Vulnerable South Tyneside tenants let down by ‘impenetrable’ courts system, says charity chief

New data suggest the summer’s Covid infection rates contributed to high numbers of uncontested possession cases locally, leaving South Tyneside tenants at greater risk of losing their homes.
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A data collection project by The Bureau Local has seen uncontested eviction orders handed down to tenants in around two thirds of the 555 possession hearings monitored during the summer.

Nearly 60% of renter possession cases logged by The Bureau’s investigation showed there being no tenant nor acting legal representatives present at the hearings – meaning no one was there to argue against the eviction.

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In a number of North East courtrooms recorded as part of the project, that figure rose to around 90% with mortgage possession hearings included.

Angie Comerford, co-founder of the Hebburn Helps food bank (left), and Hospitality & Hope CEO, Brian Thomas.Angie Comerford, co-founder of the Hebburn Helps food bank (left), and Hospitality & Hope CEO, Brian Thomas.
Angie Comerford, co-founder of the Hebburn Helps food bank (left), and Hospitality & Hope CEO, Brian Thomas.

South Tyneside community leaders have pointed to concerns over access and communication barriers with the courts system for struggling tenants, in light of the findings.

The North East swiftly became a black spot for the spread of coronavirus cases linked with the Delta variant, as the Government’s early-pandemic evictions ban lifted near the beginning of the summer. At one point in July, just as possession hearings were restarting, South Tyneside recorded the highest Covid infection rates in the country.

Food bank operators have underlined resulting access-to-justice concerns for tenants, as they also report an increasing number of people seeking debt advice and struggling with low incomes in the borough.

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Brian Thomas, CEO of the Hospitality and Hope centre in South Shields, told The Gazette that renters in positions of financial difficulty have been left despairing after coming up against a ‘punitive and impenetrable’ courts system.

"These figures underline two things for me,” he said.

"Firstly, the challenges that some of our community face in navigating these bureaucratic processes and, secondly, the lack of confidence to speak out and the fear of being judged.

"The Government’s post-lockdown mantra is ‘let’s get back to normal’ - but that isn’t possible for some people. They are telling us that life is hard and they know it’s about to get worse.

"Rising energy bills, increased national insurance contributions, rising food costs and reducing income will all impact on their ability to settle any rent arrears that may have built up during the pandemic.”

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Age Concern South Tyneside report that 65% of the people it has supported from Hospitality and Hope “have had some issue with housing and arrears”.

The organisation added that the Universal Credit uplift reduction and rising energy prices were compounding these difficulties, pushing borough residents into distressing ‘heat or eat’ choices as they approach the winter.

According to Trussell Trust figures for the area, almost a third of residents (30%) cited debt as the main reason for seeking support from Hospitality and Hope in South Shields, while more than a third (35%) cited low income.

Over 44% of those seeking support from Hospitality and Hope during this time also had children.

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"We work with many families, and they don’t want to be living in debt,” Mr Thomas added.

"They need a system that helps and supports them to move on positively, not a punitive and impenetrable one.”

According to data obtained by The Gazette through the Freedom of Information Act, there were 4,478 tenancies in arrears across South Tyneside as of Friday, September 17.

The total amount of outstanding arrears in the borough rose steadily in the years leading up to the pandemic - from £1,815,410 in July 2017 to £2,433,811 by July 2020.

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Angie Comerford, co-founder of the Hebburn Helps food bank and crisis centre, told The Gazette that the looming prospect of evictions this autumn and winter – as private renters approach a ‘cliff edge’ point – was also driving vulnerable residents onto the streets.

“A lot of tenants haven’t got any real support with this at the moment,” she said

"So they panic when a preliminary notice letter comes through the door – even though that’s just the start of the process and there are still things people can do at that point.

"But if people have no experience of engaging with the courts, these communications can be very distressing. We’ve heard reports of some vulnerable and elderly renters leaving their homes through panic when really what they’ve had is just early-stage contact with the courts system.”

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The then-Secretary of State for Communities, Housing and Local Government, Robert Jenrick, tweeted last year that ‘no one should lose their home as a result of the #coronavirus pandemic’.

But The Bureau’s findings 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.

South Shields MP, Emma Lewell-Buck, believes there is a clear link between the evictions ban lifting and the rising number of rough sleepers she and her team have witnessed or received reports of in the borough.

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"Once again the hollowness of this Government’s words are being laid bare,” she said.

"They claimed no one would lose their home due to coronavirus but they have and continue to.

"It can’t be a coincidence that over recent months in South Shields my constituents and I are regularly contacting the council and charities regarding homelessness and the rise of rough sleepers in our town.

"Evicting people only adds to the homelessness crisis. No one at all should be facing this winter on the streets.”

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A spokesperson for South Tyneside Council said: “Homelessesness is a national issue that should concern us all. Preventing homelessness is a key priority for the council. Our proactive, early intervention approach means that we step in to prevent households becoming homeless before their case becomes critical – for example, if they have been served an eviction notice by their private landlord, are going through a relationship breakdown or family or friends will no longer accommodate them.

"However, we can only succeed at this if residents seek help so there is always a risk of homelessness. So far this financial year, there have been 143 such preventions where people have been in danger of becoming homeless. We have also found accommodation for a further 136 ‘relief’ cases of people in urgent need of a roof over their head.

“We work with both private and social landlords to prevent homelessness and with tenants around rent arrears, benefits and budgeting. Eviction is always a last resort.

“We carry out a bi-monthly rough sleeper count, which identified four people sleeping rough last month. Our outreach workers actively engage with these people to encourage them to use the support available to them. We hold a fortnightly rough sleeper action group to share information and work on individual solutions for each person found sleeping rough.

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“Every individual that approaches the homeless service is given a Personalised Housing Plan and we work with them to find long-term solutions.”

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