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LGA - Councils call for fairer and more streamlined system to tackle criminal landlords
Tougher fines and a more streamlined prosecution system are needed to tackle rogue landlords who are putting tenants' lives at risk.
The Local Government Association (LGA) – which represents almost 400 councils in England and Wales – says that while most landlords are reputable, a criminal minority view fines as ‘operating costs', to be offset against their profits from exploiting tenants by renting sub-standard properties.
The LGA says councils are doing everything they can to tackle rogue operators, but they are being hamstrung by a system "not fit for the 21st century". It is calling for a streamlined system, which is fairer, faster, simpler, and awards proportionate fines to criminal landlords and the full costs of bringing the prosecutions to councils.
New LGA research finds it can take up to 16 months to prosecute a rogue operator. In almost three-quarters of cases, the average fine for a criminal landlord – many of whom are accruing large profits every year while tenants live in dangerous conditions – was £5,000 or less. One landlord received a fine of £100 in a case where six tenants were left living in a property for a year without fire alarms or proper escape routes. In another example, the property did not have secured front doors and tenants discovered strangers sleeping on their sofas.
The LGA has also uncovered evidence that some landlords are not turning up to property inspections, causing further delays because the council is forced to apply for warrants.
The prosecution system is hugely complex and bureaucratic with councils having to adhere to a labyrinth of laws. Fines are far too inconsistent, with no correlation between housing conditions or the number of tenants involved, and councils are often left out of pocket because courts do not even cover the costs of prosecution. Under the current system, local authorities can only claim costs in court from when the offence is discovered.
Councils will do everything they can to try and work with landlords to improve an ‘unfit' property and prosecution is seen as very much a last resort.
While the LGA supports government proposals to raise the limit of fines magistrates can impose, it wants them applied consistently, and proportionate to the crime and threat to life from dangerous properties.
Cllr Mike Jones, Chairman of the Local Government Association's Environment and Housing Board, said: "The current system for prosecuting rogue landlords is not fit for the 21st century. Criminal landlords are exploiting this and endangering tenants' lives. They are treating the fines as ‘operating costs', which they are offsetting against the profits they are raking in. We need a system which protects the good landlords, whose reputation is being dragged down by the bad ones.
"Councils are doing everything they can to tackle the rising levels of rogue landlords caused by the housing crisis. However, they are being hamstrung by a system wracked by delays, bureaucracy and feeble fines.
"We need a new streamlined system which is much fairer, faster, more efficient and treats the criminal abuse of tenants seriously. Prosecution in its current state simply is not seen as an effective deterrent by rogue operators.
"We are talking about properties with fire escape doors opening out onto three storey drops and without proper front doors so tenants have discovered strangers sleeping on their sofas. Rogue landlords are calculating they can keep these going while the cash comes in and walk away after a year with effectively a slap on the wrist.
"While most landlords are reputable – and local authorities want to work with them – they are a growing minority of criminal operators and the current system simply is not designed to tackle them effectively.
"In many cases, councils are actually being left out of pocket because they are not even recovering the costs of bringing the prosecutions. It is imperative this changes because, at a time of unprecedented austerity, ultimately the taxpayer foots the bill."
Wolverhampton City Council made an emergency prohibition order evacuating tenants from one house because it was so dangerous. There were 11 serious contraventions, including no electricity, gas, water; fire escapes missing so doors opened onto an outside drop of three stories; no fire alarm or fire doors. The front door could not be locked and a stranger was found sleeping on a tenant's sofa. The landlord was fined just £2,600 and the council was left out of pocket by almost £5,500 from costs.
A landlord who failed to comply with an improvement notice for a mice and cockroach-infested house was fined just £3,000. Ten tenants, including two children, were forced to share a damp and mouldy kitchen and wait 10 months for the work to carried out.
A landlord was fined just £100 for a property after six tenants were forced to live in a property for 12 months without fire alarms and a proper escape route. The landlord had failed to comply with an improvement notice.
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