Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Sheffield City Council

1.0 Person Making Submission

1.1 I am Paul Rotherham, a Legal & Policy Officer working for the Private Rented Standards team of Sheffield City Council and I have previously been employed at a role of as Team Leader within Private Sector Housing from September 2002. I have been employed by Sheffield City Council since November 1979. I have 33 years experience dealing with fitness and disrepair issues within the public and private sector.

1.2 My main role as a Legal and Policy Officer is to ensure that there is good quality legal compliance of the regulatory housing services and to lead on Court/Residential Property Tribunal matters, to raise property conditions in the private rented sector. I have also advised the public sector housing function of Sheffield City Council about disrepair under Section 11 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 and Section 4 of the Defective Premises Act 1972 and actions under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, a role which I have been fulfilling for over 20 years and through which I have received instructions to act as a single joint expert on Council owned accommodation and have acted as a witness for tenants of private landlords.

1.3 I was appointed as an expert advisor on the LACORS expert panel for advice on the parts of the Housing Act 2004 relating to Private Sector Housing in 2007. I have given evidence in the County Court, Magistrates and Crown Courts and to the Residential Property Tribunal.

1.4 I am chair of the Yorkshire and Region HMO Network and sit on the Steering Group of the National HMO Network.

1.5 I am making this submission on behalf of the Private Housing Standards function of Sheffield City Council as we have identified a number of matters that can be improved relating to HMO Licensing, Management of HMOs and Single family accommodation and enforcement procedures and charges.

2.0 We have the Following Submissions to make Regarding the Regulation of HMOs

HMO Licensing

2.1 The licensing regime is particularly burdensome. The regime requires consultation with all interested parties at the licence and licence renewal and licence refusal stages and also may be necessary at the revocation and variation stages. It would appear that the consultation stages have been brought in to give landlords an opportunity to comment upon the proposals before the proposals are finalised. In practice very few comments are received and then very similar paperwork is re-issued. We do not propose any amendment to the requirements for licence refusal. The procedures for licences and licence renewals can be streamlined as follows:

2.1.1On issue of the licence the licence holder and other relevant persons would have an opportunity to make representations to the authority within 21 days. If no representations are made the licence would become operative without the issue of further paperwork. If representations are made the authority would have 21 days (or a longer period if agreed between both parties) to respond to the representations, either by confirming the existing licence and conditions or issuing a new licence.

2.1.2If the Council do not respond within the 21 days (or the longer period if agreed between both parties) then the Licence holder and relevant person would have the right to appeal to the RPT.

2.1.3Whilst the revocation and variation regimes allow these to be carried out without the consultation we would bring this in-line with this regime.

2.2 It would be useful if there was a statutory minimum that the courts had to fine a landlord for failure to licence—one landlord had a fine for failing to licence of less than the licence fee.

2.3 We have a number of letting agents letting out HMOs which are in breach of licensing requirements. They are neither the person having control or the person managing the HMO so currently fall outside the categories of people whom proceedings can be taken. There is an opportunity for a smokescreen to be created between the owner and the letting agent giving the owner a reasonable excuse defence. We consider that it would be appropriate to include letting agents in those persons upon whom proceedings can be taken under Section 72 of the Housing Act 2004.

2.4 For a house that is currently not in multiple occupation or occupied below licensing numbers Letting Agents should have verified with a Local Authority that a licence application has been made if the letting to those numbers would require a licence. Most Authorities have lists of licensed houses on their websites.

Management of HMOs

2.5 Prior to the Housing Act 2004, Councils used to be able to serve a notice on landlords to deal with issues of bad management. Some landlords are of poor means themselves and deal with the poorest of tenants, and are outside potential prosecution because of their means or age etc. The Management Order route under Part 4 of the Housing Act 2004 is terribly burdensome and would be excessive to deal with most issues of recurring poor management. It is proposed there should be a power to serve a management notice giving landlords a period to deal with the management at the house. It would need to operate on very similar terms to an Improvement Notice—including the charges for serving the notice. It would allow Councils to do works and charge landlords the costs and recover through the rent without having to take over the management of the house. Works could include cleaning, decoration, provision of waste containers and repairs that themselves are not category 1 hazards. Good Landlords would have nothing to fear from this. This also fits under the bullet of quality of private rented housing.

3.0 We have the Following Submissions Regarding Quality of Private Rented Housing

3.1 A number of properties are let out in substandard condition. In addition to Category 1 Hazards the properties are in poor decorative condition and without checks on electrics etc. It would be appropriate to have a management code applicable to single family lettings similar to the management regulations that apply to HMOs (Section 234 of the Housing Act 2004.)

3.2 Where LAs have arrangements for properties to be used for the housing of homeless people the properties should have no Category 1 hazards and comply with the management code. Breaches of the management code would need to be punishable by fines similar to those for breach of the HMO Management code ie £5,000 per regulation contravened.

3.3 This may reduce the need for some authorities to pursue whole area selective licensing as the management code would allow us to tackle the basic condition of properties which we are currently outside of legislative controls.

3.4 Good landlords have nothing to fear from this.

4.0 We have the Following Submissions Regarding and Procedures for Taking Action Against Rogue Landlords including Charges for Notices

4.1 Local authorities are able to charge for Improvement Notices and Hazards Awareness Notices which are reasonable. We find that in many cases the threat of the cost of the service of notice—currently between £450 and £750 is sufficient incentive to get landlords to do works before the need to take formal action. Where action is not taken informally by landlords there is a high incidence of non compliance with the formal notices.

4.2 To be able to take the actions required for Emergency Remedial Action, and Prohibition Orders, Emergency Prohibition Orders and Demolition Orders the same work or more work needs to be done for most of these notices but we can only charge for a small proportion of the work required. LAs should be able to recover the same costs as for Improvement Notices and Hazard Awareness notices.

4.3 Sheffield’s Intervention and Enforcement Policy directs officers towards proceeding straight to formal notices where there is a history of non compliance with formal and informal action and allows us to target these landlords. This should be enshrined in legislation and/or guidance so that it is clear that this is legitimate to take such actions.

4.4 Councils doing works on houses where the rogue landlords have failed should have land charges that take priority over any mortgage. This is the case with Building Act 1984 notices, Prevention of Damage by Pest Act 1949 notices, but not with Environmental Protection Act 1990 or Housing Act 2004 Notices.

4.5 The requirement to serve a Section 41 Notice upon the owner of a premises within 7 days of taking Emergency Remedial Action (ERA) has resulted in the loss of the Councils money on one ERA action where the ownership changed without us or the tenant being notified. The Section 41 notice was not served on the new owner as we only found out about the change after the seven day period. Whilst this case is particularly unfortunate sometimes the identification of the owner would take more than seven days. By the very nature of the works being an emergency we should not be delayed by identification of the owner. There should be a 21 day appeal against the service of the Section 41 notice but the LA should not have to be bound by the seven days to serve the notice.

4.6 There is currently a £18 charge for us to obtain a warrant for access to the premises. This charge should be waived for Private Housing enforcement—we are policing the Housing Acts and statutory nuisances etc and we note that the Police are exempt from paying these fees. The cost of administering the £18 fee must not be cost efficient for the courts and is only a fraction of what the true costs of the sanctioning of a warrant must be. The cost of administering an £18 charge are exorbitant for us and cannot always be passed onto landlords.

January 2013

Prepared 16th July 2013