Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320
WEDNESDAY 21 NOVEMBER 2001
320. Coming back to the issue of licensing,
on which you clearly place a great deal of weight, the Government
is out to consultation currently on certain proposals. Do you
think that consultation proposal goes far enough? How do you think
it could be improved?
(Councillor Mole) One or two points about
that particular consultation. I think four years is rather a long
time for any consultation. It is a long time to be waiting. I
have to say I have done hundreds of public meetings in these kinds
of areas and people should not be spending another four or five
years in this kind of environment if we can push that on. There
are lots of other things. The proposed timetable is a bit too
slow, the agreements for implementation appear to be cumbersome.
We have experienced this in local government before. We will have
to go through many hoops to get a licence for a landlord. We happen
to have done that on one or two other issues and we should have
learned a lesson about making it too cumbersome. The other thing
is gas and electricity, that does worry me because it gives somebody
a licence to make sure the gas regulations are right, electricity
regulations are right but the house inside can be in a terrible
condition for people to live in. I lived in one of these terraced
houses many years ago and they were a nice first home. Unfortunately
now that is not the case. The actual consultation is going the
right way, the White Paper has improved, but it could be done
a little better and a little faster.
321. Do you think one of the constraints the
Government are aware of is the available resource within local
authorities to carry out a more rigorous licence system starting
some of the improvements to properties or assisting?
(Councillor Mole) I do not want lots of officers running
around inspecting houses. What we do need is to make sure that
somebody is licensed and that we can implement that. The actual
cost is not that great. If you have a dog kennel, you have to
get a licence. If you run taxis you have to get a licence. I cannot
understand why anybody who has 20 houses does not have to have
a licence and be a reputable part of the community. It is not
going to cost that much. I should like to hand you over to John,
because John has investigated this. One of the first questions
we were asked was the question you have just asked: how would
we as a local authority be able to do that.
(Mr Robinson) We put forward a worked-up scheme to
government. We thought through the entire licensing scheme and
the proposal was to base the cost of running it on charging for
licence, but that would only be for the administration of that
licence. We saw that there was benefit in landlords making self-certification
for various aspects of the licence. First of all that the person
would have to be a fit and proper person, checks with Home Office
systems for that and then self-certifying and providing documentation
to us on the basis of which we would issue a licence. However,
it would be subject to periodic checks and certainly subject to
check if we were getting complaints from tenants or neighbours.
In the event of us finding that they were not complying with the
conditions, then we would be looking towards revocation. What
we were trying to do was to develop a scheme which was relatively
low touch in terms of the bureaucracy of it, bearing in mind that
in Gateshead we have a very active landlords' association who
are encouraging the good landlords to operate well.
322. Do you not think there is a risk that in
some circumstances, if a licence system is applied in areas which
become popular, landlords might say it is just a burden too much
and we are going to pull out altogether, it might worsen the situation?
(Councillor Mole) No, I do not think so. We have had
lots of dialogue with landlords and the good onesand I
say the good onesare very encouraged by what we are doing.
What we see firstly is that we can identify bad tenants, we can
help by sending officers to landlords' meetings to inform them
about the problems we have and even people who own two or three
flats are very concerned about letting people into their own property
because they do not know who they are and they cannot get rid
of them. That is going to be a big help and people are moving
towards the licensing scheme because of all the bits and pieces
which go with that. It is not just a licence, it is to make sure
that the person they are going to have in that flat is the right
and proper person and get the help from the local authority as
well and help from housing associations and help from the police,
the whole thing. It adds to the package and it is not just a licence
but a package.
323. When did you tell the Government this?
What response did you get?
(Councillor Mole) We launched the campaign in 1999.
We have spoken to the Deputy Prime Minister and spoken to anybody
who would listen, to be quite honest.
324. We all know the Deputy Prime Minister listens.
(Councillor Mole) I am not getting into that.
325. One other issue with regard to private
landlords is something we picked up on our visits and that is
the issue of housing benefit often underpinning very high rent
levels in areas of very low demand. Have you experienced that
problem? Has your authority tried to challenge the rent officer
service about the levels of those rents and have you had any success
in doing that?
(Mr Robinson) We do not see this as a particular problem
in the North East. What we do recognise is that housing benefit
is artificially propping up the market. We have areas of low demand
housing, high vacancy rates, with landlords who are attracted
to buy properties very, very cheaply, and we know that these properties
are bought at auction without being seen elsewhere in the country.
They are then able, using housing benefit, to put in tenants who
perhaps cannot get houses elsewhere across Tyneside and who come
in on the basis that the money is very quickly recovered. Then
they hope that the property will be acquired by the local authority
at the end of the process so they get their money back anyway.
We are also clear that the housing benefit system actually enables
landlords who are wanting to do this to engineer the decline of
an area by buying up properties in an area, having tenants who
are not well looked after in an area, the area declines very quickly
and the same landlord is able to buy up properties elsewhere in
the street at lower prices and so the cycle goes on. In that respect
we think housing benefit is a factor.
326. Do you have actual evidence of that rather
than the impression that it happens?
(Councillor Mole) No. Gateshead is obviously urban/rural,
as you well know. The biggest public meeting I attended was in
Chopwell, which was an old mining village, where some 200 people
pointed out that somebody was moved in to cause social disorder
and then two or three people decided to move and the landlord
moves in. The property value of those houses dropped within four
months. It is unbelievable that somebody can do that. That is
in a mining area. They picked on that. There are two streets where
we have a problem and we are trying to do something about it.
If only we could control that missing landlord, who happens to
live in Majorca reaping the benefit and does not care about Gateshead;
he can actually do that. I think that is something we really need
to do sooner rather than later. We have evidence of that as well.
327. The only thing that just worries me is
that you talked about the right and proper tenant. There is some
evidence that councils got tough on anti-social tenants in their
council property and they pushed them out of that sector, possibly
into housing associations. Housing associations have now got tough
and pushed people out of that area, they tended to come into the
private rented sector and what you are really saying is that if
there were a licensing system, the licensed landlords could also
get tough. Where do these tenants who are not "right and
proper", in your words, end up?
(Councillor Mole) When I visit people in council houses
and they are misbehaving, they tell me that they can misbehave
as much as they want because they will go somewhere else if I
throw them out. If they owe £2,000 rent, they will move away
and go into the private sector, but if there is nowhere for anybody
to go to, there is nowhere to run, people are going to start to
conform because they are not going to be able to go anywhere else.
Where people have boltholes they can run toand you made
the point earlier on that people have nowhere to escape tothat
is unfortunately one of the problems. If there is somewhere to
escape to, people do misbehave. You know that if people can bend
the rules, they will bend the rules and they will go into the
private sector. If they cannot go into the private sector they
will not misbehave.
328. If we have toughness all round, it will
(Councillor Mole) Yes, the penny would drop eventually.
There would be an initial problem, but the penny would drop eventually
because word does get around.
Chairman: Thank you very much. Your evidence
on this strategy for licensing is very helpful. Thank you very