Housing reform to tackle 'neighbours from hell'

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New powers to allow swift evictions of "neighbours from hell" will be outlined by the Government today in the biggest shake-up of housing law for a generation.

Under the plans, tenants who persistently abuse or terrorise their neighbours will lose their home more easily and be banned from living from a whole area of their town or city.

Stephen Byers, Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, will publish a consultation paper detailing the proposals to crack down on anti-social behaviour on Britain's council estates. Mr Byers, who has drawn up the plans with Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Housing Minister, decided to act after studies showed that so-called neighbours from hell were the biggest problem for millions of tenants across the country.

There are 3 million council homes and 1 million housing association homes in Britain. A tiny minority of abusive families have for years wreaked havoc on such estates, playing loud music and abusing their neighbours physically or verbally, but town halls have long complained that the current law prevents swift action.

As well as making life a misery for their neighbours, they and their children are often involved in petty crime, fraud, street robbery and playing truant. They consume many hours of police and council time.

To evict such tenants through the courts takes months and often years. Witnesses are frequently too intimidated and frightened to give the necessary evidence to secure a prosecution.

The new government proposals, which ministers hope to bring forward in a Bill either later this year or next year, will radically change the current eviction procedure in important respects. Instead of having to go through the courts as at present to prove a tenant is anti-social, councils and housing associations will be able to use their own evidence to find someone guilty, with guarantees of anonymity to witnesses. No appeal will be allowed and the whole process could take only days or weeks to complete.

Once a council has found someone guilty, its case will be presented to a court and reviewed without rehearing all the evidence again. An eviction order can then be served.

Public-sector landlords will be allowed for the first time to change an occupier's tenancy to make it less secure and more liable to eviction if there are reasons to believe they are causing problems for their neighbours.

Powers currently exist for councils to obtain injunctions against anti-social tenants, with the threat of eviction if they are breached. The new plans will extend this further so that court orders can be served to ban a person or whole family from living in a specified area. Such "exclusion zones" would represent an important departure in tackling the problem of nuisance neighbours and would compulsorily transfer them away from not just their street but from their entire locality.

New preventive measures will also be introduced to prevent the problem rather than cure it, with much greater education and social support for those families most at risk of causing disorder. They will be based on the model of the Dundee Families Project, a scheme that has helped to cut nuisance through support networks.

Lord Falconer told The Independent that the Government was determined to stamp out neighbour nuisance as part of its efforts to make low- income communities safer and more pleasant.

"A few neighbours from hell can devastate a whole community. Two or three of them can destroy the lives of hundreds of people and until now the means of combating them have been slow and ineffective. Radical measures are needed," he said.

"The vast majority of tenants feel anxious about giving evidence in court, particularly if they are in danger of reprisals from the person next door. Countless delays in gathering evidence, appeals and so on also mean that councils have been worn down from even trying to pursue cases. That's why we need real action to speed up and simplify the whole process."

Lord Falconer stressed that secure tenancies, which housing campaigners regarded as a triumph when they were introduced in the 1970s, would only be weakened for reasons of anti-social behaviour. Rent arrears will not be used to enforce fast-track evictions.

Less than half of Britain's councils are using anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs), mainly because it takes an average of three months for the courts to grant one.

The consultation paper will give interested parties three months to respond. Legislation could come either in the Queen's Speech this year or next year.