Serious health hazards lead to court action against property owners

Friday, 16 August, 2019

Harlow Council has successfully brought court action against two property owners who put the safety of individuals at risk after serious breaches of the Housing Act 2004.

The first case dates back to February 2017 when a private tenant contacted the council about the condition of a house they were renting in Pytt Field. The Environmental Health team paid the property a visit to inspect and discovered serious problems with the rear extension – visible cracks could be seen where the extension joined the main house and the floor appeared to be dropping away from the patio doors. Cracks to the walls could also be seen from the outside.

Officers traced the landlord and property owner, Matthew Hill, and issued him with a Hazard Awareness Notice – this notice required Mr Hill to have a building survey carried out and have repair works carried out immediately.

However, officers had to visit the property again in November 2018 after receiving further reports from the tenants. Another inspection revealed that the situation was becoming worse and the extension was in a dangerous state. Mr Hill was then issued with an Improvement Notice, which again stated he needed to carry out a survey and arrange repair works that would need to be completed within 82 days of work starting.

At a third visit in March 2019 it was clear that no work had been carried out to fix the issues and the council was left with no option other than to prosecute Mr Hill for non-compliance with the Improvement Notice. The case was heard by the Chelmsford Magistrates Court on 25 July 2019 and Mr Hill was found guilty in his absence. Magistrates issued a fine of £6,000, a victim surcharge of £120 and ordered Mr Hill to pay the council's costs of £721.96, bringing the total payable to £6,841.96.

The Council is currently trying to work with Mr Hill to ensure remedial works are carried out as soon as possible.

The second case involves an unlicensed house in multiple occupation (HMO) at the Pink Cottage on Commonside Road. The case dates back to April 2018, when Environmental Health Officers responded to a report of people living in the building, which incorporates an Indian restaurant, without the benefit of an HMO licence.

The initial visit in April 2018 revealed that there were several people apparently living in the building. An Environmental Health Officer was satisfied that there was an excessive fire risk at the timber-framed property. This was largely due to a locked fire exit, obstructed hallways and landing, holes in the structure between floors, excessive use of long electrical adapters, the use of a dangerous portable electric heater and an inadequately earthed kettle, as well as a faulty smoke detection system which was not working at all. All of this posed a severe risk to the people who were staying in the property.

The Council served an Emergency Prohibition Order (EPO) on the owner of The Pink Cottage, Mrs Fatema Zohura, prohibiting the use of the first and second floor accommodation for any use. The order included a number of fire safety works that needed to be completed before the order could be revoked. 

The team revisited The Pink Cottage in November 2018 and found that the first and second floors were still being used as sleeping accommodation in breach of the EPO and there were still issues which posed a serious fire risk; the council therefore issued legal proceedings.

The case also went to Chelmsford Magistrates Court on 25 July 2019. Mrs Zohura entered a guilty plea and, due to mitigating circumstances, was issued with a fine of £470, a victim surcharge of £47 and ordered to pay the council's costs of £2,242.85, bringing the total payable to £2,759.85.

The necessary fire safety works have been carried out and the EPO has since been revoked, and the council’s Environmental Health team is currently working with Mrs Zohura to gain compliance with HMO housing standards and HMO licensing legislation.

Commenting on the cases, Councillor Mark Wilkinson, Portfolio Holder for Housing, said:

“Both of these cases highlighted some shocking situations, particularly in the case of the Pink Cottage which is a Grade II listed building. It contains a lot of exposed timber which, coupled with the dangerous electrical equipment and blocked exits, could have led to a major fire with little to no means of escape.

“I am very pleased that, thanks to the work of our Environmental Health and Legal teams, both cases were successfully brought to a conclusion. I am also pleased to say that in both instances work is being carried out to rectify the problems that were found.

“I hope that these cases act as a deterrent to landlords who neglect their responsibilities to their tenants and put their tenants’ safety at risk. We want to work with landlords in situations like this to help make things better, and will only resort to legal action as a last resort.”