New fears over eviction threats faced by Hartlepool tenants
The summer’s Covid-19 infection rates in the North East and wider barriers to justice in the area have left Hartlepool renters at an increased risk of losing their homes, a new investigation suggests.
A data collection project by The Bureau Local’s network of journalists concludes that uncontested eviction orders have been handed down to tenants in around two thirds of the 555 possession hearings monitored in England over the summer.
Nearly 60 per cent of renter possession cases logged by The Bureau’s investigation showed there to be no tenants nor acting legal representatives present at hearings – meaning that on many occasions no one was there to argue against the eviction orders handed down.
In a number of North-East courtrooms recorded as part of the project, that figure rose to around 90 per cent with mortgage possession hearings also included.
Having considered the investigation’s findings, Hartlepool civil society groups pointed to concerns over obstacles to tenants in the area accessing local courtrooms to make their cases in possession hearings.
On one day in July that The Bureau Local sat in on proceedings at the Teesside Combined Court Centre – where Hartlepool possession cases are now heard – Middlesbrough had the second-highest rate of Covid cases in the country, with nearby Redcar then recording the highest nationwide.
Darren Leighton, from the Hartlepool Action Lab group, which works to address poverty and homelessness in the town, told the Mail that many tenants in the area – particularly those housed at the start of the pandemic – were manifestly unprepared to navigate an inflexible housing and courts system.
Recent cuts to local courthouses in Hartlepool, he added, exacerbated the access problems facing some tenants in the area – with many now forced to travel to Middlesbrough to attend the legal hearings where their eviction or housing repossession claims would be ruled on.
"The problem with some of the people we supported was that they would need an intense level of continued support to manage and maintain their tenancy," Mr Leighton said.
"This was not possible due to Covid and the lockdown put in place. As a result, we have seen, as the statistics show, a lot of those we supported being evicted or surrendering their tenancy.
"Travelling to Middlesbrough to dispute their eviction is an impossibility for some if not most."
Mr Leighton added that the emergency accommodation measures taken at the outset of the pandemic showed it was possible to house everyone in the area.
Hartlepool Action Lab Group’s own report, Isolation to Rebuilding: The impact of Covid-19 on people living in Hartlepool, earlier this year praised “the strong community spirit” displayed across town while also highlighting loneliness, poverty and mental health issues.
According to housing charity Crisis, meanwhile, as many as 100,000 renters across the country could now be at placed at a significantly greater risk of eviction with the Government’s cut to £20-a-week Universal Credit payments having come into effect.
Hartlepool Borough Council, however, told the Mail that no rehoused tenants who had previously been considered homeless are facing eviction proceedings at present.
A council spokesperson said: “In terms of the people presenting to us as homeless during the pandemic and, in particular, those provided with emergency temporary accommodation under the Government’s Everyone In initiative, almost all have been successfully rehoused and of these none is currently facing eviction."
Tenants rights group Acorn has levelled fierce criticism at the Government for ‘failing” to tackle the underlying causes of arrears accumulation during the pandemic, before eventually lifting the evictions ban earlier this year.
“The Government completely failed to tackle the underlying factors of unaffordable housing and poverty, while merely kicking the can down the road throughout the pandemic," said Nick Ballard, a spokesperson from the organisation.
"It is unconscionable that people are losing their homes due to arrears accrued solely during a global pandemic.”
The then-Secretary of State for Communities, Housing and Local Government, Robert Jenrick, tweeted in 2020 that “no one should lose their home as a result of the #coronavirus pandemic”.
But The Bureau project’s data sets suggest that tenants in some parts of the UK with as little as two months’ worth of arrears have been hauled through the courts system this summer and may now face losing their homes.
One in five of the hundreds of monitored cases also involved Section 21 – or “no fault” eviction orders – a feature of Thatcher-era 1980s housing legislation that the Conservative Party promised to scrap in 2019.
The new Tory MP for Hartlepool, Jill Mortimer, told the Mail she was “concerned” by the investigation’s findings.
"I am concerned if this is the case,” she said - in reference to the Section 21 figures, non-attendance levels and eviction orders.
"The law must be there to protect both landlord and tenant equally.
"If any constituent finds themself in a position where they feel they have been unfairly treated by the legal system, or if they need help navigating their situation, as always they should get in touch with me, and I will do my best to assist them.”
*Further information about the work of Hartlepool Action Lab Group is available via www.hartlepoolactionlab.org/.
Crisis can be contacted at 0300 636 1967 or online via www.crisis.org.uk/.