Could wide-ranging private landlord licensing finally be introduced in Greenwich borough? It comes as a large rise in problems, many related to private lettings, occur across the borough. A decision is due imminently, but have the council left it too long unlike other areas?

Many other local authorities have already established licensing schemes to keep tabs on the issue, using fees levied on landlords to administer the scheme and monitor living conditions and social problems arising, such as fly tipping and crime. Newham and Barking are two such councils. In Barking, for example, licences will be refused if landlords are not deemed to be ‘a fit and proper person’.

Greenwich borough has certainly seen a rapidly increasing problem related to the increase in provate lettings. One such issue is flytipping. A 2015 ITV news article shows the enormous spike – up to the 6th highest across the entire country:

“Over the past year, Greenwich Council recorded 14,096 instances of fly-tipping – a huge increase from the previous years. Between 2012 and 2013, the council dealt with 5,174 incidents”.

Anyone who walks around much of the borough can see the sheer amount of rubbish dumping right now. Very often in the same spots on an almost daily basis costing taxpayers a large amount at a time when funding is strained. With short term, insecure tenancies the norm in private lettings, tenants moving out every six months or a year often result in cupboards, mattresses and various other items dumped in the street.

And there’s other issues with landlords letting housing rot. Maintenance is rarely done on many homes – both internally and externally. What were lovingly cared for family homes have seen windows, gardens and walls neglected and left to rot. There’s more than a few homes where landlords have just smashed up the front walls to allow cars into gardens and left the rubble strewn about. Absolutely no care or pride in homes is in evidence.

Then there’s rubbish literally tossed out the front garden in public spaces with the appearance of houses and gardens taking a nosedive. What then happens is people with self-respect and pride in the neighbourhood witness this and want to get out. Civic pride and belonging is eroded. In no time a thriving community and attractive street and town can be an ugly mess with a highly transient population living in dangerous and ugly buy-to-let houses. A sense of community, and knowing your neighbours, becomes the exception.

Greenwich Council recently set up a task force to investigate private landlords across the borough. The amount of contraventions highlighted in a council report is worrying and shows the need for licensing:

“In summary, as at the 5 January 2016 the following had been achieved: 1,219 properties have been visited by Intelligence Officers with 460 found to be HMOs. This has resulted in nearly 1,000 enforcement investigations.

Over 1,770 hazards and breaches of legislation have been identified during the inspections.”

The group tasked with investigations seem to be doing a good job but are scratching the surface of problems. They’re reliant on seeking out external funding here and there on a short term basis. They have been awarded £175k from central government but this is only until April.

And why should taxpayers be entirely paying to investigate landlords letting houses rot, treating tenants poorly and playing a major role in the poor condition of public spaces? A licensing scheme would greatly aid in dealing with the problem. It would help root out many dodgy landlords in the first place, and those caught operating without a license fined heavily.

Selective Licensing

Like all authorities, Greenwich Council do operate mandatory licensing of large ‘Houses in Multiple Occupation’ (HMO). But this covers a fraction of private lettings, as the HMO must be:

  • at least 3 storeys high
  • have at least 5 tenants live there, forming more than 1 household
  • share a toilet, bathroom or kitchen facilities with other tenants

So the vast majority of private lettings aren’t covered. Over recent years many local authorities have thus expanded coverage to smaller HMO’s and all other homes privately rented. Covering all private lettings is known as selective licensing and a good tool in dealing with escalating problems.

Unfortunately Greenwich Council have been very slow to adopt measures open to them for dealing with spiraling problems within the borough. Then last year, the Government announced it would place restrictions on private landlord licensing. Croydon council managed to rush through approval and begun its scheme on 1st October 2015.

Finally, Greenwich Council are looking to take action. But is it too late? The borough seems to be paying for its lethargy. As part of the recent restrictions, licensing covering more than 20% of homes must be approved by central government. So much for localism.

And in a report for councillors, council officers seem lukewarm on the idea as it could be “onerous and time-consuming”. So? If it works then do it. The council took too long to implement it, unlike other areas, so who is to blame for having to work harder now?

In the report they would seek approval to cover 42% of private rented stock. This seems too low as it’s avoiding areas where landlord related issues are rife. Some parts of Abbey Wood and Charlton, for example, have seen houses and their environs descend into a desperate and dangerous state due to landlords moving in:

“Initial analysis of inspection data suggests that a Selective Licensing scheme could be justified on the grounds of ‘poor property conditions’ in certain parts of the borough, namely Glyndon, Woolwich Common and Thamesmead, Plumstead and Woolwich Riverside, Peninsula and Shooters Hill either fully or in part. Approximately 7,9451 privately rented non-HMO properties could be subject to licensing, approximately 42% of the estimated private rented stock.”

Other areas of the borough not mentioned do meet the requirements for approval from the Secretary of State for a wide-ranging licensing scheme:

“A designation may be made to combat problems in an area experiencing poor property conditions, an influx of migration, a high level of deprivation or high levels of crime.”

There is another type of licensing which would only expand coverage to smaller HMO’s, alongside large HMO’s, but not all privately let homes. The government are consulting on this. If the government do not adopt this the council will look to do so. Welcome though that is, it’s far from enough in Greenwich given many problems are in single occupied homes.

Assuming the government do approve, then covering all HMO’s but not all privately rented homes should happen imminently. If they don’t then the council are likely to still proceed which would take around a year to implement. HMO licensing would then expand beyond the restricted number of large HMOs currently covered – eg no longer restricted to buildings of three storeys or above.

New restrictions

Heading back to the new 20% restriction on covering all homes, the question arises of whether the council could immediately launch licensing of an area below this percentage whilst drawing up a wider ranging application alongside. It seems some other boroughs are doing that. Tower Hamlets are to do so in three wards. Harrow are launching a scheme in one ward to achieve a reduction in:

1. Accumulation of waste

2. Drug and alcohol related crime

3. Gang nuisance

4. Illegal conversions

5. Negativity due to badly managed and poorly maintained properties

6. Overcrowding

7. Sub-letting

8. Vandalism

9. Transient population, leading to a more stable community

Too little too late?

There’s a danger here of Greenwich getting the worst of all worlds. They’ve already waited far too long and placed the borough in a tough spot, to the detriment of many areas and tenants. Now they have a bit of a half-baked and limited proposal, and even then officers give the impression they see it as too much hard work.

Ideally they’d have a proposal to launch a small scheme immediately in the worst hit areas whilst applying for a wide ranging scheme, which comprises more areas than the 42% of areas proposed, as problems are endemic in areas away from those. The worst case scenario is they don’t even bother to pursue that, whilst not doing anything to cover even 20%, and the growing problems continue to proliferate.