openDemocracyUK: Investigation

Councils in England and Wales failing to prosecute law-breaking landlords

Exclusive: Half of local authorities have not prosecuted a single landlord in three years, despite a rise in complaints

Adam Bychawski
7 January 2022, 11.44am
Councils received more the 300,000 complaints about private rented properties.
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Richard Johnson / Alamy Stock Photo

Half of councils in England and Wales have not prosecuted a single rogue landlord in the past three years, despite a rise in the number of complaints from tenants, openDemocracy has found.

Local authorities received more than 314,000 complaints about private landlords and letting agents between 2018 and 2021. 

It paints a picture of a regulatory system that is failing to keep vulnerable people safe from unscrupulous property bosses. One single mother in Nottingham was served an eviction notice after council officers decided to give her landlord “a chance” instead of taking legal action – even though they had failed to remedy dozens of safety hazards in her house.

And a London council that boasted about its “tough approach” to tackling rogue landlords has prosecuted just two in the space of three years, despite receiving thousands of complaints from desperate renters.

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Councils said cuts to their funding have forced them to scale back enforcement and that they have been advised by the government to bring legal cases only as a last resort.

Only 1,000 rogue landlords – those who exploit tenants by failing to meet their legal obligations – have been prosecuted in the past three years, despite government estimates in 2015 that there are at least 10,500.

It follows a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) last month revealing that only ten landlords in the whole of England have been barred from renting property since new banning orders were introduced in 2016.

openDemocracy found that one landlord was prosecuted three times by York Council before they were finally banned from renting properties.

“These findings show that the system is not fit to protect tenants and that rogue landlords can continue to operate with impunity, putting the health and wellbeing of their tenants below their profit margins,” said Anny Cullum, a research officer from tenants’ rights organisation Acorn.

The NAO said the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) had made some reforms to the sector in recent years, including banning letting fees, but that “these changes are not effective in ensuring the sector is consistently fair for renters”.

“The regulatory system relies heavily on tenants enforcing their own rights, since there are limited redress arrangements and the system requires neither the licensing of most landlords nor inspections of properties,” it added.

In 2017, councils were given new powers to issue civil penalties, with fines of up to £30,000, against landlords who break the law by refusing to comply with improvement notices or by breaching property licences.

However, the average fine issued in the past three years has been just £4,000 – and nearly three-quarters of the 294 councils that responded to openDemocracy’s requests have not issued any at all. They include Brighton and Hove Council, which has received more than 2,800 complaints about private rented properties since 2018 but has taken no criminal or civil action.

Martin Osborne, Brighton and Hove’s lead councillor for the private rented sector, said the authority’s hands were tied because of a lack of cash.

“We would welcome extra funding to create more enforcement capacity as government funding has so far failed to address the issue of rogue landlords to date,” he told openDemocracy.

DLUHC’s predecessor, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, allocated £2.4m to local councils in 2019 to improve enforcement in the private rented sector. But complaints rose between 2019 and 2020 and fell only slightly during the year of the pandemic.

One of the councils that appeared least likely to take enforcement action following a complaint is Hammersmith and Fulham, which has posted on social media about its “tough approach” to tackling rogue landlords.

openDemocracy’s Freedom of Information request found the council had prosecuted just two landlords and issued just one civil penalty between April 2018 and March 2021. It received more than 3,000 complaints in the same period.

A council spokesperson said: “The pandemic has seriously restricted our ability to bring cases to court. Instead, we’ve got our landlords to comply using other powers. In serious cases, we always prosecute or issue a civil penalty notice.”

The NAO said the 12 councils it spoke to for its own report “described taking a light-touch approach to regulation, only taking stronger action in high-risk circumstances”.

‘The council failed to protect me’

In March 2021, Nadira* complained to Nottingham City Council’s environmental health team about several safety hazards in the home she was renting privately with her six-year-old daughter.

The council inspected two months later, finding 28 safety hazards that the landlord was legally required to address within two weeks – including damp, loose wiring, broken doors and rotten windows – as well as a further 18 “recommended” repairs.

But the landlord said it would take a year to make good on the damage, in addition to which Nadira had concerns about the contractors they initially sent to look at the house after reading reviews online.

Then, in August, two property managers from the lettings agency arrived at her door without warning.

“They turned up at my house, you see, and I wasn’t expecting them. I was on my own,” said Nadira. “They demanded that I let them in. It made me feel really scared and intimidated. My legs were shaking.”

Nadira refused to give them access. A week later, a no-fault eviction notice was posted through her door.

A barrister at the Nottingham Legal Centre asked her if the council had issued an improvements notice, which could have prevented the landlord from evicting her after she reported the disrepair.

She rang the council officer to ask. “They said they didn’t need one because they wanted to give the landlord a chance,” Nadira, who is moving out of the property next week, told openDemocracy. 

“It has all made me really sad. Is this how renting works – the landlord always has the upper hand and the council just let them get away with it?” she said.

Sally Denton, a barrister at the Nottingham Legal Centre, said the local council had previously given the centre funding to prosecute landlords, but withdrew it two years ago due to a lack of resources.

“The problem is that some landlords will specifically choose to let properties out to the type of people that they think are least likely to complain about them,” said Denton, who has worked on housing cases at the centre for 20 years.

“There are vulnerable people that for various reasons won’t get legal advice or bring cases to court. But a local authority can do that and it needs to be done because otherwise the landlords just keep getting away with it.” 

Nottingham City Council told openDemocracy it prosecuted 15 landlords or letting agents and fined 57 a combined total of almost £300,000 between 2018 and 2021. It refused to give a breakdown of how many complaints it received about private landlords during that time period. 

A council spokesperson said they would not comment on ongoing cases. 

“Like most councils we would use prosecution as a very last resort,” they added. “The majority of landlords will work with us to fix issues as soon as we raise them, but if they don’t – we have a range of powers to take against them before moving to prosecution.”

Approximately 22% of renters (150,000) have considered making a complaint about their landlord, but did not, of which 14% (21,000) were worried about retaliation if they complained, according to the government’s most recent annual housing survey

Some 45% of England’s private renting adults – 3.7 million people – have been victims of illegal behaviour by a landlord or letting agent, according to research published by the housing charity Shelter last month.

“It’s difficult enough for average tenants to exercise their rights, but next to impossible for tenants who are at most risk of exploitation, who may have English as a second language, not know that they have rights, or have a landlord who is operating under the radar of the authorities,” said Dan Wilson Craw, the deputy director of tenant organisation Generation Rent. 

“You can complain to your council, which has powers to force landlords to make their properties safe, and protect you from a retaliatory eviction. While some councils do a better job than others, on the whole they don’t have enough resources to take action in every case.”

Councillor David Renard, the Local Government Association’s housing spokesperson, said: “With more powers such as the freedom to establish landlord licensing schemes, councils would be better placed to support a good quality local private rented offer in their communities.

“Where councils need to take action, some issues may be resolved without the need for inspection and enforcement is a last resort when all other options fail.”

Currently, councils have the power to set up landlord licensing schemes only in specific circumstances – such as when there is evidence of anti-social behaviour by people living in several rented properties in a particular area.

A DLUHC spokesperson said: “We've given councils robust powers to crack down on rogue landlords, including fines of up to £30,000 and banning orders on those who rent out unsafe accommodation, and we expect them to use these powers.

“Our forthcoming white paper will set out comprehensive reforms to create a fairer private rented sector for all, including a landlord register in England to help councils drive out criminal landlords.”

*Nadira’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

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