How landlord behind squalid flats was finally brought to justice
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2018
With white walls turned black from mould, leaking raw sewage and broken fire alarms, even experienced housing inspectors were shocked by the state of apartments at 60 St Faith’s Lane when they visited in 2018.
Ellen Spencer, public protection team leader at Norwich City Council, described the conditions as "frightful" and "extreme".
But by that point trouble had already been brewing for a year.
Complaints about the 44-room block off Norwich’s Prince of Wales Road were first reported by this newspaper and made to Norwich City Council in 2017.
The council visited and ordered the landlord, a company called Faiths Lane Apartments Ltd - owned by property developer Nick Sutton - to make improvements to electrical safety as well as to fix the damp.
He was given three months to comply. But when inspectors returned in July 2018, they found much of the work had not been done.
Daniel Moxon and Abigail Nicholson, journalists at this newspaper, who lived in the block in August 2018, said: “Within two days of moving in, the ventilation fan fell from the ceiling, water was leaking from the apartment above through the light fitting and coming down the walls."
By October the situation was desperate.
Corridor walls were covered in mould from leaking raw sewage. With fire alarms also not working properly, the council took the drastic step of ordering all 25 tenants out of the building for their own safety.
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It had never used its powers under the Housing Act so widely.
"The property was deteriorating," Ms Spencer said. Her team's main concern was over a potential fire.
Fire alarms were not working, she said, while some doors were not fire proof and the building's electrical system was already being overloaded. She feared worse was to come in the winter as tenants switched on electric radiators.
"I've been doing this job almost 25 years and the scale of it was the most extreme I've seen," she said.
But some of the work could have been fixed easily, she added, including one criminal offence Sutton eventually pleaded guilty to regarding handrails being dangerous.
This newspaper revealed that while the tenants were living in desperate conditions, Mr Sutton was married to a princess who owned a mansion valued at £7 million.
In 2004, Sutton’s wife, Ayse, a member of the Turkish royal family bought a mansion in Horsham, East Sussex, set in 84 acres.
Photos from an estate agent's website showed the property has two swimming pools and a three-bedroom flat for servants.
The council, meanwhile, began legal action.
What happened in court?
The council pursued two cases against Sutton and Faiths Lane Apartments. One was a civil case which ended up in the Royal Courts of Justice in January 2020.
For the first time, the council used new legislation under the Housing and Planning Act 2016 to fine Sutton personally, rather than just his company. They feared if they did not hold him responsible, he would simply fold his company.
The court took the council's side, ordering Sutton to pay £174,000 for failing to fix the apartment block. Sutton then appealed the case but lost. "We were very pleased," Ms Spencer said. "We were using part of the law which had never been used before."
The second case went to the criminal courts and finished on Monday with Sutton pleading guilty to six offences under the Housing Act.
Ms Spencer said it was important to ensure Sutton had a criminal conviction for what he had done.
Representing himself at Great Yarmouth Magistrates Court, Sutton began by trying to get the case against him dismissed on two grounds that the council had taken too long to charge him with the offences.
But the district court judge, Shanta Deonarine, dismissed his arguments.
There was then some discussion between Sutton and the council’s solicitor, Marcus Croskell, after which Sutton pleaded guilty to six of the 17 offences.
The offences he admitted, dating to 2018, included damp-stained corridors, a smoke alarm dangling from the ceiling, large gaps between rails in a stairway, and defective fire doors in the boiler room.
Landlord blames tenants
In mitigation, Sutton pointed the finger at tenants. He claimed that a tenant of one ground floor apartment, who was in rent arrears, left the taps on and caused a flood as a “parting gift”.
He added: “The issue we had with damp was the habits of the occupants was that instead of having a shower from the bath, they would fill a bucket of water, sit on the toilet and pour the water over themselves.”
On fire safety he said a smoke alarm inspectors found dangling from the ceiling was in part of the building which wasn’t occupied.
He said there was a contract in place for the maintenance of fire alarms. “There are 144 fire doors in this building,” he said. “Out of 144 fire doors, they’ve identified five where there is an issue.”
Sentencing, him the judge ordered Sutton to pay a total of £10,700.
Mr Moxon said: "I’m very happy Mr Sutton has acknowledged his failings, but feel he has been let off far too lightly.
"On top of the emotional impact of the experience, the situation was financially costly for us.
"The cost of it all ate up the small amount left to me by my grandfather, who had died earlier that year, and forced us to borrow from family.”
What now for the building?
Faiths Lane Apartments Ltd, was put into administration in 2019 and work finally began to repair it. In April 2020 the council lifted the prohibition.
The property was put on the market in 2019 for £5.5m and has been renovated and reopened under a new name, Wellington Apartments.
According to the latest documents filed on Companies House by the administrator they are still looking to sell the building, but for now, it continues to be owned by Faiths Lane Apartments Ltd.
The administrator, CG & Co declined to comment.
What powers do councils?
Since April 2017, councils have had powers to issue penalties of up to £30,000 against landlords found to have breached a range of laws - such as failing to fix problems with damp, faulty wiring and mould - as a quicker and cheaper alternative to prosecution.
They are also able to ban landlords and add them to a “rogue landlord” database.
The Home (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 also requires landlords to make sure the building is fit to live in.
The Act came into force in March 2019 to help drive up standards in rented homes.