Ben Reeve Lewis reports on the proposed new measures to deal with ‘rogue landlords’
Hot on the heels of the Deregulation Act 2015 and its sections tightening up Section 21 notices and outlawing retaliatory eviction, the government have announced new, tough proposals to deal with rogue landlords.
On Tuesday I went to the Home Office to participate in a think tank to discuss ministers plans laid out in the document “Tackling rogue landlords and improving the private rental sector” attended by representatives of the NLA, RLA, DCLG, Shelter etc to give their thoughts and ask questions.
A new bill for housing
The Housing Bill itself is to be published in mid-October, so as is usual with this government things are being rushed through.
Some of you will have been aware this week of announced plans to imprison landlords who let to illegal immigrants and summarily end tenancies where occupants don’t have legal status in the UK.
This is to form part of an Immigration bill, not the looming housing one so was not discussed at the meeting.
It’s a curate’s egg of a plan. As an ex enforcement officer I welcome the content of the bill, although I wonder how it will work in practice, which is why we were all invited to the meeting.
The devil is in the detail – and the detail for a large part is still quite sketchy with consultation closing at the end of this month.
These are the main arms:
- To create a blacklist of landlords and agents who have been prosecuted for housing related offences, leading to a ‘Disbarring’ from running rental properties for repeat offenders and increase fines/penalties.
- To give council’s more powers to serve penalty charge notices for a range offences and let the local authority keep all proceeds to run the enforcement teams.
- Widening the scope for local authorities to recover Rent Repayment Orders for unlicensed HMOs and streamlining the process.
- The tenancy deposit companies sharing data with local authorities.
- Increasing the number of ways that a rogue landlord can be deemed a ‘Not fit and proper person’.
- Changing the law on abandonment so that landlords can get possession without a court order.
For me this last element is the most contentious, but I’ll come back to that.
What its all about
The over-arching thrust of the proposed bill is to toughen up powers of local authorities to tackle rogue landlords in ways which do not penalise good landlords in the way that blanket licensing does.
Regular readers will know that this is something I’ve been banging on about for years and it forms the basic tenet of London borough of Lewisham’s rogue landlord taskforce which I worked in until last week.
The proposals are undermined by a significant and all-encompassing point however.
The problem with Local Authorities and enforcement
Increasing local authority powers is great and to be welcomed but you need the people and resources to be able to actually do the work and where swingeing cuts have taken place in most councils in the UK you often find enforcement work being done by one man and his dog.
Allowing councils to keep the proceeds of penalties is great but the money will only start to come in later on. Councils need a cash injection if they are to employ enough people to start levying those penalties in the first place.
What do you do if you are an inner London borough with just three planning enforcement officers? One with a case load of 900 complaints?
The blacklist idea
The blacklist is an idea that has been banging around for years now and several people have had a stab at creating a database, so far to little effect. The practicalities as were discussed in the meeting were on who would actually host the list and who would have access to it
Some were in favour of government hosting with local authority enforcement access only but a fair case was also made for public access, so that tenants could check out a prospective landlord they may be considering signing up with.
No decisions but all points up for grabs.
The flaw in the plan based on my experience is that all a landlord would have to do is use a different name. Aliases are very common in the rogue landlord community.
Using data from the deposit companies
The proposal that tenancy deposit companies would give lists of landlords registered with them to local authorities seems a sensible and fairly easy improvement.
The problem with this is that the real rogue landlords don’t protect deposits anyway, so to my mind the database they could supply would be of use only for who isn’t on it and I’m not sure where that would take us.
Now to the plan to change the law on abandonment.
It is actually more accurate to say that the issues surrounding abandonment are to be clarified in statute because it’s a really grey area for a landlord to be able to tell if a property has actually been abandoned.
The discussion document states “Where it is clear that a property has been abandoned” but that is the whole point – it isn’t often clear. Rent payments stopping is a common sign but it isn’t enough on it’s own to signify abandonment.
Its about two things,
- evidence of an intention to return to the property and
- a stated intention to return.
I’m all for tightening up this frustrating situation that really is a problem if you are a landlord but the proposal is to allow landlords to change the locks if “It is clear that the property has been abandoned” is heading worryingly in the direction of the other proposal in the Immigration Bill of summary eviction of immigrants and this is chipping away at some fundamental precepts of the law of property.
There is also the not inconsiderable issue of human rights legislation sitting behind this as well.
The thorny issue of what to do with abandoned goods goes hand in hand with this proposal but we were assured there is no plan to re-write the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977 which requires a landlord to contact the tenant to tell them where and when the goods can be collected before disposal or sale.
But – as with the situation now, how do you make contact with someone who has abandoned?
Perhaps the whole abandonment issue could be knocked into shape by creating a truly fast track eviction process, so at least the courts would still be granting possession, albeit on proof that the landlord had followed a clear check-list first, as was suggested by one member of the panel.
The discussion was a cautious one for all parties.
The landlord organisations expressing doubts about local authority competence and the tarring of all landlords while Shelter, the CAB rep and myself were a tad more enthusiastic but also worried about funding for it all. All sides were concerned with the practicalities.
However we have another three weeks to get our ideas in before last orders gets called.