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Criminal landlords named after EHN wins FOI battle

Tom Wall11/12/2014 - 13:00

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The MoJ has named over 50 convicted firms
The MoJ has named over 50 convicted firms

• Worst firms identified
• Data will help councils target rogues 
• Some receiving thousands in housing benefit

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has been forced to release the name of every property firm convicted of housing offences in England and Wales following a ruling by the Information Commissioner.

Justice officials were ordered to disclose the data after the Commissioner, who arbitrates in freedom of information disputes, ruled businesses are not entitled to the same protections as individuals.

The data is published this week by EHN and the Guardian. An interactive map is below. Click on the pins for details.


The data reveals the most prosecuted property firm is Burnley-based Aspire Group Developments, which rents out hundreds of properties across former Lancashire mill towns. It  has been successfully prosecuted five times under the Housing Act 2004, far more than most of the other companies on the database.

Aspire is owned by Jamie Carter, a former Barclays bank management trainee turned property developer, who built up his rental empire by buying from people ‘desperate to sell’ and knock down prices in auctions. It has assets worth just over £13m.

When he was profiled in a property magazine in 2007, Carter was described as having a ‘Midas touch’. But Aspire’s court appearances reveal a different side.

Aspire Home Lettings, the former name of Aspire Group Developments, was prosecuted last year after it failed to make repairs to dilapidated pigeon-infested house with broken windows in Oldham. The 80-year-old tenant complained to Oldham Council but Aspire ignored a notice requiring it to make improvements within 56 days.

It was also prosecuted by Burley Council for ignoring a litany of problems in one of its properties, including blocked drains and overflowing waste pipes.

Despite this record, Aspire has received £168,690 in housing benefit so far this year from Burnley Council. Last year it received £184,287.

Alex Hilton, director tenants right group Generation Rent, said ‘it is not in the government’s or the public’s interest to allow' this firm 'to continue providing homes to vulnerable people.'

However, Burnley council said that payments were made to Aspire in line with official guidelines and stressed it could not base its decision on non-housing benefit matters. A spokesperson added: ‘We have seen improvements in the way the company operates.’

Mr Carter admitted there had been a small number of incidents which Aspire hadn’t ‘got it exactly right’ but insisted there was ‘no money’ to be made from the housing benefit system.

‘The lady in the house is very elderly and refused many times to move out in order that we could carry out the repair works that were required – the works have now been completed,’ he said.

He said Aspire had received an award for regenerating properties and claimed he had housed hundreds of people in Burnley. ‘I set this business up 18 years ago to provide quality housing to all walks of society and am very proud of what we have achieved,’ he said.

Three other convicted firms received housing benefit in 2013. Midas Property Management was paid £369,880 despite renting out flats in ‘an appalling and dangerous state of repair’ in Liverpool last year.

Highest fines

The two highest fines were imposed on Watchstar Ltd and Watchacre Ltd, which are both owned by Mehmet Parlak, who has been branded a ‘prolific’ and ‘rogue landlord’ by Haringey Council.

Mr Parlak was fined £40,000 for offences relating to four houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) in Tottenham, North London, in 2013. Council officers found faulty fire alarms and obstructed fire escape in the properties, some of which housed young children.

Mr Parlak was also fined £23,000 in 2012 for renting out an unlicensed, overcrowded HMO, which posed a fire risk for tenants including children in Tottenham. Officers found conditions ‘so poor they severely compromised the safety and comfort of tenants’.

Freemans accountants of Southgate, London, which acts for Mr Parlak’s firms, said Watchstar Ltd and Watchacre Ltd had met their legal obligations. ‘They have paid their fines. The licences are all in place,’ said a spokesperson. ‘Everything is up to date and there is an agent that manages the properties.’

Cardiff based Topaz Property Company Ltd was second most prosecuted firm, with four housing convictions. Last year it was fined for renting out two unlicensed HMOs in Newport and an unsafe, substandard house HMO in Cardiff. It was also prosecuted after a woman was found living in a dangerous building it had been ordered to clear immediately.

Data will help councils target rogues agents

Mr Hilton said the database would be ‘incredibly useful’ for councils and urged them to crackdown on rogue firms. ‘As more authorities introduce licensing and identify criminal landlords, they will start to be driven out of certain areas so neighbouring councils need the means to stop those landlords exploiting their residents,’ he said.

CIEH vice president Stephen Battersby said criminal landlords should not be able to operate in the housing market.

‘The fact that these firms have been prosecuted successfully means they can safely be described as criminal - that is fact. These are the firms who should not be allowed to operate in the private rented sector,’ he said.

Currently there is little to stop convicted landlords from renting out homes although councils with licensing schemes carry out fit and proper person checks, which take into account prosecutions.

Mr Battersby said the firms on the database were only the ‘tip of the iceberg’ as prosecutions were usually a last resort.

‘It is only when the notice has failed to be complied with or license breached or no licence applied for after requests do authorities move to think of prosecution,’ he said. ‘So these prosecutions are only the tip of the iceberg. Even if many landlords act responsibly, this data indicates that far too many landlords around the country are getting away with flouting the law and endangering their tenants.’

EHN praised

Bob Mayho, CIEH principal policy officer, praised EHN for pursuing the case and winning without any specialist legal assistance.

‘One of the most common complaints we hear from our members working in private sector housing is that it is very difficult for them to find out whether a landlord has other convictions or fines against them; this is important when considering the fit and proper person test,’ he said. ‘It would also help prospective tenants to make informed choices when renting.’

Russell Moffatt, Newham Council's operations manager, said the data would help EHOs track down criminal firms.

'Currently they can shift around the country with impunity. It will also help housing authorities complete accurate fit and proper assessments and take a firm's prosecution history into account when taking enforcement decisions. At the moment, for example, multiple simple cautions might wrongly be issued because housing authorities are not aware of previous offences in other places. This undermines effective justice,' he said.

Read how EHN won the case here.

EHN created the database by linking the MoJ’s list of prosecuted firms to, where possible, publically available court reports, council press releases and company addresses.

MoJ says every effort had been made to ensure that the list is accurate but note that there is a considerable amount of missing data.

The full data-set can be viewed here.

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