It has been just over three years since the Government gave new powers to councils to crack down on the worst private landlords and to stop them from operating, but to date only 39 landlords have actually been banned – a tiny fraction of the number expected.
For decades the image of private landords has been blighted by seedy characters who harass their tenants, let out dangerous properties which are a risk to life and limb and demand high rents and large deposits.
This was not like Rigsby (from the TV show Rising Damp) but an extreme version, with criminal menaces and no laughs!
Asking for a simple repair to be carried out, or for a leaking tap to be fixed, or a dodgy boiler to be replaced could in many instances be like firing the starting gun on an illegal eviction, accompanied by verbal and physical threats against the innocent tenant.
Locks would be changed overnight and personal possessions thrown out into the street, or front garden.
In London where around 28% live in private rentals, a more open and transparent system is operated.
Thousands of rogue landlords
Eventually the Government acted and from April 2018 it has allowed councils to ban the worst landlords – preventing them from renting out properties, performing property management duties or letting agency work AND having their details entered onto a national database.
At the launch of the new powers, the Government claimed that as many as 10,500 rogue landlords were operating across England and it expected more than 600 rogue landlords to be placed on the national register.
Thousands of other landlords were expected to ‘up their game’ becoming more professional and legal, or to sell up and leave the industry.
And yet only 25 local authorities have seen the process all the way through to obtaining a banning order against a rogue landlord.
There is extreme reluctance in many councils to dedicate the resources required to mount legal actions, which can be extremely lengthy, very costly and ultimately is seen as a largely administrative or bureaucratic process.
A toothless penalty?
In fact, the national register is not even open to the public, for the likes of you and me to scrutinise it and to see if our potential (or actual) landlord is in fact a very shady character, whose rental properties and services should be avoided like the plague!
The national database is only an enforcement tool for local authorities.
When a landlord receives two or more civil penalties within a 12-month period or is convicted of a banning order offence, local authorities have the discretion to make an entry to the database of rogue landlords and property agents, which is used by local authorities to share information about, and target dodgy landlords and agents.
In London where approximately 28 per cent of the population lives in private rentals, a more open and transparent system is operated.
Mayor Sadiq Khan publishes data on dodgy landlords in the capital and he makes the names public so anyone can all see who they are.
London’s Landlord and Agent checker was launched in 2018 and it allows millions of Londoners renting in the private sector to avoid crooked landlords and agents.
An alternative process
One local authority which is very actively fighting against bad landlords is Brent in north west London, but it is often employing different tactics.
In February this year Brent won a Crown Court case against a landlord who was illegally letting out 15 properties, many of them converted as undersized flats with up to 15 people living in some of them.
In one property a family of four were found living in one room, a family of three in another and three single men in yet another.
Brent Council officers said the living conditions in the properties were among the worst they had ever seen.
And yet perhaps the most bizarre element in this case was that the council used Planning Laws to pursue the landlord, Mohammed Mehdi Ali, through the courts.
The case was then referred to Harrow Crown Court for confiscation proceedings under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.
It was a ploy that worked because the judge ordered Mr Ali to pay back the staggering sum of £739,263.58 in illicit earnings made from renting out the overcrowded properties.
It is believed to be one of the largest such orders for a planning breach ever made, anywhere in the country.
The largest part of Mr Ali’s illegal earnings came from a complex of flats built above and behind a minicab office, which earned him nearly £90,000 a year on average, largely from housing benefits payments, according to the council’s investigators.
His father had earned hundreds of thousands of pounds on the same property before he was convicted of failing to comply with a planning enforcement order relating to its conversion into 12 flats without permission.
An earlier £544,000 confiscation order against Mr Ali (senior), in the Court of Appeal in 2014 involved criminal earnings on properties, where he converted four homes into 38 flats without planning consent.
Mr Ali was also ordered to pay Brent Council £30,000 to cover its legal costs in the long-running case. If the council had lost, it would have been left severely out of pocket and possibly liable for Mr Ali’s legal costs as well.
Since the financial crash and the austerity programme which cut deeply into councils’ budgets, many local authorities have understandably been reluctant to take the risks of expensive prosecutions.
Adam McKay, of Tenants Voice, an advice service dealing with Landlord and Tenant law and practice in England and Wales, said the low number of entries to the national database indicated how inadequate the monitoring of the law was.
McKay says he deals with up to 30 separate complaints from tenants about their landlords every day. “Most are serious complaints about damp, mould, defective heating and sanitation, unlawful eviction, landlord harassment and vermin infestation.”
McKay said that councils were too under-resourced to prosecute landlords who had issued unlawful evictions and the Police were usually reluctant to take action as “they are under the misapprehension that it is a civil matter and frequently take the landlord’s side even when faced with a valid tenancy agreement”.
Future prospects for action
However, there is the prospect of further legislative action against rogue landlords in the upcoming Renters Reform bill. The Government claims it will take action to widen access to the database when the urgency of the current Coronavirus pandemic has passed.
A spokesman at the Housing Ministry said: “We are clear that landlords must provide decent homes or face the consequences. The database is one of a range of tools available to councils to crack down on criminal landlords, including civil penalty notices of up to £30,000, rent repayment orders and banning orders.”
But when you compare the size of a civil penalty notice fine with the three quarters of a million pounds planning enforcement order obtained recently by Brent Council, you can see why the rogue landlords register is not as popular a tool as Ministers thought it was going to be.