Bristol Council’s decision to dive into the property guardianship game seems to be coming a cropper as several “guardians” have launched legal and direct action challenges demanding something be done about rat-infested and dangerous tenancies in its buildings.
Having closed public services across the city, the council has found itself flush with empty commercial and office properties, which it decided to make a few pennies on by jumping into bed with Camelot property management in 2013. The firm, along with another company Ad Hoc, now rents out much of its portfolio.
Camelot specialises in the gray-area rentals market of property guardianship, getting hard-up people needing a home to fork out anything up to £500 a month, plus deposit of £500-600, to stay in empty non-residential properties with few rights and eviction at a month’s notice. The firm has repeatedly been condemned as trying on dodgy practices, including initially only offering three weeks’ notice (breaching minimum guidelines) and using “pseudo-legal gibberish” to intimidate people they want out.
But tenants have now launched a rent strike against Camelot at the council-owned Speedwell Fire Station site in Clay Hill (pictured) — and the council’s own environmental health team has said it’s not fit for human habitation.
The site is teeming with rats and facilities breach the council’s own safety rules, but tenants say Camelot have done nothing about it despite being told about the problems five months ago. Camelot claims there is “ongoing work” to fix the problems but in the meantime some tenants have refused to pay the firm’s “licence fee” (pseudo-rent).
Talking to the Bristol Post, Stefan Evans said: “We first told Camelot we’ve got rats back in September, and Camelot inspected but said they couldn’t see any evidence of it. There’s also been problems with hot water supplies, showers and electric shocks from water heaters.”
The firestation debacle has followed on the heels of another clash between Camelot and the council against Steven Norman, a property guardian at the former Broomhill Elderly People’s Home, ordered closed in 2012 as part of a wave of council care cuts.
Stephen, who discovered that Camelot has been operating without required HMO licences at the property for the last three years, alleges:
Even now after the license was granted, there is an improvement notice issued for substantial works to make the property up to the required standards. This notice has now run out and no works were carried out, until a week ago, when strip lighting was installed, so we are still living in dangerous and substandard housing conditions, with no heating, fire safety measures, or hot water.
The members of the public living there as property guardians have suffered numerous incidents of harassment, including physical, verbal and racial abuse at the hands of Camelot staff members. Illegal fines have been issued for sums of money with no legal binding and pressure has been applied for guardians to pay these or be issued with notice to leave properties. In addition to this Camelot have committed multiple breaches of their contract agreement with Bristol City Council. Failing to supply hot water, removing showers, not maintaining the fire alarm system, removing fire doors and lighting to name just a few.
In my license agreement with Camelot I have paid council tax for over three years. I, personally have been informed by the council tax office, that there is no liability nor account, for any council tax to be collected for Broomhill EPH, as it is still a council tax exempt property. Should all guardians who lived at the property over the past three years receive this money back, as the property is still exempt for council tax? So why does Bristol City Council have any dealings with such an unscrupulous, negligent, potentially fraudulent and therefore criminal company, with a flagrant disregard for their tenants’ welfare? After all, Hackney Council in London terminated its contract with Camelot in 2015 in similar circumstances.
Even Bristol Council’s own housing chief councillor Paul Smith has admitted the situation is substandard, stating: “The council cannot and must not be in the position of sanctioning standards in our properties which we would not allow in the private sector.” Smith says the council will be opening a “full investigation.”
At a full council meeting last month however, far from investigating Stephen’s claims, his full statement was quietly silenced on the grounds it was “defamatory” — but council officers refused to explain which part, or suggest or allow amendments. No action has been taken against Stephen or the Bristolian for republishing it.
Another tenant at Broomhill and a third at Coombe have launched a full-on legal challenge against Camelot this month, in what could be a watershed moment for the trick-tenancy trade.
Camelot’s insistence that its tenants are not in fact tenants but “licencees” is at the heart of its business model, allowing the firm, it says, to offer minimal rights to the people living in the properties it runs as they don’t have “exclusive occupation” of the site and are acting within a particular legal grey area between employee and tenant, without the rights of either. In the company’s view, this allows it full rein to kick people out at the drop of a hat and impose draconian rules, such as banning “licencees” from having more than two friends over at a time, no kids, no unannounced absences of longer than two nights etc.
Nic Connor at Broomhill and Greg Roynon however are arguing that they are tenants under the law, saying that in practice they have exclusive occupation as they were allocated specific rooms to which other residents don’t have free access.
The Bristolian suggests all this is only the tip of the iceberg, and with Camelot having already been hounded out of Hackney, but other councils seemingly showing interest particularly for closed schools and care homes, they could be right. The firm is one of 40 making cash by treating tenants as a mix of cash cow and squatter-deterring guard dog.
For more information of squatting and property guardian rights, check out campaign groups SQUASH and Property Guardian Research. Property Guardians UK is also trying to organise in the sector. For squatting advice ASS is your best bet.