11 Feb 2021

A LETTINGS agency has been fined £12,000 after council officers found 11 students living in a ‘high risk’ unlicensed converted pub.

Portsmouth letting firm Kings Estates was initially handed a £6,000 fine by Portsmouth City Council after a tenant blew the whistle about the lack of a mandatory licence.

Elegance lap dance bar owner Paul Ojla, the co-owner, of the shared 12-bed house was also handed a £6,000 fine.

He had failed to apply for a house of multiple occupancy licence at the former Cabmans Rest pub in Plymouth Street, Somers Town.

Kings Estates, in Albert Road, Southsea, appealed the civil fine at court in Havant – where a judge promptly doubled it to £12,000 after ruling the city council failed to take into account the ‘seriousness’ of the offence.

Court papers reveal housing officers inspecting the former Cabmans Rest in December 2019 found ‘deficiencies in the property’.

This included a large amount of waste in the yard, no handrail on the stairway, evidence of a rodent infestation, no kitchen fire door and no communal living area.

There was also no first aid kit, fire extinguishers or blanket. The cramped kitchen ‘posed serious risks to health and safety,’ a judge said.

Branch manager Alex Croker said ‘we kind of took (Mr Ojla’s) word’ that the property was ready for rental.

He told the court he ‘badgered (Mr Ojla) for it but then just went ahead and kind of rented the rooms’.

Mr Croker told The News naivety had played a part as he had only then recently stepped up to play a bigger role at the agency.

He said: ‘It’s a bit mad really, it was a brand new property, had just been developed, it was a pub before – it was all brand new.

‘It wasn’t like they were living in squalor – it was bills included.’

He added: ‘We have never been in trouble with the council or authorities before, paid tax and business rates for over 10 years.

‘We appealed the fine due to running at a loss for two years due to the tenant fee ban.’

The house was managed by Kings Estates from July 2019 and earned them ‘£304 a month,’ Mr Croker said.

The judge hearing the fine appeal ruled the up to £5,500 monthly rent income, lack of licence and not spending cash on getting the property up to standard led to ‘a high level of financial gain’.

‘Unprofessional’ attitude

Tribunal judge Michael Tildesley said: ‘The applicant showed an unprofessional and informal attitude to the management of the property.

‘They did not act in the interest of the potential tenants, which is especially concerning given that the applicant manages around 250 properties in Portsmouth, 30 of which are licensed HMOs.’

He added that Kings Estates, which has now put in systems to check licensing for its properties, had warned a heavy fine could see it ‘out of business’.

Deterrent fine needed for ‘high risk HMO’

But judge Tildesley said a deterrent fine was needed, the agency had ‘closed its eyes to whether the property had a licence,’ and it was more responsible than the landlord.

He said the council had made a mistake by giving a lower fine and the two-storey building was a ‘high risk HMO’.

Mr Ojla withdrew his appeal but would also have faced an increased fine, the judge added.

The landlord told the council he was ‘not aware’ he needed a licence and ‘presumed that (Mr Croker) was asking him about planning and that he may have inadvertently said yes to something which he believed to be right’.

Mr Ojla, who was contacted by The News, was granted a £790 licence when he applied for it after being contacted by the council.

Rogue landlords fined £38,5000 in single year

It comes as the city council fined rogue landlords £38,500 in total last year after catching them flouting housing rules.

Councillor Darren Sanders, cabinet member for housing, said: ‘We will not tolerate landlords acting irresponsibly.

‘Landlords and agents must take their responsibility seriously and ensure that they are following legislations and laws in place to keep people safe.

‘We will continue to issue fines to those who continue to break the law.’

Houses of multiple occupation – including bedsits, shared houses and some self-contained flats – must be registered for a licence with the council if they contain five or more people.

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