The price of peace in our times
The Government has promised to simplify the legal framework for tackling anti-social behaviour, and give greater power to communities to root out so-called neighbours from hell, but without funding might it all end in tears? Mark Cantrell reports
There’s no doubt about it. Anti-social behaviour (ASB) costs the sector an arm and a leg, and we’re not just talking in terms of readily quantifiable wads of cash; there’s the human impact too. Simply put, it can and does destroy lives.
In July, Housemark published its fifth annual benchmarking analysis for ASB. Among the headline figures, the report revealed that social landlords deal with up to 300,000 ASB cases each year, and based on 2010/11 figures, it reckoned that the Asb caseload costs the sector an estimated £300 million a year in Britain. That’s a lot of cash that could be better spent elsewhere.
The results prompted the executive director of social landlord Bromford Group to write an open letter to the then Housing Minister, Grant Shapps, effectively saying enough is enough – it’s time to do things differently. the organisation works in more than 50 local authority areas, so it sees quite a bit of ASB and the havoc it can wreak on people’s lives. “Unfortunately, the legal process leading to eviction in a ‘typical’ case of ASB can take up to a year. so we urge you in Government to help us and long-suffering victims by speeding up the process,” wrote Nick Cummins.
“We believe the current legal system does work, but provision should be made to fast-track all but the most complex cases in two weeks and not having to wait for them to have been criminally convicted of an indictable offence.”
In the most extreme cases, he explained, every week of delay can cost the organisation £450 in time spent with tenants, meetings, phone calls and so forth, and this can add up to more than £22,000 over a 12-month period. Add any potential property damage that needs to be repaired and the bill can come to more than £30,000 a year per case. As Cummins pointed out, that’s money that could be better spent on services, such as efforts to create jobs and apprenticeships.
And while the ‘meter remains running’ on the cash costs, the victims themselves are often left trapped in their own personal purgatory, with the ASB potentially on-going during the course of the lengthy legal processes involved. For the victim, who simply wants the suffering to end, this can only add to the burdens they must endure.
The problem isn’t just about the length of time it takes for due process to run its course; housing isn’t the only sector that is facing cuts and the belt-tightening imposes its own burdens, as karen dean, a neighbourhood manager with Bromford Group explained.
“There’s been some closing of courts,” she said. “We’ve attended quite a few court dates [but] because they’re overrun with other cases, they’ve actually cancelled ours. You are turning up with witnesses and they’re hoping for an outcome and then you’re being turned away and [told] it’s going to be another two or three weeks. It’s so frustrating for us.”
The effect of cuts on the speed of the court system is something that Mary Walsh of legal firm Winckworth Sherwood, has also noticed. “We notice the phones are answered less in certain courts,” she said. “of course, certain courts are much busier than others. the ones in central London are going to be busier than ones outside of London, perhaps more rural, but equally they are facing funding problems themselves, so put all that it in the mix.”
Even without cancelled sessions, and delays, the process can take “months and months and months” during which time the Bromford Group’s team has to manage the situation: “basically, the anti-social behaviour is still going on and the poor witnesses are having to live next to the person day in and day out,” Bromford’s Dean added.
Neighbours from hell, as Grant Shapps calls them, are but only one manifestation of the problem; whether it is loud music played at all hours of the night, the neighbour – or their visitors – intimidating those living next door or nearby, through to outright threats of violence, Bromford is keen to see reforms that will speed up the process – and lower the costs – for all concerned.
The case cited in Cummins letter is, no doubt, rather extreme: “imagine feeling trapped in your home because of your neighbour’s intimidating behaviour, violence and death threats,” he said. “Feeling scared of living in your own home, knowing your neighbour has previous convictions for firearms offences and is facing offensive weapons charges. Your children are terrified because the neighbour’s eight-year-old daughter has hit them and passed on threatening messages.
“Even when the neighbour is charged for the death threats and bail conditions require them to live elsewhere the nightmare continues as you know at some point they are going to return. the scenario is not fiction, it’s an example of what Bromford’s frontline housing professionals have to deal with and encounter on a regular basis.”
In theory, there’s some potential help on the way. in may, the Government published its White paper ‘putting victims first’. The document set out proposals for simplifying and speeding up the process of dealing with ASB.
“Everyone has the right to feel safe in their own homes and neighbourhoods. yet thousands of people around the country are still having their everyday lives blighted by anti-social behaviour. Many don’t even report it, convinced it won’t be taken seriously. And sadly too often they have been right,” said the Home Secretary Theresa May when she launched the White paper.
“It’s time to put victims first. That’s what this Government will do. Our new plans aim to give victims the chance to have their problem dealt with immediately. We will slash the confusing and cumbersome legislation that leaves victims without a voice and police without the ability to really tackle the problem. Police and local agencies will now have clarity and the powers to come down hard on those who inflict anti-social behaviour on others.” One of the main ‘sells’ to the White paper is the notion that people affected by ASB will have a right to “force action from the police and local agencies” through the use of a new community trigger, as it is called. The Government has also promised to cut the existing powers for tackling ASB from a “complex” 19 down to six “simple and flexible” tools. Taken together, the aim is to simplify and speed up the process for those who face the misery of ASB, whether they are on the receiving end, or whether they work in resolving the problems.
Typical of this Government’s approach to problems, it is stepping back from what it calls a “top down approach” to give more emphasis to local communities, but it said that government will still play a “crucial role in supporting local areas”. it said it would do this by:
• Focusing the response to ASB on the needs of the victim and helping agencies to identify and support people at high risk of harm. it will also give “frontline professionals more freedom to do what they know works” and work to improve the understanding of victims’ experiences
• Empower communities to get involved in tackling ASB, including giving victims and communities the power to ensure action is taken through the use of the new community trigger and make it easier for communities to show in court the harm they are suffering
• Ensure professionals are able to protect the public quickly by giving them “faster, more effective formal powers and speeding up the eviction process for the most anti-social tenants”
• Focus on long-term solutions by addressing the underlying issues that drive ASB, such as binge drinking, drug use, mental health issues, troubled family backgrounds and irresponsible dog ownership that’s quite a list, but as the final point alludes, sometimes ASB is not the result of malicious intent – but of problems the perpetrator themselves are suffering. it adds a further degree of complexity to an already complicated set of issues: is punitive action the best way to deal with someone suffering mental health issues, for example, and is evicting them from one property in one neighbourhood not simply displacing the burden of the problem onto another neighbourhood far removed? After all, even the anti-social must live somewhere.
Knotty issues, and for those suffering the effects on their own health and well-being from the constant stress and fear created by ASB, these are something of a moot point – all they want, understandably, is for the terror to go away so they might live in peace once more.
“That’s one of the first questions we always ask – are there any capacity issues? Do these people have support workers, social workers, people who our client can then start to make contact with to say these problems are arising and they really need their assistance,” said Walsh.
“That can be a big issue for some of our clients. Sometimes they have fantastic support and other times they find it really hard to get engagement from other agencies. Not everybody is going to be malicious; sometimes ASB is caused by all manner of problems that the tenant might have. So legal remedies may not be really what your client wants, they don’t necessarily want a possession order, they don’t want them out on the street, they want someone to assist that person… So legal remedies can take you so far, but can’t do everything that your client would hope for.”
ASB takes many forms and not all of it involves activities that lead to an indictable offence – and thereby opening up the way for clear cut grounds for eviction (once that long legal process has completed). That’s why Bromford’s Dean wants to see greater discretionary measures for social landlords to take steps to rid a neighbourhood of troublemakers in short order. However, despite what may be implied from her boss’s letter that “all but the most complex cases” of ASB be fast-tracked, she clarified that Bromford isn’t looking to fast-track lower level ASB.
“We have a lot of tit-for-tat so we have to do our investigation,” she said. “But where we know we have got clear evidence, through the police, we’ve got CCTV images, all of those things where it’s very clear that they are breaching their tenancy agreement, or things like assaults, then why shouldn’t we have them fast-tracked?”
One might think that in cases of assault, it would fall into the remit of the police and criminal justice, meaning there is little call for the ASB process, but as Dean said this is not necessarily of immediate benefit to the neighbours. There remains the all-important principle that one is innocent until proven guilty; yet, while someone may be innocent of a crime, it doesn’t follow that they haven’t been making their neighbours’ lives hell.
“The thing for us is we see how much our customers’ health deteriorates by waiting months and months,” Dean said. “We have supported customers where they are scared to leave their home… and we want to put a stop to that. We want to be able to take fast action.”
Given the language Grant Shapps used when the White Paper was launched, the concerns expressed by Dean and others ought to resonate, but then politicians know how to play to the gallery.
“For too long communities have been forced to suffer vicious neighbours from hell in misery, while seemingly endless court proceedings held the rights of the perpetrator above the rights of the victims. While eviction should always be the last resort, communities should not have to live in fear of their neighbours while they wait for justice to be done,” he said. But as Walsh said, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating – there’s also the critical question of cold hard cash.
“In terms of the aims [of the White Paper], it is quite right that they should try – if they can – to shorten the process,” said Walsh. “There is a big raft of tools available to the police, the local authorities, and social landlords, and if they can simplify them to make it a more coherent procedure that would be great – if it delivers at the end. The thing is, you never know until they come in if they are going to deliver anything.”
On the matter of costs, she added: “Anything that isn’t going to be cost effective, and if there isn’t going to be enough funding for all these reforms, then that will be a major concern. It is a general concern amongst most arenas – are they going to be properly funded? F or a lot of our clients, these kinds of problems can be really costly because the court process does take time.”
And, of course, there are those cuts to the court system too. “We’ve noticed things are slower at times – courts not picking up the phone – so again it’s that big question: is funding going to be available,” Walsh asked.
“If all these changes are properly funded and they work to minimise cost to the client, and they give greater remedies to the community, that sounds fabulous if it can deliver, but whether they will it is difficult to know.”
The future is uncertain and not just on the matter of ASB reforms. There are other matters to contend with, too, that may have a spill over effect on to the work of ASB – and those are the reforms to tenure and the impact of welfare reform. The former may not result in more ASB but Walsh expressed a concern that it might lead to “more fragmented communities” and given the community focus on tackling ASB in the Government’s approach, it may impact efforts to reduce the instances that do occur. And then we have welfare.
“Welfare reforms are going to be a growing topic of concern,” said Walsh, wondering if the sector might see more possession orders, “perhaps not based on ASB but if people can’t afford, or feel they are being priced out, or feel they have to move, [then] there’s a whole raft of things that could be coming to this area.”
Might this prove a burden, draining legal resources from ASB work? Not for the larger social landlords, Walsh thinks, but for smaller to medium sized RSL s this might become a problem. “You’re suddenly having to spend more of your time dealing with people who are increasingly falling into rent arrears because they’re having problems with benefits they didn’t have before. Perhaps there will be a resource problem there,” she said.
So, reform is all very well, but if the money isn’t forthcoming to grease the wheels of a faster, slicker machine for tackling ASB then it may well be little more than an origami tiger.