Pay up and pipe down or you're out

NEW legislation being heralded as the way to evict noisy and nuisance neighbours on council estates quickly may have its biggest impact on those failing to pay their rent.

The 1996 Housing Act means new tenants have to sign 12-month probationary, or introductory tenancies. This allows councils to go to court and evict tenants without proving the grounds for doing so, and has led to claims from council lawyers that tenants who are behind in their rent will bear the brunt of the evictions.

It is up to councils as to whether they want to adopt probationary tenancy agreements, and so far only a handful have done so, including Wandsworth, Manchester and Westminster councils.

But while the Government has been heavily promoting the legislation as a way of getting rid of "neighbours from hell," a new Department of the Environment circular takes a softer line and warns eviction is not necessarily appropriate when problems arise between a "vulnerable" tenant and a landlord.

"The one major drawback is that the procedures apply whatever the breach of the tenancy agreement happens to be," says Wandsworth London Borough Council's assistant solicitor Sally Novell.

In the past, councils were able to obtain suspended possession orders from the court and then use them as a leverage to work out a payment deal with tenants, but under the new act they won't have this option.

"The biggest impact is going to be on the arrears front rather than nuisance," says Novell. She adds that up to 90 per cent of eviction cases in Wandsworth relate to rent arrears.

Oldham Council's principal solicitor, Andrew Jefferies, who is a convener of the Local Government Group's housing special interest group, is also concerned about the loss of suspended possession orders under the new legislation.

"The last thing councils want is the house back," says Jefferies. "They want the rent."

He believes a similar suspended order will have to be developed to hold over tenants heads who are able but unwilling to pay their rent.

Jefferies is also concerned that tenants, who can appeal to the council about any eviction decision, may seek a judicial review if they are still unhappy, resulting in drawn out and expensive battles.

However, Jefferies, like Novell, says the legislation should prove a useful legal tool in removing anti-social tenants.

Manchester Council's principal solicitor, Tim Skipworth, argues that the legislation will allow scope for local authorities to withdraw their notice to terminate if there is a change in circumstances. He adds that Lord Woolf's drive for more case management in the courts will encourage councils and tenants to negotiate.

Bradford Metropolitan Council, one of Britain's largest, is among the councils which are still considering introductory tenancies. Council solicitor Jack Henriques viewed the legislation positively. "I don't see why it shouldn't apply to people who are able but unwilling to pay the rent," he said.