Croydon Council has been waiting for more than six months to hear whether its selective licensing housing scheme will be renewed.
The south London borough previously ran a five-year borough-wide scheme, which ended on 1 October 2020. The council submitted a request to renew it to the Housing Secretary for approval on 20 July 2020. This process is supposed to take eight weeks.
In the meantime, the council has had to let go 12 agency staff working on the scheme, and if given the go-ahead would recruit to fill these positions.
Over the course of the previous programme, officers issued 1,000 enforcement notices, 75 prohibition notices, and 60 landlords were prosecuted for “the worst offences”. However, Cllr Jane Avis, cabinet member for homes and gateway services, said: “Those figures, although important, are not as important as the relationship that we have with our landlords.
“We don't want to go out and prosecute. What we want is for landlords to ensure that their properties meet all the relevant standards and provide good accommodation for our residents.
“So it's not about prosecution. It's not about fining or enforcement notices being our priority: it’s about that relationship so that we can have a decent housing for our residents, which is our main aim.”
As part of the scheme, Croydon Council holds thrice-yearly landlord information forums that are often so popular they run three one-and-a-half-hour sessions each time, with each taking up to 70 landlords. The council also provides landlord newsletters, sent out in the run-up to the forum.
Avis said the scheme assists landlords, helping them know what their responsibilities are especially as the majority of landlords in the borough only own one property that they rent out. Without its selective licensing scheme, she said it would be more difficult to find problem properties, and to rectify serious problems quickly. She said: “That is where the landlord licensing scheme really comes into its own, because to go through the sort of national legislation is too lengthy. It's all good legislation, but it takes too long.
“But when you have this very close relationship with all your housing – your landlords and your residents – you can get in there quickly.”
Avis pointed to a recent prosecution by Croydon’s housing enforcement team against a landlord that rented out a former bank vault, which she described as a “potentially lethal firetrap”. She added that the prosecution underlines why the council has asked the government for a renewal.
In January Anthony Roy Roe was ordered to pay a total of £9,400 by Croydon Magistrates Court – comprising a fine, council full costs, and victim surcharge – and added to London’s rogue landlord database.
Roe was prosecuted for failing to have a licence under the Croydon scheme, and continuing to rent out the basement flat on Station Parade, Sanderstead, despite the council issuing a prohibition notice after finding it unfit to live in.
Council inspectors found Category 1 hazards at the property relating to fire safety, lighting and excess heat. There was no fire escape route except through the kitchen, and a lack of natural light as there were no windows in the living room or bedroom, and no natural ventilation. Croydon Council found the tenant emergency accommodation.
Croydon is in financial difficulties and issued a Section 114 Notice in November 2020, due to a projected overspend of £60m, and central government has stepped in to offer a multi-million pound loan so the authority can balance its books.
However, money raised through licensing is ring-fenced and can only be used in the operation of the scheme.
Avis said: “ You can only work within the envelope of funding that you have.
“I know our team will give everything to this, because they are dedicated to keeping our residents safe and making private accommodation the best it can be. And as I said, we will continue with the forums, we will continue putting out newsletters.
“But, you know, something's got to give – it's a fact of life. If you don't have the money, you can't do everything you want to do. And of course, Croydon is learning that lesson maybe a bit more than others at the moment.”
Landlords that joined the Croydon scheme at the outset were given a discount so the five-year licence cost them £350, or £6 a month. Around 80% of landlords paid the discounted rate, otherwise the full cost was £750, or £12.50 a month.
Schemes in Enfield, north London, and Hastings in Sussex are also experiencing delays in their applications – more than 11 months, and nine months respectively – and Hastings has had to start redundancy proceedings. In January 2020, Liverpool City Council had its request for renewal of its borough wide scheme unexpectedly denied.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government declined to comment on the delays, except to say that emergency response work related to the COVID-19 pandemic was being prioritised, resulting in delays to the usual timelines for selective licensing.