Business isn’t always about boardrooms, briefings and black coffee. So, in tribute to the North- East men and women who take a more unusual approach to enterprise, Lauren Pyrah takes a look at the unconventional, alternative or downright difficult careers in the region’s econom y

CHERYL CARTER, 52, works as a private sector housing inspector for Darlington Borough Council.

How did you become a housing inspector?

I was previously a laboratory worker and chemist at ICI. I lost my job through redundancy and I decided to start a new career.

I started as an environmental health officer at Middlesbrough Council. I wanted to keep in that area, and I was offered a job at Darlington Borough Council.

I’ve been here for four years now.

What attracted you to this career?

It sounds corny, but it is a very worthwhile job.

People come to the council for help because they don’t know where else to go.

Sometimes people think because housing is privately owned, rather than council housing, there is nothing we can do to help. That is not the case.

There is legislation we can use to help people with issues, and they don’t just apply to rented properties, they also apply to owner occupiers.

It is really nice for me to think I can make a difference in bringing properties back into habitable and comfortable conditions and helping people.

What powers does a housing inspector have?

We see the sharp end in a lot of cases – the poorer housing in Darlington.

When people come to us with problems, we give advice and can go out to inspect properties and look at the health and safety conditions.

We always try to deal with cases informally in the first instance, and give the landlord the chance to put things right.

In extreme circumstances, we have the power to declare a property unfit for habitation, which means it cannot be lived in until all the necessary improvements are made and it is in a safe condition.

If people do not put things right when we ask them to, we can move on to legal action. We can prosecute people for failing to comply with housing legislation.

Tell us about some of the worst cases you’ve seen .

One of the worst ones was an elderly lady who was living in a house in a horrendous state – it had no heating, no electricity, no bathroom, and there was a tree growing in one room.

The lady owned the house, so she thought there would be nothing we could do to help. I declared the property unfit for habitation and she was found a new home. The property’s now been completely gutted and renovated to a high standard, and is now a comfortable home.

Another particularly awful one was when I went to visit a rented property where the boiler was leaking.

When I got there and had a look, there was fungus the size of a football growing in there. I ended up chopping it down and getting rid of it for the tenant.

A more general problem is fleas. They seem to like me.

On one visit, I got about 50 flea bites, which wasn’t very pleasant.

What do you like and dislike about your job?

I really love my job – I can’t think of anything I dislike, apart from the 40- minute drive to work across the A66.

I really like that no two visits are the same – even to the same house, every visit is different. Every property has got a different story and every job is like a new job.

That keeps it interesting.

It is always really nice to revisit a house which has been improved, and returned to a comfortable, safe home.

You know you’re making a real difference to people’s lives.

What’s the hardest part of the job?

One of the hardest aspects is when the relationship between a tenant and a landlord has broken down. You’re almost in the middle as you try to get the house back to a liveable environment.

You’re there trying to deal with both parties, which can get very tricky.

It also can be upsetting, as you sometimes deal with vulnerable people, including the elderly, families with children and people who are in ill health, in emotional situations. There are some people in very sad circumstances and you just want them to have a comfortable and safe home.

It is difficult to see, but we are there to help, so we have to stay professional and try to detach ourselves.

What qualities do you need to be a housing inspector ?

Common sense and the ability to deal with people from all walks of life.

In this job, you have to go and see professionals and business people, but also people in their own homes.

You always have to remember and respect that you are going into someone’s home, and it can be a very emotional situation for them.

You need to be sensible and level-headed.

You also need a strong stomach at times, because we deal with sometimes very grim circumstances. I’m usually fine, as I have a fairly robust stomach from my time in environmental health. I always find sucking on a mint can help if it gets really bad.

Do you have to deal with a lot of aggravated people?

People come in to make complaints which they think are high priority, but which, in the grand scheme of things, aren’t things which need immediate attention. For example, we had a person in complaining the batteries in their doorbell had gone. Another similar one was a complaint that there was no heating in the summer house. That is the other end of the scale.

There was one gentleman who chased us down the street with his dog when we went to inspect the house. It turned out the reason he didn’t want us in the property was because the electrical meters had been tampered with. When we finally inspected them, we found they were in a very dangerous state and needed attention very quickly. They could have set the house on fire at any time.

People don’t always like what we are doing, or what we are trying to make them do when we ask them to do the right thing and make the necessary improvements. It isn’t always taken with good grace, but at the end of the day, we have a very important job to do – keeping people safe.