Ben Reeve Lewis considers the dreaded letting agents boards and the law pertaining thereto …
One of my favourite books of all time is ‘London’ by Peter Ackroyd.
A history book that treats the capital city as a character, so it’s more of a biography than a straight-forward history book.
I once staggered drunkenly out of a Kings Cross pub opposite the offices of the Chartered Institute of Housing where I had been at a meeting and literally bumped into the author, shaking him warmly and a bit over-enthusiastically by the hand and proclaiming my admiration for his work.
He looked terrified to be honest. I doubt historical biographers get much in the way of celebrity approval, especially from drunken, lairy shaven headed cockneys saying “Nice one mate, nice one”.
I’m articulate like that.
A surfeit of boards
One of the things I remember from the book is how in the 1700s London was so overwhelmed with sign boards that a law was introduced to restrict them. Apparently residents found it difficult to walk down the street without banging their heads on adverts for bootmakers, opticians or coopers.
Things are a bit more digital these days but there is still a place for the old fashioned sign board when it comes to estate and letting agents and the idea that they can be obtrusive is still with us.
A couple of years back Hammersmith & Fulham Council considered banning them altogether and believe it or not there is a law on the placing of them that applies nationally.
National board regulations
The Town and Country Planning (control of advertisement) Regulations 2007 tells us that:
- Only one board per property is allowed.
- No board announcing a property has been sold or let can be placed unless there is an additional board saying that the lease is subject to contract or has been agreed.
- The board can be no larger than 0.5 square metres, or if joined together no more than 2.3 square meters total.
- It must be removed within 14 days of completion
- It must be no higher than 4.6 metres above ground level or 3.6 metres in ‘Areas of special control’, and
- Cannot be illuminated.
Imagine administering that lot…..Doncha just love red tape?
Each year our upstairs neighbours change and a sign is erected by a local high street letting agent, who I won’t name and which is left up for months after the tenants have moved in.
Each year we phone them up and quote the TCP regulations and each time they apologise and proclaim it an oversight but it still takes weeks for them to take it down.
One year we did it for them and dumped it on their shopfront but it hasn’t stopped them and frankly Southwark council have better things to do than deal with letting agents boards.
We recently saw the practices of Haarts, a high street chain, placing what are effectively ‘Spam boards’ outside properties in Brixton which appeared at first glance to advertise local events.
Trouble was the sign boards were placed in front of properties that Haarts had nothing to do with, including council estates and were advertising spurious events with Haart as the most visible word on the board.
Sign boards are clearly a valuable asset for letting agents in terms of making it seem as if they are very busy and therefore worth approaching if you want to sell or rent.
Enforcing board law
Enforcement of the regulations is, as you would expect down to the council planning department and carries a £1,000 penalty charge notice (PCN).
Back in the summer I was out with Lewisham Council’s planning enforcement lads surveying Deptford High St for decrepit properties. Looking up above shop height I spotted countless agents boards fixed to walls, 40 of them for just one agent alone.
The boards looked old and weather-beaten and were nailed to wooden battens, making them far more difficult to detach and remove than just plonking one in a garden with cable ties.
So reason would suggest they are all well over the 14 day rule, a point I raised with one of the planning fellas.
He said that a £1,000 PCN would potentially mean the agents having to shell out £40,000 but in order to levy the penalty the enforcement regulations would oblige him to first track down the owners of the walls that the board is attached to.
Problems with enforcement
In Deptford High St, as on many high streets the buildings themselves are a mixture of residential and commercial ownership. Most of the residential is subdivided into flats, so tracing the owners is a mad job of its own, with combinations of freehold and leaseholders, many of whom are companies, often offshore based.
The planning officer then has to contact the right person to ask when the board went up and if they gave permission for it and if they have asked the agents to remove them.
You can see where this is going can’t you?
Its also not a practice that someone can complain to one of the agents redress schemes about either, the breaches remain solely the preserve of planning enforcement who don’t have the staff or resources to take on such a mammoth and never-ending, Forth Rail Bridge of a task.
Mind you. The Housing Bill 2015 proposes allowing councils to keep all the proceeds from PCNs without sending a percentage to Westminster.
If I spotted £40,000 worth of income in one half of one high street in the borough I would imagine that the council could reliably employ 2 dedicated officers to do the work which would be self-funding.
Trouble is councils rarely think proactively.
A practical problem
Councils already have a full time job keeping on top of illegally placed advertising hoardings. Do you realise that a huge percentage of those giant sign boards erected on corners or attached to the side of buildings are actually illegal as well?
And here is a bit of insider information for you. Enforcement teams are often reluctant to get court orders to tear hoardings down because they don’t have anywhere to store them if they do and the law doesn’t allow them to actually destroy them.
One of those cases where the law, despite being clear, rubs up against the necessities and resources of real life.
Altogether now……………”Its a sign of the times”.