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Councils defend landlord prosecution rates

Local authorities hit back at ‘nonsense’ claims that housing licensing schemes don’t improve standards and penalise good landlords
06 December 2018 , Katie Coyne

Local authorities have hit back at ‘nonsense’ claims that housing licensing schemes don’t improve standards and simply penalise good landlords, and also defended the use of civil penalty powers.

The Residential Landlords Association (RLA) published a report that found two thirds of councils in England and Wales had not prosecuted a single landlord in 2017-18.

According to the report 89 per cent of councils had not made use of the new powers to issue civil penalty notices that became available in April, and 53 per cent had no policy in place to use the powers.

However, the report found the number of prosecutions commenced against a private landlord increased by 460 per cent between 2012-13 and 2017-18.

In addition, the RLA report found that the number of improvement notices being issued was up by 7 per cent. Of course if the landlord complies with these then they have no need to prosecute.

CIEH policy manager Tamara Sandoul said these figures highlight ‘large increases in the overall prosecution and enforcement activity – this is definitely a step in the right direction.’

The report attributes this dramatic rise in the number of prosecutions commenced to one borough in particular – Liverpool City Council, which introduced a city-wide selective licensing scheme covering all 30 of its wards in 2015. It has subsequently become a co-regulation scheme, which is supported by the RLA.

Since it was set up, the Liverpool scheme has issued 1,700 legal notices and taken 130 successful prosecutions. If this one borough is removed from the 460 per cent figure, the rise in prosecutions commenced would still be an increase of 69 per cent.

Sandoul said prosecutions need to be targeted at wrongdoers so it’s not necessarily the case that lots more prosecutions are needed. She said: ‘We would like to see many more local authorities taking formal action against rogue and criminal landlords in their areas.

‘This requires a clear and strong enforcement policy, adequate resources for the housing enforcement team and the political will locally to take a proactive approach on private rented housing.

‘Unfortunately, these elements do not always come together in every area. To be able to use civil penalty powers, local authorities must put in resources upfront and gain approval from local leaders.

‘It has been just over a year since the new powers came into force and we know that many teams are working hard to begin using these new powers or are in the process of setting up the systems to do so. We therefore consider that it is still too early to gauge the effect of these powers.’

EHN spoke to local authorities that run selective licensing schemes, who expressed concerns around funding and enforcement culture. The RLA report recommended that local authorities be given more funding to tackle rogue landlords.

Hastings Borough Council has a selective licensing scheme across seven of its wards and housing renewal manager Matthew China described it as taking a very ‘proactive’ stance against rogue landlords.

China said: ‘Selective licensing has certainly been effective for us as a lot of tenants are worried about retaliatory evictions and protection for notice of eviction is difficult to apply and landlords can evict the tenant before we can even inspect. Licensing allows us to inspect the property proactively where we come across people who are worried about complaining.

‘For a lot of local authorities who aren’t doing that enforcement work, it’s just having the resources to do it. We have a licensing scheme so we are able to fund resources to enforce it.’

Waltham Forest has a borough-wide selective licensing scheme and its head of selective licensing and regulation David Beach said: ‘If you are looking at properly funded and properly resourced licensing schemes I don’t think what they are saying is true – it’s complete nonsense.

‘I think it’s a vicious cycle, if you don’t have the resources, you don’t enforce. It’s hard to fund frontline, proactive enforcing capabilities if you don’t have a licensing scheme. We don’t mind taking on a 50/50 or even 50/60 case: if we lose it we lose it. We expect to be challenged but not all local authorities are in that position.

‘If you don’t have an enforcement background you can’t switch it on overnight. Some local authorities are more advanced then others when it comes to taking enforcement action, and they need support. It’s about confidence too.’

A Local Government Association spokesperson defended the work of local authorities. They said: ‘The private rented sector is growing and, with limited resources and competing funding pressures, councils are working hard to ensure that complaints from tenants are prioritised and dealt with appropriately.

‘Some may be resolved without the need for inspection and enforcement is a last resort when all other options fail. When councils do prosecute they are too often being hamstrung by a system not fit for the 21st century. It can take more than a year to bring prosecutions and in many cases paltry fines are handed out.

‘Councils must be given a lead role in building new affordable rented homes so that people who can’t afford to buy are not forced into the more expensive private rented sector.’

The RLA report looked at complaint and enforcement data before and after the introduction of 32 local authority selective licensing schemes and concluded that it made no significant difference.

RLA policy director David Smith said: ‘These results show that for all the publicity around bad landlords, a large part of the fault lies with councils who are failing to use the wide range of powers they already have.

‘Too many local authorities fall back on licensing schemes which, as this report proves, actually achieve very little except to add to the costs of the responsible landlords who register.’

The RLA said it does support co-regulation schemes, which are similar to licensing schemes, but it argues are more collaborative. The Liverpool scheme, for example, simply requires that members of three landlord membership bodies including the RLA commit to the council’s mandatory licensing scheme – although they get a discount from the council in doing so.

The work was carried out between June and September this year and involved submitting to FOI requests to English and Welsh local authorities. The first focused on enforcement and received 291 responses and the second on the new civil penalty notices and received 293 replies.

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