Ben Reeve Lewis, a Council Enforcement Officer of many years standing, gives his view.
Local Authority Housing and the licensing question
Well here’s a light the blue touch paper and retire kind of article for Landlord Law Blog, if ever there was one.
Tessa and I had a chat about how often – when the subject of rogue landlords comes up at any time on the blog – the comments thread gets side-tracked into complaints about landlord licensing schemes.
So I thought it a good time to explain the way this works from the perspective of an enforcement officer, responsible for taking the worst of the worst to task for harassment and illegal eviction, working alongside other people who regulate slum properties and criminal letting agents.
A bit about landlord licensing – for the uninitiated
Licensing of Houses in Multiple Occupation was introduced some time ago. All councils are charged by Parliament with the job of running licensing schemes for properties of 3 or more floors occupied by 5 or more unrelated units.
These kinds of properties have been identified as being the most common places where poor slum conditions can exist, often with little to no fire safety and overcrowding.
Councils also have the option of introducing what is termed “Additional’ licensing schemes and “Selective” licensing schemes on a borough by borough basis. Several London boroughs run schemes where all privately rented properties have to be licensed. (There isn’t the space here to describe what these schemes are. You will need to read elsewhere for a full picture.)
Problem landlords in town and country
More and more councils are rolling out their own landlord licensing schemes based on the type of housing stock and the social problems they encounter in a particular borough.
Put simply, councils in Hereford or the Vale of Pewsey are less likely to have problems with slums and rogues than say Hackney, Birmingham or Manchester.
Not entirely though. I have spoken to council officers in rural councils who talk of overcrowding and slum conditions connected to gang master scams involving agricultural workers. It isn’t just an urban problem.
NOT a Cash Cow
Contrary to what many believe, licensing isn’t a ‘cash cow’ for councils. The money they make from the scheme is ring-fenced and can’t be used for anything other than running a licensing scheme.
Enforcement for breach of licensing rules has to come out of another budget, which is why the provisions of the Housing and Planning Act 2016 are so important – they allow councils to keep penalties to pay for enforcement, meaning that you, the council tax payer, don’t have to fund enforcement.
Different schemes for different Councils
The various schemes in operation vary widely depending on the demographics of the area they are working.
Student towns like Oxford, Cambridge, Loughborough etc have a bigger concentration of licensable HMO’s even under basic mandatory licensing schemes. As a result, the teams will be larger and the costs of maintaining a scheme more expensive than say Christchurch, where there aren’t as many licensable properties.
In West London most of the housing stock is 1930’s semi detached with large gardens, so there you get beds in sheds as the main problem, whereas in South East of East London most of the rental stock is huge old Victorian buildings converted into overcrowded slums without planning permission.
These are very difficult to locate unless you have a reason for going inside or information comes from other sources such as Police or Fire Brigade.
Councils are only doing what they are told
It isn’t just the type of accommodation in an area, the variables are complex and reflected in the scheme costs and fees but it is important to understand that councils did not make this up.
Parliament passed laws requiring all local authorities to run licensing schemes and does not allow them to generate income from running them.
Those are the rules, whether or not you consider the licensing fees in your area unreasonable.
Landlords commonly complain that the good guys are made to pay for the bad guys. A decent landlord, after all will not refuse to license their property even though they consider the fee onerous and unfair. They are law abiding people.
But does it work?
Schemes might be run efficiently or inefficiently. I can’t possibly comment here on individual gripes but does it work where it is supposed to work? In essence, in uncovering poor housing conditions and promoting better quality?
I work in several London boroughs alongside licensing and enforcement teams. Some have only mandatory licensing and some have it across the board and I can categorically say it really helps us.
The importance of a good database
When a council announces a landlord licensing scheme – the decent folk sign up and just get it done. Not without a gripe, which I perfectly understand – but enforcement officers immediately have a database to start identifying the rogues. Basically, the people who aren’t on the list.
In one council area, we do fortnightly ‘Tasking days’ where a bunch of us go out at 7 am until just after lunch with iPads containing a list of PRS stock where there are no recorded licenses. Often we hit several hundred in a few hours, meeting the tenants, inspecting the conditions and chatting to them to find out if their deposits are protected, if they get receipts for rent and if they are experiencing problems with their landlord.
A useful blunt instrument
It’s a blunt instrument to an extent but without landlord licensing schemes, we would find it very difficult to identify these properties by just walking down a street and looking for broken windows or dirty curtains.
Can it be done without licensing? Yes but it’s more complex.
Different council teams use a variety of data collecting software that doesn’t communicate with each other. Some councils are better at compiling joint data and sharing information – but even when a council has a good multi-agency system in place licensing is still a useful add-on. In some areas licensing is all you have.
We all have to pay to police our society
I should say, as a freelance enforcement officer I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with good landlords being made to pay for the discovery of bad ones.
Our cultural life is full of financial burdens we have to pay for to moderate a small number of others who exhibit behaviours we don’t.
Personally, I don’t like my tax being used to fund a range of government projects I don’t agree with. I don’t have young children or family members with mental health problems but my council tax goes to pay for a variety of local schemes covering a range of services that I don’t use.
My partner, a self-employed travel agent, can’t believe how lightly landlords get off. Each year she has to sit a day long exam just to retain her license to sell travel insurance.
She doesn’t like it, she moans every time but as I say, it is what it is. It’s her job and simply one of the inconveniences for ensuring that people don’t get ripped off by people selling duff insurance on the trip of a lifetime.
In short – an essential tool
Landlord licensing works, for those, like me who have to track down and prosecute landlords evading schemes.
I started the London Borough of Lewisham’s rogue landlord enforcement team on the logic that if all council teams shared information we wouldn’t need landlord licensing. We could just go after the bad guys using our joint intel and leave the normal ones alone.
Given what I discovered in the 2 years we operated that scheme I now view that as naïve. Landlord licensing might not be the be all and end all but it’s an essential tool in enforcement officer’s arsenal.
NB Much of Ben’s work nowadays is done through Cambridge House & Talbot