Conflicts in responsibilities
Working in housing enforcement can put the officer dealing with poor property conditions at odds with a homelessness unit who might be responsible for rehousing the families displaced by enforcement action.
For this reason, there is often a certain tension between these two distinct arms of council responsibilities.
This is not helped by the different regulations that environmental health and homelessness teams work under when it comes to whether or not it is reasonable to expect a person to remain in the accommodation.
Add to that the tenant’s own views on what is and is not reasonable and you can see that in many situations everyone is at odds with everyone else.
Conflicts in regulations
Before the Housing Act 2004 ushered in the Housing Health and Safety Rating System, that tension was already there. Whilst environmental Health could declare a property unfit for human habitation in their terms, a homelessness unit was not bound by that legal machinery and could still deem a property ‘Reasonable to occupy’.
By way of examples
Take the case of R v. South Herefordshire DC ex p Miles (1983) where the Miles family occupied a wooden hut measuring 20 feet by 10 feet, with their two children and one on the way.
The hut was rat infested and not connected to the mains but they had access to facilities by using a nearby caravan belonging to a relative.
A situation that I would imagine have had the EHOs of the time tutt-tutting – but the court agreed with the council that they were right, in homelessness legislation terms, to deem it reasonable to occupy, although they did point out that once the third child was born it would no longer be the case.
Similarly, in R v. Gravesham BC ex p Winchester (1986), where the council decided the Winchester’s were intentionally homeless for giving up accommodation that had appalling disrepair, damp, dangerous external stairs and a balcony that was hanging off. A situation that caused the court to find that the council had not unreasonably or perversely arrived at their decision.
Homelessness unit has more to consider
One of the main legal problems in these Mexican stand-offs between environmental protection legislation and homelessness Regs comes from the fact that whilst acknowledging that a property may be overcrowded or suffer from poor conditions, the homelessness unit can have regard to the other poor buggers in the same boat.
“In determining whether it would be, or would have been, reasonable for a person to continue to occupy accommodation, regard may be had to the general circumstances prevailing in relation to housing in the district of the local housing authority to whom he has applied for accommodation or for assistance in obtaining accommodation.” S177 (2) Housing Act 1996.
Meaning very bluntly, that if you are living in a slum but the rest of the houses in the street are also slums then, then it can still be reasonable to remain in homelessness terms.
There are obviously numerous cases which drill further down into these issues in more detail but you get the general idea.
If an EHO serves an HHSRS notice for Category one hazards on a landlord, which are essentially dangers to life and limb, then the homelessness unit are somewhat behind the eight ball in looking at reasonableness – but it still doesn’t automatically mean that the person is homeless as a result of the service of the notice.
What would be considered unreasonable to occupy in the long term might not be in the short term.
Different scenarios mean different outcomes
If a property is very poor but the landlord has been served with works notices then a homelessness unit could take the view that the problem was being resolved without the need for rehousing.
Prohibition orders are the big problem
If an EHO shuts a property down then the homelessness unit has to step in, so the preference is often for serving a suspended prohibition order, which means that the household doesn’t have to move out but once they have gone, the landlord is prohibited from letting it out again until the identified problems have been rectified.
It becomes a softer option because of the blow-back onto the homelessness unit if they close a property down straight away.
This is not an ideal situation and I often wonder, when attending these things, whether the EHO is suspending an order where they might not have, if it weren’t for the fact that their attempts to make people safe isn’t going to cause a problem further down the line.
Don’t get me wrong, I entirely understand the position of the homelessness unit, dealing with thousands of applications a year with little to nowhere to place the families they have to accept.
They have enough important work on without their enforcement colleagues creating a different housing crisis through the enforcement itself.
Article 31 closure
Several years back I was caught up in a difficult case where the London Fire Brigade had closed a disused pub down that was occupied by around 28 families, using what they term an “Article 31 closure”.
Trouble is, they didn’t tell the homelessness unit, who by lunchtime had no room in reception to even seat the amount of families who fetched up with all their possessions in bin liners, let alone the normal footfall.
Whilst I had no problems whatsoever with the concerns of the fire brigade, their closure order wasn’t without its ramifications for council and resident alike.
So to sum up
This article is really just a focus on one tiny aspect of the housing crisis in the UK, where the work of Environmental Health Officers, in trying to improve property conditions in the PRS can create problems elsewhere in the system.
What my outfit, Safer Renting are finding, is that the better our local authority enforcement partners get at tracking down, rogue landlords and dangerous, unlicensed properties, the more it drives up harassment and illegal eviction, where a criminal landlord moves to get rid of witnesses and evidence that we need for our work.
If we aren’t successful in doing our job, then many of the poor unfortunates we try to protect end up in the homelessness unit.
Where landlords complain that licensing makes the decent ones pay for the bad ones, the reactions of criminal landlords to attention being paid to their properties, often pushes the problem over to the homelessness unit, for which all citizens pay, not just landlords, not to mention the people caught up in the morass of competing legislation and the rapaciousness of an individual or company whose only interest is income without regulation.