Letting agent fined after HMO investigation
ORANGE LIVING Ltd, trading as Loc8me, was fined £80,000 in Leicester after a local council and Leicestershire Fire and Rescue Service (LFRS) investigation uncovered fire safety issues.
Leicester Mercury reported on the prosecution of the company over a series of houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) in Loughborough, with Charnwood Borough Council (CBC) officials discovering that the firm had four three storey homes in the town that should have had HMO licences ‘but did not’. This was only discovered after LFRS had been called to a fire in the attic of one property last October, with firefighters discovering a range of fire safety regulation breaches throughout.
These included battery only smoke detectors across the house, with some having batteries missing, and the attic detector had sounded ‘but not very loudly’. In turn, there were no fire doors along the protected escape route from the second floor. This led to a council environmental health officer visiting alongside a Loc8me representative, with the officer noticing ‘there were several internal doors which should have been fire doors’.
In addition, one of the house’s occupants told the council officer that they had emailed Loc8me’s maintenance team twice in the days before the fire ‘with concerns about the faulty fire detection and lack of fire doors’, but ‘no one visited’. There were also no telephone numbers for the company on display in the house, with tenants relying on emails or instant messaging groups.
Upon further investigation, the council found an application for an HMO licence for the property had been received on 1 October 2018, but it was ‘incomplete’, and so the building was not licenced as an HMO. A ‘number’ of other HMO applications had been received from Loc8me by the council, it found, but ‘most’ had either information or supporting documents missing, with three of the three storey properties in Loughborough included among these applications.
The company confirmed it had had ‘full management’ of the properties for ‘more than a decade’, with director Raffaele Russo interviewed by the council and confirming that none of the four properties in question had no licence. Mr Russo stated that the lack of a licence was a ‘clerical error’, and that the fire alarms ‘had been tested on a number of occasions’, adding that he ‘did not know’ whether emergency contact details were on display in the property.
On this he added that tenants ‘used a WhatsApp group’, with regulations requiring that the name, address and telephone number of the landlord be ‘in a prominent position’ in the HMO. At Leicester Magistrates Court, Mr Russo accepted that there ‘should have been’ mains connected smoke alarms on an interconnected circuit in the property, and fire doors ‘where needed’, with Orange Living admitting four offences under the Housing Act 2004.
It also accepted that it had ‘failed to licence’ the properties ‘as required by the legislation’, and was fined £20,000 for the four offences as well as being ordered to pay the council’s costs of £3,690.
Margaret Smidowicz, CBC’s lead member for licensing, said the ‘significant sentence’ was a sign that the courts ‘had taken the matter seriously’, adding: ‘I hope this case sends a message to landlords that they have a significant responsibility to make sure their properties are safe and proper places for people to live. Licensing is there to ensure living and safety standards are met and we will not hesitate to take action and use the full force of the law to make sure those standards are being met.
‘I would encourage landlords to make sure they are complying with the legislation. If they are not sure, then please get in touch with the council, as we would much rather work with people than use the courts. We are happy to give advice and everyone benefits when we work together.’
In response to the sentencing, Loc8me commented: ‘As a responsible letting agent we take the safety of our tenants really seriously. It is our number one priority. In this case, the fire alarms at the property had been checked four times in the previous 12 months. We discovered that the HMO paperwork was missing as part of our own audit process, and we immediately submitted applications to the council on a voluntary basis.
‘These four properties represent less than one per cent of our managed portfolio, and we have done everything needed to put this right.’