And doesn’t think much of it …
In her recent Newsround, Tessa referenced the newly published guidance notes for local authorities on enforcement of the PRS.
She commented that she hadn’t had time to read it and emailed me, asking if I would like to review it. I reluctantly agreed.
I say reluctantly because as soon as I saw it had been published I got a sinking feeling. A feeling that grew in intensity when I read it. I hate to sound cynical and negative but I kind of guessed what it would be like before printing it off.
So let me at least start with something positive
It’s probably really useful for people who don’t do the work and who want to know what councils can do. I’m thinking tenants support groups or journalists looking for background information on council enforcement powers.
Right, that’s got that out of the way….now to work.
Beef #1 –
I alluded to this in the positive bit. Nothing I read there in the guides to different regulatory powers would come as any new information for anyone who does these jobs 24/7.
The kinds of enforcement rolls this is aimed at, tend to be populated by experienced and mature people. You don’t see a huge amount of newbies coming into the field at the moment. Austerity cuts having rendered local authority work a precarious choice, compared to what it used to be.
So a lot of the text seems to be setting out what enforcement types already know. I couldn’t see the point of that.
Beef #2 –
Reference is made to good practices among other authorities but again these things tend to be known to people in the trade, who regularly attend conferences, sub-regional partnership meetings, and specialist events. People in Hackney know what initiatives are being used in Liverpool or Redcar. We talk to each other and everyone reads trade magazines and websites where people quite rightly shout about their successes.
One thing housing is good at is sharing best practices, whereas the private sector closely guards their best kept secrets to give them an edge over competitors. This inclusive sharing attitude is something I’ve always enjoyed about working in the public sector.
It has a naïve approach to the education of landlords and tenants. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for both but by the time you get to the enforcement stage, any normal landlord would have long before complied with the early letters sent out by the various teams.
When you are firmly in enforcement mode you are dealing with landlords and agents who don’t give a toss about laws or educating themselves, like the two West Sussex landlords recently who refused to comply with improvement notices served by the council, appealed against the penalties levied against them, lost and were forced to pay around twenty five grand.
I cant see guys like that willingly signing up for a council training day.
Although they might do now!
As for tenants, I’m always shocked at how little they know about their rights and there is a common yet lazy phrase doing the rounds about empowering tenants, through education. In fact, I am booked to speak at a housing conference on the 25th April in Central London on the topic of empowering tenants, at which I shall be making the point that educating tenants is not the same as empowering them.
You might have the legal knowledge of a housing QC but try standing up for your rights to the sort of landlords who get enforcement knocking on their door and you’ll be out on your ear by the weekend.
Fortune cookie points of interest, for example:-
“The priorities of each local authority vary depending on circumstance and context”
“Landlords can operate across local authority boundaries, and in these cases, officers from neighbouring local authorities can act together to enforce against these practices”….
Well gee shucks, I doubt anyone thought of that before.
“Officers should ensure that evidence gathered is clear and robust.”
And on and on and on. Virtually every paragraph reading like a page from a particularly witless self-help book.
Its light on landlord and tenant law stuff like harassment and illegal eviction, which is reduced to a single page and completely misses the very important point that whenever a council’s enforcement team moves on a rogue landlord the harassment and illegal eviction starts in earnest, as they either try to get the number of occupants below the minimum 5* or get rid of witnesses who might make a statement against them.
Anyone working in enforcement knows this and the little box in section 3.6 advises officers encountering the problem to refer the tenant to a tenancy relations officer, who are, again thanks to austerity cuts, now so rare they are about to be officially registered as an endangered species with the World Wildlife Trust.
I could go on but the nub of the problem, that gave me the sinking feeling I mentioned when I heard it had been published, is the elephant in the room that I knew would be there…
The fact that few local authorities have anywhere enough officers of any kind to deal with the problems.
At risk of sounding like a broken record, staff have been cut to the bone in recent years, while the size of the PRS and growth of the criminal and fraudulent activities are on a strongly upwards trajectory. Government has given us more laws than we know how to deal with in recent years and now this pointless document reads like a housing minister trying to swerve the real issues of seriously committed funding for the work.
Supporters will always point to the new provisions that allow for local authorities to keep penalties to fund enforcement but the fact is, you have to get the penalties in first and for that you need people.
Penalties are not like parking tickets
The procedures for levying them are bound by bureaucracy and appeals and recovery of the money is another minefield, especially when dealing with a limited company who fold up before money can be recovered. Not every rogue you are dealing with has assets, many deliberately avoid having them.
Could councils work smarter with what they’ve got?
Yes of course.
Some are quite good at it and some aren’t but we all know the problems in practice and this guidance document brings nothing to the party that isn’t already known about in the business or isn’t being worked on to varying degrees.
My fear is, like the Homelessness Reduction Act, it’s a nice idea but…………