Good Scrutiny in Gloucester: Scrutiny can be proactive and forward-looking
The next entry in the Good Scrutiny blog came about simply because of a question asked to Cabinet by an Overview and Scrutiny Committee. Gloucester City Council had been aware for quite some time that there were unlicensed Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs) in the City, and many other HMOs that provided poor health and safety conditions in which to live. Shortly after the O&S committee asked about the conditions in the private rented sector in the City, a small task and finish group of three Councillors was set up to investigate ways to combat the issue.
On the front foot
The group decided to go on the proactive – after assessing the options available to them, they decided the best way to go was to resource an additional member of staff to work entirely towards the goal of identifying unlicensed HMOs and HMOs in poor condition. The officer went about the task of targeting areas of the city they thought were liable to landlords breaking the law.
It seems to me that one of the reasons that the project went so well was that the task and finish group meetings were inclusive arenas were everybody could chip in with their point of view. The meetings were also flexible – recognising the need for the officer to do her job to the best of her ability, they accommodated meetings around her schedule. The result of this was that the task and finish group had met only four times in 14 months – but each one of those meetings was highly valuable.
In the first meeting, the group simply discussed the background to the study and agreed the scope of the project. In the second meeting, the group met with several witnesses, each who provided a unique insight into the issue at hand. For example, one witness emphasised the fact that unannounced inspections would likely throw up other issues regarding immigration, homelessness, and vulnerable tenants. This emphasised to the group the importance of working with partners, such as the Fire Service, Trading Standards, the Immigration Authority, and the City’s Homelessness Team.
The third meeting commenced after the programme of unannounced inspection and some of the findings of the programme were stark. Some houses were rat infested and overcrowded; others were simply unsafe to live in. One of the houses inspected was an unregistered HMO – the owner and manager of the property was successfully prosecuted last year for the offence. The resultant press release attracted a lot of publicity.
The fourth meeting continued on the same trend, with further prosecutions announced in the press. The proactive approach had worked – by getting the message out there, the City Council made clear that poor conditions in the private rented sector would not be tolerated. On top of the landlords that were caught, there were presumably many more who changed their behaviour in fear of an inspection. The Chair of the task and finish group mentioned how the inspection officer had even managed to develop quite a reputation for herself among the targeted landlords.
The outcomes over the first year included some arrests of landlords who were clearly breaking the law. On top of that, there seemed to be evidence that some landlords were changing their behaviour to make conditions better for tenants. The project was clearly having an effect. The question now remains: what should happen in the future?
It was clearly successful enough to warrant commissioning the officer to continue her inspections for another year. The short- and long-term effects could well be wide ranging – not only in relatively mundane ways such as with lowering the amount of dumped rubbish in the streets, but there also seemed to be evidence of landlords involved in money laundering and the sale of illegal cigarettes.
Housing conditions is an issue that flares up again and again in local and national politics – especially with the buy-to-let market on fire as it is. It was fantastic to see Gloucester attempt to tackle it head on.
With thanks to Councillor Mary Smith, who headed the Task and Finish group. The final report can be found here.