“You never know what you will find behind the door when you get in there”, muses Cllr Louise Mitchell

Its 6.30am and Waltham Forest Council’s property licensing enforcement team is out on a series of unannounced inspections of privately rented properties.

At the first property we visit, the occupants are initially reluctant to let officers in.

The council had received reports of cockroaches and overcrowding from someone who had been offered a room there.

After a few minutes negotiation, and a reminder that the council can come back with a warrant, the occupants give way.

The property is tightly congested and rather dilapidated – but not to the extent officers have witnessed during recent inspections, I am told.

Officers set about documenting the safety hazards; in this particular property, the only exit from the building is by passing through the narrow kitchen to reach the door.

The windows – which are slightly rotten at the edges – are sealed by iron bars meaning they can no longer be considered points of escape.

East London and West Essex Guardian Series:

Iron bars prevented the windows from being used as an escape point

The occupants, seemingly a family of three generations, are reluctant to let more than two people in at once.

At one point they seem to muddle what their supposed relations to each other are in conversation with council officers.

A note is made of this for officers to return and work out if there are too many people living in the property - the current licensing application claims there is a family of four living there.

Cllr Louise Mitchell, the cabinet member for housing, says occupants are often wary the council is working with immigration enforcement.

“Sometimes they think we are here to get them into trouble, but this is strictly about properly ensuring their safety as residents”, she says.

“What is sad is, often people are often paying comparable rates to standard accommodation but they don’t realise they are getting a bad deal and just don’t know their rights as tenants.”

A boy, aged between 6-9, tells an enquiring officer that insects crawl out of a whole in the wall in his bedroom.

A squashed cockroach can be seen on the wall of the shower.

East London and West Essex Guardian Series:

The cockroach, now barely visible, had been squashed against the shower wall

Although they do not capture photographic evidence of an infestation, the officers are satisfied there is enough evidence of cockroaches to bring it up with the landlord.

After about 45 minutes inspecting the property, the team moves on.

The next property is a known house in multiple occupation (HMO).

However, the landlord, despite promising to do so by the end of September, has not applied for the correct license to reflect this and the current license claims the property is inhabited by three individuals.

The council has tried to gain access on several occasions but been refused. Today, officers are returning armed with a warrant for access and a locksmith in tow, to force entry if necessary.

On entry it is clear the house is being rented to multiple occupants – there are eight bedrooms, with some inhabited by multiple occupants.

Entry to the main building is granted without need for the locksmith, however he is called into action to open the locked doors of two rooms of occupants who were not in at the time to grant access.

The locks are then replaced with new ones, and notes left for occupants to collect their new keys from the council.

East London and West Essex Guardian Series:

A locksmith opens the door to one of the rooms in the unlicensed HMO

Again, officers remark the property is in fairly good shape compared to many they have visited.

There are three bathrooms, a decently sized kitchen, a garden and a shed for storage space at the back.

One occupant I speak to, a 25-year-old man who has been living in the property for two years tells me he is happy with his living situation.

“I like it here, everyone is respectful of the quiet time in the night and there is never issues with parties or noise.

“There are three bathrooms, so apart from maybe waiting five minutes in the morning, it is okay.”

East London and West Essex Guardian Series:

One of the bedrooms which the locksmith had to force entry into

East London and West Essex Guardian Series:

Council officers liaise with an occupant of one of the rooms, who eventually agrees to open their door.

Waltham Forest’s existing selective licensing scheme for privately rented property came into force in April 2015.

The council has submitted an application to the government to recommence the scheme when the current one ends in March 2020.

Under the scheme private landlords must pay £650 to license a single dwelling for a period of up to five years.

Landlords are then subject to legal checks – with penalties of up to £30,000 if they don’t comply.

East London and West Essex Guardian Series:

An example of overcrowding from an inspection earlier this year. Photo: Waltham Forest Council

Critics of the scheme have claimed that the licensing scheme inherently will struggle to identify criminal landlords, as they simply will not sign up and license their properties.

John Stewart, policy manager for the Residential Landlords Association, said: “For many local authorities, such as Waltham Forest, licensing has become a panacea. However, councils are not required to inspect properties before granting them, giving tenants false hope that because a landlord has a licence it means the property they rent meets all the required standards.

“No criminal landlord who flouts the law will ever willingly come forward to make themselves known under a licensing scheme. That leaves councils regulating the good landlords whilst being no closer to finding those who bring the sector into disrepute.

“Rather than resorting to licensing councils should be making much better use of the wide range of data they can already access to identify and take enforcement action against bad landlords. This includes council tax, benefit, land registry and electoral roll data.”

A government review into the effectiveness of selective licensing schemes, published earlier this year, found it was “an effective tool when implemented properly.”

Since the scheme was introduced in Waltham Forest the council has issued over 100 civil penalties, issued more than 40 interim management orders, improved 3,000 privately rented properties, and pursued 94 successful prosecutions resulting in more than £300,000 in court-imposed fines.