BARRATT HOLMES reports on swingeing powers being introduced by the local council
The increasingly strong grip on absolute power at the local authority of she-who-must-be-obeyed Jo Negrini, the council’s £185,000-plus CEO, will be amply demonstrated tomorrow when swingeing powers over private landlords will be signed-off without ever being discussed or debated by our elected councillors.
The new powers, provided under the 2016 Housing and Planning Act, could see rogue landlords facing banning orders, fines of as much as £30,000 or even jail sentences.
The council introduced its controversial – and some contend under-staffed and less-than-active – landlord licensing scheme two years ago to raise housing standards in the borough and tackle rogue landlords. But from next Monday, it is going to extend its powers, it says to further protect private tenants in sub-standard rented properties.
The council’s move chimes with a policy announcement made by Labour in the General Election campaign which seeks to ensure new minimum standards, enforced under law, for landlords to ensure that they provide safe wiring and appliances, undertake repairs, ensure the prevention of damp and vermin, and that their properties have adequate areas for the preparation of food.
Research in 2014 by the housing charity Shelter found that 61 per cent of private renters had experienced problems with at least one of the following: damp or mould, leaking roofs or windows, dangerous electrics, rats or mice, and gas leaks.
So far, so good.
Like Croydon Council’s landlord licensing scheme, such proposals may be opposed by the borough’s pair of Tory MPs, Chris Philp and erstwhile housing minister Gavin Barwell, though it is unlikely that either with declare their own self-interest in the matter. Around 4 in 10 Tory MPs are private landlords, while Barwell has deep and long-standing links with the borough’s biggest land-owners, the Whitgift Foundation, and Philp has business interests through his property investment companies.
In Croydon from May 8, new powers will allow the council to:
• Fine landlords up to £30,000 as an alternative to prosecution
• Get a court order so the worst offenders refund to their tenants up to a year’s rent
• Fine landlords up to £5,000 for breaking fire safety regulations
And from October, these powers will extend to include:
• Banning orders so prosecuted offenders cannot be landlords again
• Recouping up to £25,000 in rent from landlords breaking a banning order
• Up to 51 weeks in prison for landlords breaking a banning order
The council’s rules are to be signed into action by one person, Tony Newman, the Labour council leader. Council officers will be able to issue the £30,000 fines and apply to magistrates for rent repayment orders, once Newman has approved Croydon’s own process for determining the level of fines depending on each case.
Newman is to take this decision tomorrow.
The matter might have been given the semblance of debate at a cabinet meeting, but Negrini, the council chief exec, has decided that even though election purdah does not begin until next week, she should shut down all democratic processes within the council and hand over decision-making to one person. Although Newman may sign off on the new landlord powers, he’ll be handed the pen by the unelected and broadly unaccountable Negrini, at least metaphorically.
How the council intends to police and enforce these new, far-ranging powers has not been disclosed by the council in its propaganda issued last week. It might have emerged under what passes for debate at a cabinet meeting, but…
The council claims that under its licensing scheme, introduced in October 2015, it “already has the power to fine or prosecute landlords who either run unlicensed private properties or break their licence conditions by renting out dangerous or poor-quality housing”. So far so good. But there’s little evidence to suggest that the council, after years of redundancies and cut-backs, actually has the staff to police its own licensing scheme, despite the considerable income in fees it has generated.
Sources within Fisher’s Folly, the council HQ, suggest that since Day 1 of the licensing scheme, the council has not had enough staff just to handle ti administration of new licence applications, never mind to oversee any sort of adequate inspection regime.
The council claims: “Most Croydon Council cases are resolved without the need for prosecution because landlords follow improvement notices bringing faster results”. But the council does not publish any figures relating to its casework, so it is impossible to know how effective this truly is.
Indeed, it has only been in the past month that the council has published details of a successful prosecution of a private landlord for renting out a house share that was a death trap fire hazard. It is thought that this is the only prosecution by the council in the first 18 months of its landlord licensing scheme.
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