North East councils 'failing to protect' private rental tenants from poor living conditions

Councils are responsible for regulating private rental landlords. Photo: ITV News Tyne Tees

Councils in the North East have been accused of failing to protect private rental tenants from poor living conditions and bad landlords.

Those criticisms come from an independent expert, and landlords' representatives, reacting to figures obtained by ITV News Tyne Tees that show local authorities here received more than 5,000 complaints last year, but only successfully prosecuted five landlords.

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Rebecca's story

Rebecca Kinnell moved into her private rental home in the Kenton area of Newcastle in August 2016, with her two children.

She pays her rent of £600 per month, but claims there have been a number of problems:

  • damp and damage done by a flooded kitchen before her tenancy began, including a cupboard that has now collapsed
  • a broken dishwasher containing dirty water
  • a freezer that she had not used because it contains remnants of old food from before her tenancy
  • an oven that falls forwards when you open the door - which she says is dangerous around her children
  • a boiler that stopped working, meaning they had no hot water or heating

Rebecca said her landlord has repeatedly failed to respond to calls and emails, or make the necessary repairs.

We also could not reach her landlord for a response.

Rebecca complained to Newcastle City Council, and they helped install a new boiler.

However, she has been left disappointed by their response to her other problems.

She told us: "Environmental Health [said]... 'it's cosmetic damages, there's nothing we can do.' How can it be classed as cosmetic damages when never had an oven we could eat out of for three months? It just wasn't fair."

Rebecca says her dishwasher has never worked since she moved in, and has dirty water in the bottom of it.

Newcastle City Council told us they had made "every effort" to help Rebecca, and are now taking enforcement action against her landlord.

We were saddened to hear of the tenant’s dissatisfaction as we made every effort within our powers to help resolve the matter.

The Council has visited and called the complainant on over five occasions between September 2016 and February 2017. We even stepped in to replace her broken boiler during the winter months to ensure she had heating and hot water.

Our Private Rented Team were also on-hand to provide specialist support and advice to the tenant during the repair procedure.

Enforcement action is currently underway against the landlord, after we served the owner a 14-day notice to carry out the initial boiler work, of which they failed to comply.

We tried to assess the reported damaged kitchen cupboard but were later told by the tenant it had been removed. A further request to review the property had been denied by the tenant.

– Newcastle City Council spokesman

The housing charity Shelter says that more than 300,000 homes are now privately rented across the North East - and it sees a growing number of tenants facing poor living conditions.

The number of people privately renting properties in the region is increasing.

Councils' response

Local authorities have responsibility for regulating landlords, and powers to impose legal notices, or enforcement actions, to get them to sort out problems, or prosecute them in court.

We put in Freedom of Information requests to all 12 local authorities in the North East.

They told us, for 2015-16:

  • 5,068 private rental tenants complained to their councils about poor living conditions or bad landlords
  • 2,591 inspections were carried out by council teams in response
  • 814 enforcement actions were issued by councils to get landlords to fix problems
  • 5 successful prosecutions of landlords were carried out by councils

We showed the figures an independent housing expert.

Local authorities are clearly leaving vulnerable tenants at the mercy of bad landlords - and I'm afraid that they're not using their powers as effectively or as well as they could to protect those vulnerable tenants.

Sometimes it's because of lack of staff, or lack of resources.

The lack of prosecution may be because the courts still don't impose heavy enough fines on these bad landlords, and it takes a lot of time to bring a prosecution.

– Dr Stephen Battersby - Independent Environmental Health & Housing Consultant

Steve Simpson, regional director of the National Landlords Association, told us: "I think it's difficult for them [local authorities], but I do think they could do more, and I would like to see them do more.

"It's very strange to say 'prosecute another landlord' put it would send a clear message that they're serious about making sure tenants are protected."

We asked councils around the region for their responses.

They told us they "strive wherever possible to secure satisfactory outcomes for private tenants who come to us with issues by informal means."

They also said "we do not hesitate to take statutory enforcement action, where the informal approach does not bring a satisfactory outcome.”

Middlesbrough Council defended their work at dealing with private rental tenants' complaints.

I'm confident in Middlesbrough we are [using our powers to protect tenants]. All the complaints are investigated fully. When people ring up, we explain the process, it's up to them if they want to continue. Those that do continue get a full inspection, and we always follow through.

Most landlords comply with the legal notice once you give it, it's very rare that someone will be daft enough not to do that, because they end up in court.

The funding we have to deal with it [private tenancies] has certainly diminished, but we've been very creative with the way we've juggled things around and prioritised, and housing is a high priority.

– Paul Robertson - Environmental Protection Manager, Middlesbrough Council

Plans for more powers

Over the last few years, the government has announced several measures aimed at giving councils more powers to protect tenants.

The Housing and Planning Act 2016 contained provision for councils to be able to fine landlords up to £30,000 - many times higher than the fines imposed by courts currently - but this is not yet in force.

They have also suggested banning orders for rogue landlords, but the consultation on that is still ongoing.

The housing white paper published earlier this week also contained proposals for minimum term tenancies for new-build rental homes.

The focus of the white paper, though, is building new homes to deal with the 'housing crisis' that has taken hold down south.

There is not such demand on property in the North East though, which is why we see so many empty or derelict homes.

It should be a renters' market here, but with property less valuable and rents lower, it can result in a race to the bottom in terms of living conditions.