Tackling rogue landlords: analysis of private rented housing prosecutions in London

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015 - By Richard Tacagni, Managing Director at London Property Licensing

There has been much discussion about the need to take effective action to crack down on rogue landlords who evade the law and place tenants’ lives at risk.

In 2013, Shelter launched a campaign to ‘evict rogue landlords‘ and to date, over 100 councils have signed up including more than 20 London Boroughs. In April 2014, the Local Government Association published a report exploring the challenges facing local authorities when prosecuting rogue landlords (Private sector housing SH Research – prosecuting landlords for poor property conditions) and in March 2015, the Department for Communities and Local Government published updated guidance for councils offering best practice advice (Improving the Private Rented Sector and Tackling Bad Practice).

Whilst most landlords take their responsibilities seriously and let out accommodation that is safe and well managed, there is clearly a need for local councils to intervene and tackle the worst landlords who have scant regard for the law.

So what does the picture look like on the ground? Well, there is no central directory of local authority housing prosecutions and so freedom of information requests were sent to all 33 London Councils, exploring the three-year period from 1 April 2011 to 31 March 2014. We asked about housing prosecutions under the Housing Act 2004 as this is the main piece of legislation used by local authority private sector housing teams. It covers a wide range of offences including:

  • Failing to comply with an Improvement Notice requiring the landlord to resolve serious hazards in a rented property;
  • Failing to comply with a Prohibition Order which stops a landlord from renting out a property due to serious hazards;
  • Failing to properly manage a house in multiple occupation;
  • Failing to obtain a licence to rent out the property (HMO, additional or selective licensing); and
  • Failing to comply with licence conditions or exceeding the occupancy limit on a licence.

There are various other statutory powers that councils could use to prosecute rogue landlords but only Housing Act 2004 offences were included in the study as these are the powers most commonly used to regulate the condition and management of private rented accommodation.

So what did we find? Well, the research findings should certainly act as a stark warning for any landlords under the misapprehension that councils lack the resources or the willingness to enforce the law. We found that there were 580 housing prosecutions in London over this three-year period, so on average over 190 prosecutions a year or over three housing prosecutions a week.

Delve a bit deeper and the research findings show significant variation in housing enforcement activity across the boroughs. For example, Newham Council took more housing prosecutions than all other London Boroughs put together: 57 in 2011/12, 105 in 2012/13 and rising to 197 in 2013/14. They took a total of 359 prosecutions representing 62% of all housing prosecutions in London. This unprecedented level of housing enforcement activity is closely associated with their decision to implement borough wide selective and additional licensing and stamp out poor quality housing.

Housing Prosecutions: the top 10 London Boroughs 2011 – 2014

Whilst Newham clearly excel at housing enforcement activity, how do the other councils fare? We have listed below the 10 boroughs that took the most housing enforcement activity:

1st Newham (359 prosecutions)
2nd Haringey (51 prosecutions)
3rd Camden (20 prosecutions)
4th Redbridge (19 prosecutions)
5th Southwark (15 prosecutions)
6th Tower Hamlets (13 prosecutions)
7th (joint) Greenwich (9 prosecutions)
7th (joint) Islington (9 prosecutions)
9th (joint) Hammersmith & Fulham (8 prosecutions)
9th (joint) Lambeth (8 prosecutions)

Interestingly, of the top 10 London Boroughs, only Newham and Haringey currently operate selective and/or additional licensing schemes. All the other boroughs have achieved these results using their existing housing enforcement powers.

The middle of the table is made up of councils taking between two and seven prosecutions over this three-year period:

11th (joint) Croydon (7 prosecutions)
11th (joint) Hounslow (7 prosecutions)
13th Hackney (6 prosecutions)
13th Waltham Forest (6 prosecutions)
15th (joint) Hillingdon (5 prosecutions)
15th (joint) Lewisham (5 prosecutions)
17th (joint) Barnet (4 prosecutions)
17th (joint) Bromley (4 prosecutions)
17th (joint) Ealing (4 prosecutions)
17th (joint) Wandsworth (4 prosecutions)
17th (joint) Westminster (4 prosecutions)
22nd Kensington & Chelsea (3 prosecutions)
23rd Harrow (2 prosecutions)

Housing Prosecutions: the bottom 10 London Boroughs 2011 – 2014

The high total number of housing prosecutions across London can easily mask the disparity of enforcement action between boroughs. We have listed below the 10 London Boroughs languishing at the bottom of the enforcement league table:

24th Kingston upon Thames (1 prosecution)
24th Sutton (1 prosecution)
26th (joint) Barking and Dagenham (0 prosecutions)
26th (joint) Bexley (0 prosecutions)
26th (joint) Brent (0 prosecutions)
26th (joint) City of London (0 prosecutions)
26th (joint) Enfield (0 prosecutions)
26th (joint) Havering (0 prosecutions)
26th (joint) Merton (0 prosecutions)
26th (joint) Richmond upon Thames (0 prosecutions)

In total, there were eight London boroughs that took no Housing Act 2004 prosecutions over this three-year period and a third of London boroughs that took on average less than one prosecution a year. A table summarising all the results is available to download at the bottom of this web-page.

Whilst these figures may reflect areas with a higher compliance rate and absence of poor quality rented housing, it may also highlight councils that could do more to tackle the very worst landlords. Interestingly, both Barking & Dagenham and Brent have since implemented selective and additional licensing to further regulate the private rented sector. Enfield is also looking to follow a similar approach but has been subject to a Judicial Review hearing that quashed their proposed scheme. Enfield Council has requested leave to appeal that decision.

It will be interesting to see if some of the councils seeking to better regulate the private rented sector will step up their housing enforcement activity in the months ahead. Indeed, recent prosecutions by Brent Council, since this survey closed, show that they have already started to do so.

Do councils need more enforcement powers?

With 580 housing prosecutions in London over three years, the London Boroughs have demonstrated their ability to take tough action against rogue landlords using existing enforcement powers. The level of penalties handed down by the Courts also seems to be on the increase.

For example, in December 2014, a landlord and letting agent in Newham were fined almost £40,000 for a string of housing offences in a dilapidated and unsanitary property (details here) and in August 2014, husband and wife landlords in Redbridge were ordered to pay £66,000 after being prosecuted for illegally converting a housing into studio flats with no fire precautions and renting them out in breach of an Emergency Prohibition Order (details here).

The message to landlords is clear. If you want to rent out accommodation, make sure you provide your tenants with safe, warm and well-managed accommodation and make sure you understand all your legal responsibilities. If you are letting out properties in London, you can visit the London Property Licensing website to check if you need a licence for your property.