THINK your job is busy? The officers in Milton Keynes Council’s housing services team are constantly dealing with between 100 and 200 cases of anti-social behaviour.
Around 100 of these will be high level or complex complaints dealt with by the estate intervention team.
And housing services manager Eleanor Nickless tells me one of the biggest aspects of the job is managing the expectations of tenants who expect troublesome neighbours to be immediately evicted.
Mrs Nickless said the team try to understand the underlying causes rather than just the impact: “Something that looks like it is just playing loud music can actually be a serious case of domestic violence.
“The main focus is trying to get to grips with what is going on. If you identify drugs or mental health issues you try to solve these problems first. It can be very difficult for other residents to understand. We can’t always discuss the case with them. It is a difficult balance.”
It is this balance which can lead to some of the most commonly heard complaints. Residents feel the perpetrator gets more help than the victims, or that the council should simply evict problem tenants.
Mrs Nickless said: “In serious cases where we are looking to take legal action one of our main powers is to undertake possession proceedings, where we look to evict someone. That can be quite lengthy.”
Council officers need to build up a persuasive body of evidence and consult lawyers before they can even think about approaching a judge for an eviction notice.
Mrs Nickless tells me the most compelling evidence comes from members of the community telling their stories in open court – but this is not always an easy process. With residents understandly scared to come forward, the council can be left to rely on third party statements or professional witnesses.
Judges demand a high level of proof meaning the intervention team has to carefully consider every case it puts forward.
Head of housing management Linda Ellen said: “People who are witnesses can feel they will be more vulnerable, but without that evidence we would be less likely to succeed. The courts primary concern is to make sure everything has been done to support all people to stay in their homes.”
The council does have access to city counselling and witness support services, but with the legal process meaning witnesses are identified at an early stage many fear recriminations.
One power the council does have to safeguard people is through property closure orders. These can see council homes closed down for three months to allow some respite for residents. Problem tenants remain liable to pay rent for the period the house is closed up.
Even when situations may look clear cut it is not always easy.
The Citizen has highlighted the case of Danny Pearce, a resident of Serpentine Court on Bletchley’s Lakes Estate who was found guilty of producing cannabis at his council property in January.
Although Mrs Nickless and Mrs Ellen wouldn’t be drawn on the specifics, they did highlight some of the problems such a case presents.
“Where we know someone has been found guilty of a crime committed in their council home, such as having cannabis in the property, that would be a breach of their tenancy,” Mrs Ellen told me.
“But it wouldn’t necessarily lead to a judge giving us a possession order. The legal system says ‘this person has been punished in a court system, why are you taking their house away as well?’
“If there are lots of people coming forward it makes our case stronger.”
And cases aren’t always clear cut, with a large number turning out to be people who were previously friends who have had a fall out.
“It is often very, very difficult to understand who is the real perpetrator and who is the victim,” Mrs Nickless said.
“The Government has admitted it is a lengthy process. It is currently looking at reducing our 18 powers into five new powers, which they are hoping will make things more streamlined.”
Meanwhile the council believes early intervention is its best option.
Mrs Ellen said: “We try to stop the anti-social behaviour and get people to understand what the impact of what they do is. None of us would want to live in a situation where we are suffering, where we feel under siege. But it is about getting the message across that we can’t just solve everything tomorrow.”
One of the ways around this is through being pro-active.
Last September, the team carried out preventative work on Bletchley’s Lakes Estate following 30 complaints, including drug and alcohol related issues. Letters were sent out and officers went door-to-door. The evidence gathered helped police carry out a successful raid.
In other areas, pro-active work helped the team uncover 23 sub-let properties in the last 18 months and return them to the housing stock.
And new tenants are assessed to make sure the council homes they are getting are right for them.
The best place for vulnerable tenants, such as victims of domestic abuse, to live is looked into. Council workers will look at moving people who have come out of prison into an area where they won’t be tempted to re-offend while someone with a drug issue won’t be placed in an area containing high levels of drugs.
And it’s consultation rather than eviction that can give the intervention team their best results.
Mrs Ellen said: “People come to us wanting to move or wanting a person evicted, but some of the best cases have been where we have worked with both parties so that they can stay in their homes.”