Britain's fifth richest woman turns screw on her tenants

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A PROPERTY company owned by Britain's fifth-richest woman - one place ahead of the Queen - is attempting to increase rents for some of its tenants by more than 200 per cent.

Bankway Properties, part of a group headed by Clarice Pears, 64, a pensioner whose family is worth pounds 260m, has applied for the increase to the Rent Officer Service, which fixes fair rents for secured tenants.

If approved, it will result in rent rises from pounds 82 a week to pounds 250 for some residents, and from pounds 120 to pounds 250 for others. Bankway Properties, part of a network of companies owned by the William Pears Family Holdings group, has made the application in respect of Hylda Court, a 1930s mansion block of 30 flats near Hampstead, north London.

Some residents, who include pensioners who have lived there for more than 30 years, claim the increase is part of a business plan aimed at pricing them out of their homes. As tenants with old-style protected tenancies, they have more rights - and usually lower rents - than the more common assured shorthold tenancies.

The latter is favoured by landlords because rents can be charged at market rates.

Bankway acquired Hylda Court in March 1996 when all the residents held protected tenancies. Since then, some residents have been issued with demands for rent arrears they claim they do not owe; some have been issued with notices to quit; others have simply left because of constant noise as vacated flats are renovated and let out at higher rents.

The company denies trying to squeeze out its older tenants but does admit to wanting to make as much money at it can.

"We're not social landlords or a council housing department or a housing association," said the company's estates manager, Nick Stanley. "The idea is to maximise the income from the building. But we have done nothing wrong and we have nothing to be ashamed of. We are simply trying to get the market rate for the flats." The reclusive landlady, page 6