Project: Newham Council illegal housing enforcement action
Organisations involved: London Borough of Newham, Metropolitan Police, Department for Communities and Local Government, UK Border Agency, HM Revenue and Customs
Planners can play their part in ensuring minimum housing standards in the private rented sector, alongside other council departments and public agencies. Two years ago, the London Borough of Newham started actively using planning and housing legislation to tackle poor living conditions in the sector.
The east London borough has around 35,000 privately rented homes, comprising about a third of its housing stock. This rapid increase has not only brought problems with living conditions, but is also linked to a rise in criminal activity. The council initially focused on identifying and taking enforcement action against outhouses being used as "sheds with beds" accommodation without planning approval. In the past year, the initiative has broadened to tackle landlords' criminal activities more generally.
Between September 2011 and April 2013, the council took 80 enforcement actions on sheds with beds. But a further 230 actions were taken against unauthorised flat conversions and houses in multiple occupation. In the past, the council might have negotiated with landlords, but now it now proceeds to enforcement more quickly. "Negotiations don't work with some landlords," says enforcement manager Christine Lyons.
Newham's drive to improve the quality of private rented housing came from the politicians. "With an enforcement-driven approach, it is really important to have the politicians on your side," says Lyons. Officers must not be risk averse, she says: "You must be prepared to have a go." As it happens, almost all the enforcement actions have been successful.
Newham's elected mayor, Sir Robin Wales, says the policy aims to support vulnerable people by taking action against landlords and agents who manage illegal and dangerous properties, leading to a better choice of safe and healthy homes. "It may appear harsh when vulnerable people lose their homes. But the process takes long enough - up to 18 months - for them to find alternative housing," says Lyons.
The council has adopted a targeted approach to identifying sheds with beds, prioritising wards where it already has a lot of information and there is a concentration of private renting. "We use thermal imaging and aerial photography to identify outbuildings being used for accommodation," says Lyons.
These techniques are complemented by a team on the ground. Newham's expanded enforcement team of 23 officers includes six dedicated to tackling criminal landlords. They spend three days a week on the street identifying potentially unauthorised properties. "They are mainly young planners with a good knowledge of planning enforcement," says Lyons.
Planning laws allow enforcement action if an unauthorised use has been under way for less than four years, while housing legislation can require demolition if a property is deemed hazardous. As well as the council's planning, housing and environmental health departments, the initiative also involves the police, the UK Border Agency and HM Revenue and Customs. The police can help gain entry and identify occupants where breaches are suspected.
All the departments and agencies involved meet every two weeks, and a monthly meeting is held with the mayor to discuss strategy. Joint action and visits by officers from different departments and agencies can avoid duplication and save time, Lyons says.
Newham's introduction of mandatory landlord licensing this year is expected to help it focus on unlicensed landlords. Licensing gives additional powers to take action against landlords who have failed to comply with other legislation, according to Lyons.
The sheds with beds initiative was set up with council funds, but it has secured almost £500,000 from the Department for Communities and Local Government under a national programme launched in 2012 to crack down on criminal landlords. These funds are only available up to next April, but the council has a commitment to continue the initiative.
Is Newham's approach the best solution to overcrowding and bad landlords in the private rented sector?
A: Doing a survey to quantify the problem and target action is a good approach. The initiative does not increase housing supply or deal with the much bigger problem of poor-quality private rented accommodation, but it removes dangerous and inappropriate dwellings and sends a clear message to landlords that the borough will not tolerate abuse of rules and regulations.
Q: How important is it for planners to work with other departments?
A: Different departments and agencies have complementary powers and access to different sources of information. For example, an outbuilding may comply with planning regulations but not environmental health rules. It is often impossible to deal with legally savvy offenders without the help of other agencies.
Q: Can this approach become an integral part of planning enforcement?
A: The proactive aspect, identifying problem buildings rather than waiting for complaints, is a good one. It should help reinforce the credibility of planning enforcement, which often suffers from being seen as too passive.
Q: Does this approach only work if there is landlord licensing as well?
A: Landlord licensing deals with a related but different issue.
The enforcement approach doesn't need a licensing scheme to be successful, although they are complementary activities.