A huge fine of £87,000 for housing offences prosecuted by Bristol City Council has set the authority scrambling to put a banning order policy in place.
The council took legal action against a landlord for five breaches under the Licensing and Management of Houses in Multiple Occupation Regulations 2007, and is now rushing to complete work on its banning order policy.
Bristol City Council won the case against Deepak Singh Sachdeva who was ordered to pay £87,000 in fines, a victim surcharge of £120, and costs to the council of £1,434. Sachdeva had rented out two flats above his Premier shop in Avonmouth.
Environmental health discovered terrible overcrowding across two flats. Nine people, including young children, were living in one of the accommodation spaces – a one-bed flat. The children were using two cupboards to sleep in for privacy.
There was poor fire-resistant separation between the flats and the shop downstairs with the floorboards of the living accommodation visible from the storage area below. There was no fire detection, large gaps around fire doors, and the second flat – a studio flat – had no ventilation or external windows, and limited access via poorly maintained stairs.
Tom Gilchrist, service manager for Bristol City Council PRS, said the fine was a welcome surprise: “We were not envisaging the outcome at this level of fine. Lots of local authorities regularly prosecute landlords, but the level of fines we get is often derisory so it’s not enough to act as a deterrent.”
Previously level-five housing fines were capped at £5,000 per offence and, although the law was changed in 2015 to make the fines for these offences unlimited, change has been slow in the courts until now.
Gilchrist said the council has won a lot of rogue landlord funding, and the housing team now has its own dedicated housing lawyer to put across detailed and well-argued cases, as well as its own trading standards officer.
The council is in the process of getting sign-off for a new banning policy to pursue this case, because of the seriousness of it. “We did do some work on a banning order policy,” Gilchrist said, “but did not have it formally signed off. The aim is to potentially take this through to a banning order.
“When the Housing and Planning Act came out there were so many things in the mix. We needed a civil penalty policy and a number of other policies and we got bogged down and lost sight of the opportunities within the Act.”
Gilchrist added: “There is strong cross-party support in Bristol for the service to use the full range of housing sanctions to drive criminal landlords out of the City and I would encourage anyone who has concerns about a private rented property, or a tenant who would like to make a complaint, to contact the service at email@example.com.”
Environmental health officer Alison Reid visited the property on 19 June 2019 after receiving a complaint about a leaking central heating tank that the landlord had not fixed. What she found shocked her. “The first thing I was really concerned about was the overcrowding and that young children were sleeping in cupboards – I was thinking along safeguarding and rehousing,” she said.
“But when I stepped away I realised how bad the fire precautions were. The imminent risk was the appalling fire precautions and separation between the shop store and flat above,” said Reid.
The family were not concerned but Reid explained to them the danger they were in, especially as they were heavy smokers. “The 19-year-old was smoking in the cupboard and he wouldn’t have got out if there had been a fire.”
Reid considered an emergency prohibition order to immediately vacate the property, but was worried about the stress this would cause the family to rehouse so many people. Instead, she ordered remedial works to put up smoke detectors in the flat, linked to the shop below, that could not be silenced and would only stop when the smoke had cleared.
In the meantime, she applied for a prohibition notice. Reid added: “Although the separation in the flat was really bad, the route out was good. They would have had enough time to get out with enough warning.”