How we did it: Taking concerted action on beds in sheds

A west London authority is taking stringent action on illegal residential use of domestic outbuildings. Ben Kochan reports.

Award winners: Hounslow head of private sector housing Amir Salarkia and head of development management Marilyn Smith
Award winners: Hounslow head of private sector housing Amir Salarkia and head of development management Marilyn Smith

Project: Rogue Landlord and Community Safety Project

Organisations involved: London Borough of Hounslow, Department for Communities and Local Government, Metropolitan Police

London Borough of Hounslow planners are using enforcement to stop shacks and sheds being let as residences, to protect vulnerable people and improve the local area.

Hounslow’s Rogue Landlord and Community Safety Project was set up when the council was made aware of a growing "beds in sheds" issue by residents associations and the public. Last week, the project won the enforcement award, sponsored by Ivy Legal, and the overall Editor’s Award at the inaugural Planning Awards.

"The planning and housing departments realised they shared a problem," says Marilyn Smith, the council’s head of development management. "Many developments did not have planning permission and living conditions were below legal standards."

Cooperation between the teams led to a taskforce being set up at the end of 2012. This group now comprises a planning enforcement officer, two housing enforcement officers and a coordinator. A paralegal expert has also recently been seconded to help with court work. The initiative is supported by a two-year, £540,000 Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) grant.

Aerial photographs of the borough helped the council identify 11,500 outbuildings of 25 square metres or more. "Some were genuinely being used as garages or sheds. But we could see clusters in 49 streets across ten wards that we suspected were being let illegally. These were the focus of our initial efforts," says council head of private sector housing, Amir Salarkia.

Salarkia reports that enforcement has removed 45 unauthorised dwellings from use, including nine demolitions, in the 18 months to the end of June 2014. In the same period, around 3,450 premises were visited, more than 500 notices issued under planning and housing legislation and seven rogue landlords prosecuted, leading to nearly £160,000 in fines.

Smith accepts that enforcement action can take up to two years, given the right to appeal and possible public inquiries. "Where a use has become established or the building falls within permitted development rights, we can’t take action under planning powers, so housing legislation is used," Salarkia adds.

He says Hounslow looked at how other boroughs tackled the problem. "When the project started, the DCLG had a taskforce involving local authorities. We could see that they successfully identified buildings, but enforcement was problematic. We have worked hard to enforce housing and planning legislation," he says.

Under Hounslow’s approach, street surveys are followed by evening visits from taskforce staff. "Gaining access is difficult and right of entry notices are often required," says Smith. "By the time we see inside, often with police help, evidence of inhabitation may have been removed."

Where illegal uses are suspected, planning contravention notices are issued and properties monitored. Around 400 notices were issued between January 2013 and June 2014.

The surveys also revealed issues such as the presence of illegal immigrants, housing benefit fraud, waste and recycling problems and landlords’ failure to pay council or income tax. "These are referred to appropriate council or government departments," explains Salarkia.

There is strong political commitment for the project. Council leader Steve Curran sees it as vital to a push to improve neighbourhoods. "Hounslow is getting tough not only on beds in sheds and illegal extensions but also on litter louts and fly-tippers," he says.

Curran chairs a board with police and local education partnership representatives to oversee taskforce work. "It meets every two months and brings in other agencies such as the Home Office and the council’s fraud department," says Salarkia.

Two years since the taskforce was set up, its organisers see signs of growing confidence in local communities that the council is prepared to take action.

"They are reporting outbuildings that are inhabited," says Smith. "Some of the smaller landlords now realise that they can’t get away without planning permission. But we are aware of a hard core of landlords owning large numbers of properties that we can now target."

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