Ben Reeve Lewis is away this week, enjoying the Olando life with Frazzy, but I asked him to leave us a report on how his day job is going instead of a normal column …
As you read this I will be at ‘Wet ‘n Wild’, the water theme park in Orlando, Florida.
My sole aim will be to get the courage up to ride “The Bomb Bay”, a six storey, almost vertical drop through a trap door into a pool below.
[Ben left a link to a You Tube video but it doesn’t work – sorry – Ed]
I’ll tell you next week how I got on.
Report on the day job
Time away from Newsround and maybe a good point to bring you up to speed with what I have been doing in my six months as a TRO seconded into my council’s new Rogue landlord Multi-Agency Taskforce.
Many landlord readers here will be familiar with Newham’s ‘Licence them all’ approach to dealing with bad landlords and poor property conditions, but this isn’t the only model out there.
There is another way …
Newham invested millions in their scheme and employed 120 enforcement officers to do the job. My idea was to utilise the meagre staffing levels we already had, employ information swapping protocols and joined up working/thinking to deal with the criminal element out there utilising existing resources.
We got government funding for this approach. In essence the idea is no more radical than having different council departments talking to each other. A measure perhaps of how much still has to be achieved when a no-brainer idea like that is a Eureka moment.
Still. In the Kingdom of the blind the one eyed man is King eh? When I started this my mantra was “We know who they are, we know where they are”. This proved not to be as true as I originally thought.
Getting the bigger picture
Through information sharing sessions with various council officers, police and other London boroughs we have built a more accurate profile of people and properties we didn’t in fact know about.
In short, the few villains we had on our books turned out to be working in many different districts and on a far more widespread and organised criminal basis than we initially thought.
From tax evasion, through housing benefit fraud, stolen utility supplies and other related activities, more than any individual planning enforcement officer, EHO or TRO necessarily knew about, given the isolation of their respective offices and duties.
This only came out when we put our heads together.
Data gathering sessions are a joy that I am coming to relish, as names or addresses are thrown onto the table, only to have one of the 25 or so attendees sit forward and say “Ah. Now we know him under the name xxxx and he also operates a brothel/cannabis farm at xxxxxx under the name of xxxx” Suddenly its all clicking together.
The other element that is working well is that normally enforcement officers like me simply respond, reactively to complaints that come in.
As we investigate more stuff usually comes to light but now we go out looking for properties, often using the DCT Search I mentioned two newsrounds ago…the Dirty Curtain Test.
I’ve also become quite an adept private detective.
Utilising mostly free available internet searches and then using my powers as an enforcement officer under the Data Protection Act and Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act as to get that internet provider or bank to tell me the name, address and bank details of the landlord whose picture I just found on facebook and cross referenced with Companies House.
Dealing with illegal eviction in another way
One early victim has been found guilty of illegally evicting one of his tenants….twice in actual fact. The tenant complained to me last year that his locks had been changed. Acting swiftly I employed a locksmith and used force to reinstate him (Section 6 Criminal Law Act…..yes it is legal).
However a few days later he was evicted again, this time reinstating new tenants to block any further Section 6 actions by me.
Under Section 1 of the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 a criminal offence had been committed but TROs like me baulk at criminal action. It takes an age to get the landlord into court and even if successful the penalties are pathetic. Also the victim tenants get little out of it. Fines go to government, not the victim.
So working in close partnership with a local solicitor, swapping information and witness statements the result was £53,000 civil damages, payable to the tenant. Job Done.
More results :
Next out of the traps we had Mr X, running overcrowded, unlicensed House in Multiple Occupation.
We fined him for one and he was subsequently declared to be an unfit person to run an HMO and was denied a licence for another property in our borough and a neighbouring one with whom we had been corresponding.
We also did two Rent Repayment Orders on him (RROs) An RRO is where a landlord runs an unlicensed HMO and you take him to the Residential Property tribunal (RPT) and claim a penalty of 12 months housing benefit for every tenant in that HMO. We got £43,000 for one and £37,000 for another.
Lateral thinking pays off
We also had problems with a large property he was managing for someone else.
An ex-children’s home approved for 9 people, contained 47 residents. Complaints of Anti-Social Behaviour were rife, so we thought laterally, negotiated with the property owner and bought the place outright from underneath him.
Terminated his lease to manage and took control of the property as a homelessness hostel to manage properly.
We have many other people on our list.
Crucially we recently made close connection with the manager of our area’s HMRC tax dodger investigation bureau and interestingly enough some of the people who are high on our list were also, coincidentally already known to him.
As Hannibal Smith says in The A-Team “I love it when a plan comes together”.
These people have evaded decisive action for so many years because the various enforcements teams and agencies never sat down to compare notes or turn up to do a joint action.
Now….we all know each other and we are swapping notes, we even have each other’s mobile phone numbers and personal emails and think nothing of calling weekends and evenings.
Joint enforcement raids
Rust never sleeps, as Neil Young sang. Multi-agency information swapping has also lead to joint enforcement raids on targeted areas which have also proven very successful.
A few weeks back we did one on various known and dodgy properties in my locale’s Deptford High Street. We took with us the Police, UKBA immigration officers, Food standards people, DWP fraud, EDF and British Gas Revenue protection officers, Illegal tobacco and DVD officers etc.
Five hours and a handful of properties netted us several previously unknown unlicensed HMOs, 17 arrests, food standards closing properties down, prohibition notices served for overcrowded and unlicensed accommodation, seizures of illegal tobacco and pirate DVD operations.
Watch out criminals, your time is nigh …
We have many other coordinated raids planned for the coming months. Across the board licensing is one way to crack down but there are other ways of working.
Its fun too.
I never thought I would end up dispensing housing advice in a stab vest using a Chinese interpreter on the end of a UKBA officer’s phone whilst standing in a room containing 120 waist high cannabis plants. Lambeth County Court seems a distant memory these days.
Ben will be back with his normal column next week. Unless the Bomb Bay gets him …
If you want to find out more about dealing with criminals and how to avoid them in YOUR properties – why not book a place on Ben’s workshop for Easy Law Training on 9 October – see >> here.