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Ben Reeve Lewis Friday Newsround #131

Ben on a chair[Ben Reeve Lewis has got a new job]

Well, what a strange and busy week it’s been at the coalface.

An enforcement co-ordinator

I’ve been seconded out of my normal role as a TRO and am now my council’s Enforcement coordinator.

Pulling together disparate council teams and external organisations to take down our worst criminal landlords in a multi-agency taskforce kind of way.

Tuesday morning saw me up at 4:30am to get to the local nick for a raid on a disused pub with 27 illegal immigrants working for an unregistered gangmaster.

Pub Beds

Pub bedsOnce we had stoved in the door with one of those battering rams the police use, we certainly found 27 people, all families with kids but not an illegal immigrant among them.

Spanish EEA nationals to a man, living in the most appalling conditions being exploited by a weird triumvirate of dodgy owner, dodgy local agent. 6 of them sleeping in the bar area (see pic to side) and all the doors nailed up.

A death trap in short but the landlord…..whoever he is, pocketing £4,000 per week.

While booted feet ran upstairs, people shouted and vaulted the back fence and the sound of wood being split assaulted the air I stood in the doorway discussing the merits of the 5:2 diet against the Hays diet with the attending police inspector. Even madness like this can end up just being your normal day job.

And last Friday a result against a local landlord cramming 40 people into a 6 room ex care home. Prosecuted for no HMO license and a very heart-warming £53,000 penalty under a Rent Repayment Order.  Sometimes I love my job.

I even got filmed by the BBC on Friday for a documentary about ‘Rouge’ landlords installing stolen electricity meters to siphon of supply whilst charging the tenants for bills the landlord isn’t paying. Going out in January 2014.

More work for the lawyers

A few weeks ago I met with a worker for an unnamed London council (I don’t want to get sacked) who told me that his employers had recently issued 5,000 summonses for council tax non-payment, even though they have only 4 lawyers in their legal team to back it up. Four very annoyed lawyers with ‘WTF’ tattooed on their foreheads.

So I was interested to read a story on the BBC news website of Brent Council, next door to Wembley Stadium  who have issued 3,500 of 3,500 summonses being issued to get people to ‘Engage’ with the council.

De rigeur in this game is to ignore criminal landlords owing 10s of thousands of pounds in council tax that the council will write off because chasing them is too expensive and go after ordinary people who owe £300 – £400 because they are easy targets.

Anyway I won’t labour the point…..or even Lib-Dem the point.

Sudden death

Now I’m not so vain as to reference my own writings generally but I have to say I was surprised this week to write an article for the Guardian about the sudden death of the Mortgage Rescue Scheme in London  with nary a comment.

The Mortgage Rescue Scheme (MRS) has been around for 5 years and was the standard way of stopping lenders repossessing people’s homes. It is closing down at the end of March 2014 and was originally to close in London on the 31st December but in a surprise letter to London councils last week it was axed altogether, with even pending cases flushed down the bureaucratic toilet.

This is major news. Loads of people are going to lose their home because the GLA pulled the plug without warning and yet nobody seemed inclined to comment. Is this because nobody sees how significant this change is? Or is everyone just going into ‘C’est la vie’ mode?

Nearly Legal on the case

The lads at Nearly Legal ran an interesting and infuriating piece about Ayrshire Council threatening to take tenants children into care if they defaulted on Bedroom tax, ramping up arrears.

It’s an astonishing piece of bravado, that NL Towers appropriately pointed out wouldn’t pass muster for even the most intellectually challenged housing adviser and yet Ayrshire council seem to be getting away with murder, just like my illegal gangmaster and the council tax summonses of Brent council.

Do people care that little or have things slipped so far that a new perspective is being created?

Benefit cap challenge fails

24 Dash told us this week that the challenge of three single mums over the benefit cap was a ‘Cruel and arbitrary policy  reminiscent of the workhouse’.
Judges Bean and Elias commented:-

“Ultimately a policy issue, and for the reasons we have given we do not think it can be said that the scheme is so manifestly unfair or disproportionate as to justify an interference by the courts.”

Does this mean that everyone is giving up? Council tax officers? Judges? Ayrshire Council?

Maybe it’s because I’m knackered from today’s exertions. Kicking in doors at the crack of dawn only to find a bunch of nice, decent exploited people and their kids living in a public bar, where I hoped to catch villains but my mind tonight is drawn to the more forlorn stories.

Crisis, what crisis?

Which is why my eye alighted on this piece by Jules Birch on the less than encouraging TV debut of new housing minister Kris Hopkins being interviewed by Jon Snow who pointed up that government’s response to the housing crisis resulted in over half of sales of properties in the UK of over £1m was down to foreign investors.

In his interview he rather astonishingly said of the UK housing crisis “I don’t know about a crisis”.

Remember James Callaghan saying in 1979 “Crisis? What crisis?”.  If the new housing minister doesn’t identify a housing crisis when he sees one what hope is there?

In a sane world he would be held down while people stamp on his nuts until he gives in and admits there is a situation which needs addressing.

People? …….We now have a housing minister who doesn’t think there is a problem.

Comedian Russell Brand is suggesting that people shouldn’t vote  on the basis that whoever you vote for it is always the government that gets in. If Kris Hopkins is the result I am coming around to the fat Goth’s reasoning.
Jules accurately says:-

“All any housing minister can do is defend the policy and squirm in interviews. But that’s no excuse for seeming to be so out of touch with the housing crisis that so many people perceive is already happening around them”

I have to get up again at 4:30am tomorrow to arrest the sad sack that is exploiting the lovely Columbian families. Around the same time that I will be sitting in Lewisham nick cautioning the lying twat while Kris Hopkins is sitting down to his kippers, thinking all’s right with the world.

Sorry guys. My humour ran out this week.  See ya next week

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8 Responses to Ben Reeve Lewis Friday Newsround #131

  1. When you carried out the raids, what happened to the tenants?. Did your team re-house ALL of them? Is there a happy ending? I have images of these poor tenants living in a cardboard box under a bridge?

    When you say the landlord made “£4000” per week. That is £148 per person per week. Given that a double room in your Borough is available for £88 per week (which can house one couple). I wonder if your figures are correct?

    Despite the rent. What does a pub cost these days?. May be £1m or £2million. What are the business rates on a Pub like that (even if empty, it is still payable). Lots of pubs have closed down and it is a permanent loss to the community, if it turned into flats or betting shop.

    Turning this pub into a hostel / HMO accommodation on a ‘temporary’ basis is a better option, as it would keep the pub infrastructure as-is, until it is viable for it to be re-opened as a pub.

    If I can share my experience:

    In London, there is a huge demand for accommodation from single people. People who come to see my one bedroom flat, are often moving out of HMOs, they don’t like sharing kitchens and bathroom with other people. Although they are neither happy about renting a one bedroom flat, as it seems an indulgence.

    Young people often start out in low-paid jobs, they don’t want to spend all their wages on rent. They want to save money on going out, cars and deposit for a home etc…

    Local Councils through their Planning Policies, don’t want Landlords to build “self-contained” accommodation.

    I have a commercial warehouse and I have been stone walled and messed around by my local Planning Department. I want to convert the unit into several high spec studio flats (complete with sound-proofing, internet, safe, laundry room, CCTV, gardens).

    Councils would rather have Landlords sub-divide a lovely grand homes into an HMOs, rather then my commercial unit into studio flats.

    Decent tenants don’t want to share facilities or face dirty kitchens or bathrooms toilets. People want their own space and privacy. There are often disagreements in HMOs if people don’t get along. No one takes responsibility for the kitchen and bathroom.

    My local planning department is ‘forcing’ me down the HMO route, as their planning rules allow this. However, this is not the sort of development I want. I don’t want to run an HMO and employ cleaners for dirty kitchen etc… All their planning policy support family homes, but what about supporting people younger in their life.

    Councils like to play bully and mess around people who want to ‘play’ by the rules and more likely to operate a decent above board operation.

    No wonder you have people building sheds down gardens – because there is a shortage of self-contained studio flat.

    Sorry, it has gone off tangent….

  2. It is funny in a twisted kind of way.

    “Pay up the £250 rent arrears or we take your kids.”

    I don’t think even Peter Rachman tried that one.

    What do they do for £5000 of arrears, call in an air strike?

    It’s that ridiculous, you have to laugh.

    Plus the bit about charging them £400 for legal costs on a 250 quid debt!

    And chances are, the poor sods they are doing this to, now have to pay council tax to pay the wages of the clowns doing this to them
    -or face a prison sentence if they refuse to pay.

    Council comedy gold.

  3. There might be a housing crisis in London, but it’s a shame that London-based people seem to think London = UK.
    In most of the North there is plenty of property available to rent and buy at “affordable” prices. There is if anything an over-supply in many areas.
    The real problem isn’t the “housing crisis” but that there is over investment in London and under investment in the regions. This puts more and more pressure on London’s resources, including housing.
    Kris Hopkins might not be as stupid as you think!

  4. Richard I totally agree. London is a bubble. I write from the perspective of being a London person born and bred, a person who deals with all the shitty landlord and tenant stuff in London and as a London tenant.

    I cant stop this perspective creeping out. Its my life and job and as a housing law trainer who trawls the land from Cornwall to Newcastle I am aware of the regional variations but although London is a bubble, it is a 12 million people strong bubble and is the biggest conurbation in the UK.

    London has specific challenges and issues which arent necessarily reflected for the citizens of say, Worcester, I accept that but then surely this makes a case for a separate London system? Which is why we have the GLA.

    It makes no sense to address London issues with the same regulations that are used in Lostwithiel.

    Over investment in London and Under Investment elsewhere? Now that’s a very interesting argument isnt it? What you suggest is only a starting point, it’s a massive subject you have raised there.

    This has really set me thinking.

    People talk about the North/South divide but there is also London, a third force. I read today that house prices in the South east (Kent/Surrey I presume) are rising faster than London.

    Next Tuesday Wales is about to launch it’s housing revolution on the world. Maybe it’s time to stop thinking nationally and go regional?

  5. Just a few comments in response even though all the facts are not clear from the post. It is unlikely that the council will have provided any accommodation to any of them even though they are legitimate residents. It is presumed that they are singles or possibly couples for who the Council does not have any responsibility to re-house under homelessness legislation. This sounds like one of those swoops where police and Border Agency wanted arrests and shipped out of the country.

    Even if the pub was in breach of HMO regs it is unlikely that the residents would have been legally enforced to vacate that day. (even if the police as they sometimes do imply or explicitly say that they have to do)

    If a Emergency Prohibition order (EPO) was issued by Env Health then although it is an offence to remain as a resident the police or LA can not force a resident to leave as they may have a legitimate defence -of for example nowhere else to go, particularly if having paid rent and have no other means of securing accommodation. The LA may have decided to use general HHSRS improvement notice and if it were three storey licensable HMO a time to apply for a licence having done any required works. If was not a 3 storey HMO and the landlord is not prosecuted then the tenants do not have legal grounds to apply for a rent repayment order. The LA can get an RRO without a prosecution unlike a tenant and whereas the LA can potentially get all the HB back a tenant may have deductions from the rental paid.

    There is a shortage of small unit social housing for singles who then end up in this type of accommodation. I sympathise with Anon if they wish to develop a small cluster of single units and is unable to do so.

  6. Just to clarify Colin and a good heads up to real world situation for any readers going this far.

    We didn’t find all residents there, some were out at work but all people we did find were Columbian nationals with Spanish passports. UKBA officers checked them out and all OK.

    All were working, therefore exercising EEA treaty rights so would be entitled to homelessness assistance apart from one couple who had no kids.

    However, nobody wanted homelessness assistance.

    Fire Brigade had served a prohibition notice saying only the public bar was to be used as living accommodation because of the lack of fire precautions.

    However the next day the guy they were renting from who had been served with the notice offered himself up for an interview by police and myself. It transpired that he was merely a tenant also, who had approached the company asking if he could rent and sub-let part to others. The owners agreed as they were simply awaiting planning permission to convert and were happy with a short let.

    As all the residents shared bathroom and kitchen with him this made them all excluded licensees, entitled only to reasonable notice before evicting, which he had already given them when he was given his Section 21 a month ago.

    He didn’t need to wait for a possession order as he had found somewhere else to live already but the owners got nervy about all the investigative phone calls both I and the Police made the day of the raid and sent someone down that very evening to get him to sign a termination notice for the end of the week.

    The LFB prohibition notice related to the 1st and second floors not being used as residential accommodation because of the lack of fire escapes or exits but as the person served with the notice is nothing to do with it the LFB have to redraft the notice and serve on the owners giving 21 days to get the works done.

    However there are several questions about the identity of the directors of the company which owns the property and they were less than forthcoming when being asked questions about their intentions and activities. The company which owns the pub is a dissolved company. The LFB have to clarify this before serving a new notice.

    Licensable HMO? For sure but the same issues are involved as the LFB notice and the shadows over who is actually who and as the company have already applied to the council for permission to convert they would be given a temporary exemption certificate anyway.

    Also all the main people involved, company directors, secretaries, employees use different aliases and business addresses depending on which website or what searches you do.

    This is why scammers often get so far, because they can complicate matters in ways which the enforcement authorities have to clear up before legal action can be taken.

    So the families continue to occupy, at least until the LFB have sorted out who to serve the notice on but at least they are now living there rent free, so can save up to find somewhere else.

    One poster here queried my figures of £4,000 per week rent. This is the sum that the original landlord/tenant told us he took from them.

    When people criticise councils for lack of decisive action they should bear in mind this kind of nonsense we have to deal with. This case is fairly typical.



About the post author:

Ben Reeve-Lewis

Ben is an enforcement officer for a London Local Authority, a housing law trainer, an author on housing law who writes for the Guardian & occasionally pops up wittering away on TV. He also runs Easy Law Training with Tessa & Graeme. Occasionally he sleeps. Find him on Google, and Journalisted. Any opinions expressed are Ben's personal views & don't reflect those of any organisations he may refer to.

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