The leadership of Croydon Council will be up before a High Court judge next Tuesday, August 4, at the start of a Judicial Review of its landlords licensing scheme which is being brought by a company registered in … Bury, the Lancashire town 240 miles north of our London borough.
According to official records at Companies House, The Croydon Property Forum Ltd, which has brought the expensive legal action against the council, was registered at the end of May. Its only named director is Brian Ronald Walmsley.
It has a registered office at what appears to be an industrial estate on Todd Street on the outskirts of the town.
It all seems very far removed from the plight of private tenants in a south London suburb.
Landlord licensing was one of the flagship policies for Labour when they won control of the Town Hall last year. The landlords’ group is challenging the manner in which the council conducted its consultation – which Croydon was forced to extend by 10 weeks after an earlier concern that the law had not been complied with.
Earlier this year, Alison Butler, the council’s deputy leader, and Jo Negrini, the executive director in charge of planning, had assured a meeting of the Town Hall scrutiny committee that they had taken all necessary steps so that the council would avoid being dragged through the courts over this scheme. They clearly got that wrong.
Under the scheme, , which was due to be implemented from October 1, landlords are expected to pay £750 for a five-year licence, discounted to a “bargain” £350 for those who register early. Croydon Labour has tried to suggest that the licence fees are necessary to pay towards the administration of its scheme.
Despite the pending legal action, Croydon Council has continued to promote the landlord licensing scheme enthusiastically, through social media, its weekly email bulletins and even using a mass leafleting operation across the borough. Presumably the Borough Solicitor, Julie Belvir, has had Queen’s Counsel advice that such activity is not in contempt of the High Court.
The landlords licensing scheme – what the Tories like to call “the Tenant Tax” – has been opposed by the council’s Conservative opposition group, which includes among its councillors several … private landlords.
The 2004 Housing Act provided for the licensing of private landlords by local authorities, a measure intended to address the impact of poor quality private landlords and reduce levels of anti-social behaviour. Landlords who fail to get licensed face fines of up to £20,000, while breaches of a licence can incur penalties of up to £5,000.
Landlords resent the regulation, since they regard it as an additional expense (which will doubtless be passed on to their tenants in increased rents), and because it lumps the “good” landlords together with the bad and irresponsible ones.
The Bury-based Croydon Property Forum, meanwhile, remains secretive about its membership. Despite two approaches from Inside Croydon, they have refused to reveal who are the people who make-up the “forum”, and who are funding a potentially expensive High Court action: even modest Judicial Reviews can cost at least £20,000 in lawyers’ fees just to reach the steps of the courtroom. If they lose the case, they also face having to pay the council’s legal bills.
Last week, the Croydon Property Forum said, “It’s very early days in our campaign, but I hope to be able to issue update soon. The forum represents several hundred landlords, developers, tenants and others opposed to licensing.” The Croydon Property Forum’s Twitter account has a grand total of 144 followers.
One member of the Croydon Property Forum whose identity has become known, however, is Dr Anwar Ansari, one of Croydon’s most prominent property developers, an owner of care homes, and a former chairman of Croydon Central Labour Party and donor of thousands of pounds over many years into party funds.
It is barely a year since Butler, leader Tony Newman and most of Labour’s councillors were enjoying Ansari’s generous hospitality, drink and food at a party staged in one of his properties to celebrate their victory in the local elections. Now, Ansari and Croydon Labour have locked horns over the council’s policies on property development.
Ansari is the owner of Coombe Farm, a halfway house for the homeless – mostly from other local authorities – which was subject to complaints about the rubbish and builders’ waste being dumped on the land in a leafy glade of Lloyd Park. The council’s case over the neglected state of the grounds was closed when the mess had not been cleared – but there is a suggestion that it has been re-opened since the Judicial Review was lodged.
Ansari and his former Labour Party colleagues also appear to be on a collision course over his plans for two of central Croydon’s biggest office blocks: Lunar and Apollo Houses. Ansari has acquired the buildings for £95 million and wants to turn the Home Office and government buildings on Wellesley Road into 1,500 one-bedroom flats – in direct contravention of the council’s plans.
It seems likely that Newman’s Croydon Labour will have to run quite a few extra fund-raising raffles to make-up for the loss of the Ansari cash which has helped pay towards its election campaigns over the last decade.
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