The nightmare next door

In the 1970s and 1980s the main subject of complaints received by local authorities about council housing was disrepair. Today these problems have largely been overcome, and they have been replaced by the problem of "neighbours from hell".

National and regional media have been swift to list complaints of antisocial behaviour by tenants on housing estates.

Demands for zero tolerance for offenders, where every person alleged to have committed criminal acts, however minor, be brought before the court, have proved difficult to enforce due to manpower restrictions. But in the few areas where this has been instigated, the problem has not gone away.

Tenants can be arrested for criminal behaviour and return on bail within hours of being charged. This has led to witness intimidation and has often exacerbated the problem.

Legislation was called for and the Housing Act 1996 successfully passed through Parliament. Some of the sections were designed with the aim of giving landlord authorities more power to remove nuisance tenants from council property quickly.

Local authorities already had powers to seek possession of properties under existing legislation, but the new act streamlines the process and gives authorities the right to bring in "introductory tenancies" as a way of rooting out problem neighbours before giving them a secure tenancy.

New occupants are placed on probation for 12 months. If the local authority has not commenced proceedings for possession within this period, the tenancy will be secured.

To end the introductory tenancy, the local authority must serve notice on the tenant informing them of their intention to seek a court order for possession and the reason behind the termination. A court order is still required to end the tenancy, but the court has no power to look into the reasons for terminating the tenancy or to decide upon their fairness.

The tenant has 14 days from service of the notice to request a review, which must be carried out independently.

Introductory tenancies have not been without their critics. Homeless charities believe taking the final decision away from the courts will make more people homeless. It has also been argued that the system has been open to abuse and that the young, the mentally ill and black tenants would be vulnerable because of perceived stereotypes of their behaviour.

Without a court-style adversarial hearing, those local authorities against introductory tenancies believe they will be judicially reviewed on each appeal which is rejected. By doing so, the very problem introductory tenancies were meant to alleviate – delay – would spiral. Only time will tell.