Property agents gain greater powers

Local authority-appointed property agents have been given more power to prevent antisocial behaviour, says Roger Pearson.

Mr Justice Jacob has given important guidelines on the powers of property agents appointed by local authorities to obtain arrest orders.

The case centred on an injunction application by English Churches Housing Group, which took over the London Borough of Bromley's housing stock under the provisions of the Housing Act 1985.

It sought an injunction, inter alia, preventing a person from entering one of its properties in Bromley or being found in the locality. It also requested that a power of arrest order be attached to the injunction.

The case raised the question of whether, under section 152 of the Housing Act 1996, agents appointed to take over housing stocks from local authorities were entitled to make applications for injunctions preventing people from engaging in antisocial behaviour or entering residential premises to which this section applied – namely, properties held under secure or introductory tenancies or accommodation provided pursuant to the local authority's homelessness duties.

On a strict reading of the Act, the provisions relating to such orders could have been interpreted as meaning that only local authority landlords were entitled to seek them and not "duly appointed agents".

Initially, Mr Justice Jacob followed this reading, raising doubts about the entitlement of English Churches to bring the injunction application on the basis that the Act specifies that such applications can be made only by a local authority.

But in the end he took the view that, for the purpose of the Act, an application by a duly authorised council agent could be equated with an application by a local authority itself.

Judge Jacobs said that he could not believe Parliament deliberately intended to confine applications for injunctions with a power of arrest to local authorities and not their agents, even though the local authorities may have no knowledge of what was going on and no day-to-day control.

In the light of his decision, he said that all future applications of this kind should be made to the county court and not the High Court.

Andy Barron, of Bromley firm Batchelors, says increasing numbers of local authorities are putting their housing function in the hands of agents such as English Churches and that this point is therefore an important one in respect of the powers such agents have to control the properties they manage.

He says that had the judge decided on a strict interpretation of the Act the ramifications would have been "very disturbing".

"You would have a situation where, in the event that a local authority delegated its housing function, any power it previously held under section 152 would not be passed to its agent but would become obsolete," he explains.

"I would say that for those such as our clients this decision is significant."

Barron adds: "A ruling the other way would have effectively rendered the legislation impotent for an increasing number of bodies which may have cause to use it.

"It would have left them in a position where they could do very little about antisocial or unwelcome visitors to the properties under their control.

"This decision gives those clients such as ours the teeth to take effective action where necessary."