A day in the life of TRO Ben Reeve Lewis.
The Case of the Long Good Friday
Explanation: Tenancy Relations Officers (TRO) work for local council’s providing advice on landlord tenant law and investigating allegations of harassment and Illegal Eviction and prosecuting landlords. All names are false but the stories are true.
A Notice to Quit
Jim and Alice came in to see me mid-afternoon. They showed me a threatening note written by their landlord Tony Dench saying that they would have some very serious regrets if they didn’t move out by the weekend.
Introducing the amiable Mr Dench
Now if you are from my neck of the woods, Tony Dench is one of those typical South London characters that everybody knows. Think Genial Harry Grout in ‘Porridge’, or perhaps more accurately Bob Hoskins as ‘Harold Shand’ in the Long Good Friday, or perhaps even more accurately, for anyone who has just seen it, Ray Winstone in the new Brit gangster flick London Boulevard..
Now I’ve been TRO-ing for many years and I’ve been threatened before and to be honest I can threaten back quite convincingly myself if I have to when I think it will keep me safe. I’ve had to face down some very unsavoury characters in the past but Tony Dench??????????????????????????????? The words “out of my league” sprang straight to mind.
I saw him walk into a pub once, off the Old Kent Road. It was very cinematic. He swaggered in flanked by 2 men who looked like they routinely carried pliers in their wallets. Tony had a camel hair coat draped over his shoulders. Needless to say he didn’t pay for his drinks and the words “Mr Dench” were heard throughout.
There had been problems with Tony not fixing a boiler that he should, and Jim and Alice, not knowing his reputation or business interests decided to withhold their rent to make him do the repairs. Which in Tony’s case is like balancing a Yorkshire terrier smeared in meat paste on top of a Rottweiler’s nose.
Legal Point. Landlords are under a statutory duty to do repairs by virtue of Section 11 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985. When a landlord fails to do them then the tenant can sue the landlord for disrepair. There is also a legal procedure which allows for a tenant to withhold rent but with landlords like Tony it is a risky business
Back to Jim and Alice. I warned them about Tony and asked them how they wanted to proceed, hoping all along that they would see sense and just move out. Not for their sake’s you understand, I am a profoundly shallow person and was more concerned with me not finishing the weekend on the end of a meat hook.
A point of principle
Unfortunately Jim was incensed that his landlord was not carrying out necessary repairs and had then threatened to throw them on the street by the end of the week for simply committing the mortal sin of trying to keep warm. Jim felt it was a point of principal and so I was duty bound to deal with it…………….bugger it!!!!!!!
I told them that I would ring him and see how it went and they went back to their flat and left me to it.
Normally I would simply pick up the phone and start throwing my weight around but I thought long and hard about how to approach this before starting. One genius idea I had was for me to give someone else’s name, preferably my colleague Sean who would then get the blame. He had stitched me up the week before by going sick when a mammoth mortgage case was due in and he owed me anyway.
I also considered lying, and telling Tony I was a copper, hoping that might help but there was no way out, I had to make the call.
I did a check on the first part of his number and saw that it was in Southend, well over an hour away and reasoned that if it went really badly I could leg it as it was around 4.30pm by then.
Ben makes a call
I called. A woman answered. Not a sultry Helen Mirren character that you expect from gangster films. The word ‘Fishwife’ was more accurate. A right old cockney who sounded like she smoked 60 a day. I asked for Tony and unfortunately he was there.
I was as a polite as could be, apologising for disturbing him and mentioned, almost casually about the complaint and asked him for his side of things. He didn’t bother explaining he just said menacingly “And who the f**k are you?”. I gave my (real) name and job title and he said to my horror “You wait there…..I’m coming to see you”. I heard him throw the phone down and his wife say in the background “Don’t go on your own, take someone with you”.
Jim and Alice didn’t have a mobile number so I couldn’t call them. I sat around for an hour and persuaded our security crew to hang around with me. Big Steve, the main security guard we have is a bit of a man mountain himself (hence the “big” in his name) but when I told him who was on the way he asked me if I was mad. However, after a while Tony didn’t appear. So I went home thinking it would all blow over as these kinds of incidents often do when the landlord has time to think about things
A bit of a to do
The next day Jim and Alice came in covered in bandages. In turned out that Tony had gone to the flat in the evening and cut Jim’s throat, luckily not mortally. One of his associates (“Wrenchmen”, as they are called in the trade) had grabbed Alice and tried to cut her ear off before she managed to struggle free and run out of the door. Needless to say they didn’t want to take matters further and quietly moved out.
I said that I understood and made out I was disappointed that we would have to let Dench off the hook but inside I was mightily relieved as I did not relish the thought of having to serve an injunction on him.
The joys of working in the curly bit
So Tony continues to be a local landlord, presumably running things his own way and if I ever have cause to ring him again I shall, as was the case with Jim and Alice, be extremely polite and cordial, not for any legal reasons, I just like my teeth where they are, they are useful and help me eat
As a TRO we deal with rogue landlords all day long but cases as extreme as this are quite rare and when a landlord is that dangerous they usually get away with it because the tenants understandably don’t want to be witnesses. I talk to other TROs around the country and we all have at least one person or family in an area that nobody wants to tangle with, it goes with the job I’m afraid. Unfortunately, in South East London they account for about 30% of the population.
Ah the joys of working in the curly bit under the “Eastenders” Map they use for the titles on TV, where the girls look like women, the women look like men and the men look like psychos…….
About Ben Reeve-Lewis: Ben has worked in housing in one form or another since 1987. He has variously been a Homelessness caseworker, Head of Homelessness for a local authority, a TRO and Housing law trainer. He now divides his time between doing contract Tenancy Relations work and as a Freelance housing law training consultant for the CIH, Shelter, Sitra and many more. Read more about Ben here.