Lime Legal


Published 02 January 2024

Closure orders resulting in eviction are the government’s latest weapon in the war on anti-social behaviour. But what happens next? Simon Ellery reports on a disturbing trend

What should we do with neighbours from hell? Lock them out by imposing a closure order on their home? Put them on the streets and they can’t cause any more trouble?

That’s what’s being proposed in England and Wales by home secretary John Reid, and similar proposals have already become law in Scotland in cases where other approaches to anti-social behaviour have failed.

South of the border, premises closure orders have so far been confined to properties used for the production, use or supply of drugs. But the Queen’s Speech included legislation to enable police in England to order the immediate shutdown of any premises – including rented or privately-owned homes – for a much wider range of anti-social activity, for up to six months.

The measure follows the format of the government’s Respect agenda, mixing tough punitive action with a layer of support. It sounds reasonable enough. But some experts on the frontline are sceptical about the support element.

‘Evicting people or banning them from their properties through closure orders simply means moving that person and their behaviour elsewhere, which may lead to further problems,’ says Archie Stoddart, director of Shelter Scotland.

‘Eviction should always be a last resort and means that all other methods, like mediation, have failed. Closure orders have been used as a way to tackle anti-social behaviour, but again it only moves the problem for a short period of time. Focusing on sanctions does not solve anything. It is also unclear what duties local authorities have to accommodate these people, but they certainly shouldn’t be forced to sleep rough.’

Supporters of closure orders argue that they will only be used as a last resort and that local authorities will be closely involved (see box). And the government has acknowledged that crackdowns should be matched by intensive support. The stunning success of the Dundee Families Project, where people facing eviction are given intensive support to change their behaviour, has led to similar projects throughout the UK. Now five housing associations have received funding to set up ‘family intervention projects’ to work with the perpetrators of nuisance behaviour and address some of the underlying issues.

However, the crackdowns continue. Since the government brought in new powers for police to quickly close premises where crack cocaine and heroin are being dealt, more than 500 so-called crack dens have been closed.

And then the problem just becomes someone else’s. ROOF has discovered that vulnerable men and women, many of them struggling with mental illness or serial homelessness, are becoming the unintended victims of the latest crackdown. Facing swifter police and local authority action, dealers are now targeting vulnerable people, befriending them and using their homes as a safer base to sell crack and heroin.

Targets include older men who might be lonely, vulnerable young people and former rough sleepers trying to get back on their feet. In many cases prostitutes first approach the older men before moving in their pimp and then their dealer. In other cases young men fresh out of care or off the streets are being befriended and groomed.

Estate safety professionals call the practice ‘cuckooing’ or ‘takeover’ cases. Set up in 2013 with Home Office funding, Hackney’s Crackdown Project has already tackled 50 crack houses this year but the majority are so-called ‘takeover’ cases.

Drug referral worker Winifred Ikolodo says: ‘It’s quite a big problem. The drug dealers target mainly elderly or those with mental health issues who live in inner city council estates as it is easier to sell drugs to people living on those estates.’

The project found that increasing numbers of vulnerable people’s tenancies were being ‘taken over by drug dealers, crack addicts and prostitutes so these individuals can conduct their criminal activities behind the veil of a vulnerable tenant’.

Working closely with both housing associations and the police, the project brought closure orders shutting 10 crack dens in the first six months of 2015. They can be shut for three months, giving the council time to get a possession order to re-posses the property.

The project then works with other agencies such as social services to aid tenants who’ve been exploited and they are moved to another home.

Ikolodo says: ‘The most difficult thing for me is when – despite having evidence that dealing is taking place – the tenant is unaware he is being exploited. So he says there is no dealing going or the dealer is a “friend”.’ (see case study)

Keith Veness, the project’s estate safety officer, says: ‘Originally in Hackney crack dealers would target empty properties or squatters would break in and dealers would case them out and open them up. What a lot of them have latched on to is that the drug dealer or prostitute will say “I am the persons carer” – they know the jargon.’

Once in the property the dealer or pimp takes control. Veness says: ‘Without intervention by the police or the council the bottom line is the vulnerable tenant gets kicked out, sleeping on a park bench, by which time he is usually so traumatised that he does not know where to get help. We have had cases in the past where the vulnerable tenant has just disappeared and to this day we do not know what has happened to them.’

People with mental health problems are also targeted. ‘Again the majority are young people that the council is trying to get back into the community through care in the community,’ Veness says. ‘These young people get the keys to their own flat but unfortunately there is just not the back up for them. They are vulnerable to people befriending them.

‘In one case on this estate there was a women with serious learning problems but was capable for living by herself. Then four guys moved in with her. The estate manager lived on this estate and brought this to our attention. We went up to the flat and managed to get her on her own and she said: “I don’t really want these men here I am getting scared of them.” We then told her to pack her bags, we are leaving.’

Evidence shows that homeless people are being targeted. Homelessness charity Thames Reach helps around 1,000 former homeless people by housing them through housing associations. Director of housing and community support Bill Tidnam says he thinks organised crime is involved because there is a steady flow of takeovers – and when dealers are arrested and imprisoned it continues. ‘It is relatively organised. It’s not individuals, it is gangs.’

The Home Office told ROOF it is aware of the problem but is not taking any action to address it while the Association of Chief Police Officers, which has 25 drugs working groups, does not currently consider it to be a big enough issue.

Home Office minister Vernon Coaker says: ‘The government has always recognised that a small minority of vulnerable tenants are at risk of being preyed upon and having their homes taken over by unscrupulous dealers.’

He adds that the department has issued guidance to police and local authorities and urges all agencies, including social services, to ensure there are agreements in place to support vulnerable people.

England’s limited experience with closure orders so far shows that the issues involved are far more complex than a simple crackdown on drug dealers. The closure of premises protocol drawn up between the council, housing department and police in Camden, London, warns that: ‘Experience has shown that in the vast majority of crack houses the tenant/ leaseholder is a single householder with vulnerability in the form of either substance abuse, mental health or learning difficulties.’

The protocol also explains that although tenants may in theory be secure tenants, they will be homeless for the duration of the closure, and that successful resettlement will prove ‘very challenging’.

Hackney Crackdown Project co-ordinator Dawn Henry says: ‘We need more money. And we need more people identifying these problems. We need social services to be working with us, mental health engaging with us. If we have vulnerable mentally ill people that have been released out of hospital and put into general needs properties we need to know that they have a care plan.

‘A lot of the time we have tenants that move into these properties and they are screaming out for help, and they are not getting it and are left on the wayside. And then what happens is that they are served notices, get evicted and are on the street again. It’s a vicious circle.’