The schemes are designed to make a difference to residents, community,businesses and the vulnerable.

However, with 1750 properties requiringlicenses but just four Housing Enforcement Officers and one person dealing withlicence applications, the backlog is extensive and the task ahead thankless.

I followed Ozzy and Andrew, HousingEnforcement Officers for Harrow Council on two property inspections. The firstwas to a property where bed sheets had been hung as curtains and was suspectedto be an unlicensed HMO. It turned out to be false alarm as it was occupied bythe owner. The second visit was to a property in Edgeware, following up on aprevious visit to ensure the landlord had abided by instructions to fixdisrepair issues.

At the moment, councils have the power tohand out civil penalty notices of £5000 (although half of London councils didnot issue any fines last year) or even place a banning order on landlords. Theproblem is without resource there is little enforcement of these. Ozzy andAndrew told me that a lot of the time, councils don’t want to slap notices onstraight away as they want landlords to be given the opportunity to comply. Toa certain extent, I agree, but it’s important that tenants have a safeenvironment to live, so any opportunity for landlords to make improvements MUSTthen be followed up which requires time and head-count.

They also told me that banning orders,which are generally issued to the worst offenders, were very hard to enforce,very convoluted and resource intensive which is why there have been very few.

Councils have the challenging role of goingto numerous properties to enforce against naive and criminal landlords butproblem is every borough has a different budget and different resourceconstraints. In Newham, for example, they have approximately 30 officerscompared to Harrow’s four. From speaking with team, they desperately need morehelp but budget restrictions mean they are using agency staff rather thanemploying full time officers and they often don’t have the knowledge or skillsrequired to be able to carry out work alone.

It is quite clear from sitting with theteam at Harrow Council that they care passionately about their job ofprotecting tenants, but they are so overwhelmed with work, it’s easy for themto become demoralized. I asked the head of the Housing Enforcement team, JoSmith, what would be your wish list, and she said:

-             Simplifying enforcementnotices
-             Making the procedure lessonerous
-             Having a an up to datedatabase
-             Most crucially, more trainedofficers

For me, it was a real eye opener shadowingthe team and the barriers they are up against. With the growing private rented sector their roles are more importantthan ever before. However, enforcement of measures designed to protect tenantsand weed out rogue landlords are inconsistent from borough to borough, it’s apostcode lottery. It’s all very well regulating landlords, and the good guys arehappy to comply, but if its enforcement is inconsistent from one borough toanother due to resource constraints then it’s ineffective as a whole.

Obviously the first issue is resource, butwhere possible, councils do need to put greater emphasis on ensuring thoseproperties which should have licenses, do have them.  This would then provide funds that can beringfenced and re-invested into enforcement so that the standard of propertiesimproves. With 1200 properties still to investigate, theteam of four at Harrow Council really are unsung heroes.


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