Labour proposals to tackle anti-social behaviour could see perpetrators evicted from their homes and banned from the area, whatever their tenure. Alex Wellman gauges support for the plan. Illustration by Jonathan Edwards
Eight years ago the Stonebridge estate in north west London had big problems with drug dealing and anti-social behaviour.
Some locals joke they felt like they were living in an estate from an American cop show.
Its difficulties attracted national attention when Tony Blair, then prime minister, chose it as an apt location to launch his policy for police safer neighbourhoods teams in 2004.
For Mr Blair, Stonebridge was a prime example of the type of estate that needed to be ‘reclaimed’ for the majority of ‘decent, law abiding’ people.
Robert Quaye, vice-chair of Hillside Housing Trust (the housing association created by Hyde Group specially to manage the estate) acknowledges that Stonebridge had problems.
‘It felt like police were raiding the estate all the time,’ he recalls.
Today, though, things have changed.The 1,300-home estate has undergone a £239 million regeneration, with £76 million coming from Hyde Group and £163 million from previous landlord Stonebridge Housing Action Trust. Partly as a result, these days the ASB taking place ‘is little more than a matter of young people hanging around’, says Mr Quaye.
Despite this, he is frustrated that the media and politicians often seem to imply that problems on housing estates are down to social housing tenants.
This was not helpful for the estate as it left some residents feeling stigmatised - a feeling that continues elsewhere, he believes.
‘Too often social housing is stigmatised with a perception of anti-social behaviour,’ he states. ‘That perception is often wrong. We get complaints about private rented homes and the actual owner is hard to find so it can be difficult to do something against them.’
This is a point many housing providers would agree with. Now it seems like someone else might be listening too. Last month Caroline Fint, shadow communities secretary, outlined her big idea for tackling the problem: housing anti-social behaviour orders.
These, she suggests, could be levelled against people no matter what form of housing they live in, whether private or social tenants or even homeowners.
‘I do not believe enough has been done in the private sector to tackle anti-social behaviour,’ Ms Flint wrote in The Purple Book, the think tank paper in which she launched the plan.
How, then, would a housing ASBO - or HASBO - work and, given that estates like Stonebridge have turned the corner without them, are they really necessary? Do providers think existing methods of tackling anti-social behaviour are failing?
The former housing minister proposes that the HASBO would operate in a similar way to a crackhouse closure order.
She suggests that a home could be closed by a magistrate’s court, the household evicted and then banned from living within five miles of the property - the key difference between the HASBO and existing tools open to councils and the police.
‘The power for residents to petition the police, to submit complaints confidentially, leading to a magistrate’s order, could be a powerful tool,’ Ms Flint adds.
‘Experience has shown how hamstrung councils are when they evict a family, only for them to rent a property privately 100 yards away.
‘Imagine if the family most people fear is evicted and refused the right to live within five miles of the area, whatever their housing tenure? What a message that would send out.’
A useful tool
Anti-social behaviour is certainly a significant problem. Hyde Group, which owns 32,000 homes in south east England, says it dealt with 1,807 ASB cases in 2010/11, not all of which resulted in formal action such as an ASBO.
Nic Haig, ASB co-ordinator at Hyde South East, a subsidiary of Hyde Group, says that while Ms Flint’s idea might help, government plans to give landlords a mandatory power of possession for serious housing-related ASB could be just as valuable.
Some landlords feel that being able to threaten anti-social tenants with the loss of their home has been a useful tool - and might focus the minds of owners and private tenants if it became a cross-tenure option.
Surrey-based Richmond Housing Partnership is a case in point. Andrew Nowakowski, ASB team manager at the 9,385-home association, says it acted recently in the case of a family who were abusing other residents and causing a constant noise nuisance on one of its estates.
The landlord told the family that they ‘would have to move home and accept a family intervention tenancy for six months or risk a possession order being issued against their home,’ Mr Nowakowski states.
The family agreed and entered into a behavioural contract with the association and partners such as the police. They were also provided with support to change their ways.
‘In this particular case it was the threat [of losing a home that changed their behaviour], and we have seen an enormous turnaround.
‘The customer had to go on parenting courses and drug and alcohol projects, but if they succeed they will be offered an assured tenancy again.
‘This was a family which had not seen the value of engaging with support services and it does come down to this risk of losing your home [which forced them to get involved].’
From public to private
Stories like this might make it sound like existing tools are doing the job - and perhaps they are, to an extent, if you are a social landlord.
But landlords also report stories of tenants they have evicted who then move into private rented accommodation down the road.
In effect this means that residents affected by ASB have no respite. Equally landlords report private tenants and owners being at the root of problems - and that this proves much more difficult for them to tackle.
Geraldine Howley, chief executive of 22,000-home Bradford-based Incommunities Housing Association, believes there are circumstances in which Ms Flint’s idea could work.
‘There would be times when that [five-mile exclusion] would be useful because sometimes when we take action against a tenant they simply move to private rented accommodation across the road.
‘That can be very frustrating as we have spent a lot of time and money sorting that out for the community and things often don’t change so I think there is merit in the proposal.’
Change on the horizon
Even where existing methods of tackling ASB appear to be working, it seems their days could be numbered. The most well-known tool - the ASBO - certainly seems to be on its last legs.
In July last year, home secretary Theresa May sounded the death knell for the ASBO, announcing that it was ‘time to move on’ from the order and citing official statistics that show more than half are breached.
Under government proposals announced in March this year, the ASBO and a range of other court orders would be replaced with four new tools: a criminal behaviour order, a community protection order (level 1), a community protection order (level 2) and a crime prevention injunction.
The government says it wants to ‘streamline the toolkit’ and move away from a number of different powers to fewer, more broad ones.
While ministers may apply the killer blow, statistics appear to show the ASBO is already dying out - particularly as a tool used by social landlords.
According to the Tenant Services Authority, housing associations helped issue 316 ASBOs and 744 anti-social behaviour injunctions in 2005/06 but this reduced to 115 ASBOs in 2010/11; ASBIs, however, increased, with 1,430 being issued.
Data from the Home Office shows that the use of ASBOs has declined across the board: in total, there were 1,600 issued by all agencies in 2009, down from 4,100 at the peak in 2005.
The government department’s latest figures show there were 18,670 ASBOs issued in England and Wales between 1 April 1999 and 31 December 2009. Between 1 June 2000 and 31 December 2009 there were 45,599 proven breaches of ASBOs.
Length is crucial
Jonathan Hulley, a partner at law firm Clarke Willmott and a specialist in housing management, says HASBOs have the potential to be more popular than ASBOs among landlords of all tenures - but their effectiveness would depend on their length.
‘A HASBO could work if legislation provided for the tenant in question to be removed [from the area] for a period of longer than six months,’ he says. The tenant should be required to engage in a support programme to address the cause of their behaviour so they can return ‘as a model tenant’, he adds.
‘It is encouraging that [Ms Flint] recognised that the magistrate’s court should play more of a role in tackling anti-social behaviour. In my experience, magistrates are more robust in tackling anti-social behaviour than county court judges.’
Mr Hulley says it would also be handy for landlords to be given powers to pursue breaches of HASBOs.
‘The problem is that the landlords which have taken the trouble to secure an ASBO have not been given the right to prosecute for breach. That is the right of the Crown Prosecution Service, and they have other things to worry about, I suspect, than a breach of ASBO,’ he states. ‘Give that power to organisations and you will find there will be fewer breaches.’
So, both Ms May and Ms Flint are united in their belief that the system for tackling ASB must change.
While Ms May is obviously in the driving seat, some landlords clearly feel that the housing ASBO could potentially be a valuable new tool.
Perhaps as importantly, Ms Flint is one of the few politicians from either party to use a public platform to stress ASB is a problem caused by people from all tenure types.
This at least challenges lazy assumptions that social housing is at the root of most ASB. And she’s gone a step further than anyone else by proposing a tool that will treat all tenants and owner-occupiers in the same way.
Social landlords and their tenants have cause to applaud this alone - even if Ms Flint remains powerless to enact it.
How the HASBO could fit in
With existing powers:
- ASBOs on conviction (CRASBO) - These are ASBOs applied for by the lead agency, such as the police or council (but not housing associations), when the problem tenant is already in court for a criminal prosecution
- Anti-social behaviour injunctions (ASBIs) - Similar to an ASBO, these can be used by housing associations as well as councils to stop anti-social behaviour on housing estates
- Closure orders - Can be used to offer communities immediate respite by temporarily closing premises for a period of up to three months where there is shown to be significant and persistent disorder or nuisance to a community
- Eviction orders - If ASB continues, a tenant can be evicted by either the council or the housing association. This is a tool of last resort
With government proposals:
- Criminal behaviour orders (CBOs) - Civil preventative orders that could be attached to a conviction, and would allow the court to ban an individual from certain activities
- Crime prevention injunctions (CPIs) - These would carry a civil burden of proof based on probability, as opposed to a criminal burden of proof which is beyond reasonable doubt