TOM UTLEY: The council threatened me with unlimited fines

TOM UTLEY: Surely it wasn’t Olga – the lodger I couldn’t stand – who led the council to threaten me with unlimited fines?

A terrifying letter was waiting for us at home this week, on our return from our first summer break in two years.

Addressed to Thomas and Lucinda Utley, it came from our local council and threatened us with a penalty of tens of thousands of pounds if we failed to comply with an enclosed ‘Requisition for Information’ within 14 days.

‘Dear Sir/Madam,’ it began, ‘the London Borough of Lambeth have information that the property above is being used as a House in Multiple Occupation (HMO) and is required to be licensed…

‘Failure to license is an offence and enforcement action can result in either a civil penalty of up to £30,000 or prosecution (unlimited fine).’

My blood ran cold. How on Earth had the council got hold of this totally false notion that we let rooms in our house to three or more people in two or more households — which is apparently the definition of an HMO?

A terrifying letter came from our council this week and threatened us with a penalty of tens of thousands of pounds if we failed to comply with an ‘Requisition for Information’ (stock image)

It’s true that back in the early 1990s, when the Utley finances were at rock bottom, we took in a lodger called Olga. But this unhappy experiment lasted for only a few weeks and we haven’t repeated it since. 

It wasn’t poor Olga’s fault that she got on my nerves. But there was something about the way she would tiptoe about the house, like a child playing Grandmother’s Footsteps, that I found infinitely more irritating than if she’d clumped around in hobnailed boots.

Another thing about her was that all her clothes, without exception, were beige. For reasons I can’t explain, the sight of all those beige skirts, trousers, shirts and underwear hanging on our washing line filled me with profound depression. I know. I’m a thoroughly unreasonable old curmudgeon and I ought to be ashamed of myself.

Anyway, on that joyous day 30 years ago when our lodger announced that she was moving out, I resolved that we’d never take another.

Since then, the only occupants of our house have been me, Mrs U and our four sons — only the youngest of whom remains in permanent residence, although another keeps moving back for long spells when he’s ‘between flats’.

Nor have I ever charged any of them a penny in rent (though I’ve often been tempted to, if only to drive them out).

My first thought when I read Lambeth’s threatening letter was that perhaps some mean-spirited, curtain-twitching neighbour had been spreading malicious gossip about me. He or she might have witnessed the comings and goings of our grown-up boys and assumed that they were tenants.

But I quickly dismissed that idea, since our neighbours seem far too nice to be capable of doing anything so nasty.

How had the council got hold of a false notion that we let rooms out to three or more people in two or more households – which is apparently the definition of an HMO? (stock image)

So I rang the council for an explanation. After five recorded assurances that ‘your call is important to us’, I finally got through to a functionary, who told me that he’d had numerous similar calls from people who had received the same letter.

He didn’t know anything about it, he said, but gave me an email address for somebody who would.

I duly fired off a furious email — and received an automated reply, saying that I’d be contacted within ten days. Well, I was damned if I was going to wait that long, with the threat of prosecution hanging over me.

So I emailed Lambeth’s head of communications, saying that I was writing a column about this, and asking for the council’s side of the story. He promised to make inquiries and get back to me ASAP.

It was only when I woke up yesterday morning that I suddenly remembered a curious incident ten years ago, when 11 identical letters dropped on to my doormat, each containing an application form for a postal vote. 

They were addressed to people with highly improbable-sounding names: David Bottoms, Fatima Merkhel and Billinda Apostol, among others.

I was convinced that I’d stumbled on a clear case of electoral fraud, since nobody with those names had ever lived at my address. 

But then extensive inquiries revealed that all these people were residents at the old folks’ home two doors up the road from us, whose address had been wrongly entered on the electoral roll as mine. 

Could the same mistake have been made again? Sure enough, the council’s press chief got back to me and confirmed that my letter had been sent in error, because of what appeared to be an issue with the electoral roll.

With profuse apologies, he said that in view of my complaint, council officers were now discussing how to rephrase their standard letter, so as to make it less frightening.

A happy ending, then, up to a point. But not all the recipients of that scary letter are lucky enough to be Daily Mail columnists. Others, who may also have been sent it in error, are likely to have suffered days of anxiety while they waited for the council to investigate.

This episode has also set me thinking that there isn’t really a severe housing shortage in the South-East, as we’re so often being told. Many hundreds of thousands of couples like us are rattling around in large family homes, with rooms lying empty after our young have flown the nest.

I suspect many of these, unlike me, would welcome the extra income to be had from taking a few lodgers — and a great many young people would welcome the opportunity to move in for a reasonable rent.

What property owners don’t welcome, however, is all the hassle and bureaucracy involved in having tenants, from council inspections to the risk of massive fines if they fail to comply with regulations. So the rooms stay empty.

Yes, all those rules on fire doors, etc, have the noble aim of cracking down on rogue landlords who keep tenants in appalling conditions. But they also contribute hugely to pushing up rents and limiting the housing stock available to rent.

All of which brings me back to our blissful four-day summer break in a wonderful flat in Devon. It was lent to us by hugely generous friends, who use it themselves only when work permits.

Despite all my pleading, they’ve refused to accept any payment from me, though they are very far from rich.

The episode set me thinking that there isn’t a housing shortage in the South-East. Many couples are rattling around in large family homes, with rooms lying empty (stock image)

It was while we were there that I read this week’s stories about the extortionate rents being demanded for UK properties in holiday locations during the pandemic — prices doubling in Dorset, for example, and more than £10,000 a night being asked for a three-bed cottage in Cornwall. 

Of course, asking for that much is not the same thing as getting it (if you want my opinion, you’d have to be seriously deranged to pay £10,000 a night for a cottage — or else so ludicrously rich that money meant nothing to you).

But quite clearly, my friends could charge hundreds of pounds a night for their flat, with its breathtaking panoramic views across the river to Dartmouth.

What stops them is not just their extreme kindness to their friends, but a clause in their 56-year lease which forbids sub-letting. If they charged anyone so much as a tenner, they’d risk bringing the law crashing down on them. Or so they claim.

The result is that their flat, like countless other second homes in beauty spots, lies empty for much of the time, while it could be giving them much-needed income — and allowing other families to enjoy a wonderful holiday like ours.

Nor do you have to be a Nobel-prizewinning economist to understand that if only the rules on letting were relaxed, many more properties would become available and rents would therefore come down to within the reach of many more of us.

Of course, regulations on letting are well intentioned. But where increasing the sum of human happiness is concerned, I would submit that they cause more problems than they solve — in Lambeth and Devon alike.

As for our friends, do the rules permit us to give them a small token of our love and gratitude? Or is even that forbidden by law?

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