A serving fire officer described as a “rogue landlord” and having little regard for the safety of tenants in flats he owned has been fined more than £15,000.

Mark Neary had previously pleaded guilty to six housing standards charges relating to three flats in Eston High Street he owns deemed to be housing in multiple occupations (HMO).

Neary is understood to be based out of Grangetown Fire Station but is currently on sick from his employer Cleveland Fire Brigade.

The 49-year-old father-of-two had faced fifteen further counts in the case brought by Redcar and Cleveland Council, but these were not proceeded with.

Meanwhile, his wife Karen, who was jointly charged alongside him in proceedings at Teesside Magistrates Court, was told matters against her were dropped with no further evidence being offered.

The Northern Echo: Rooms in the Eston property belonging to Mark NearyRooms in the Eston property belonging to Mark Neary (Image: PH ESTATE AGENTS)

The court heard how the couple were joint owners of 91, 93 and 95 High Street, Eston, which has commercial units on the ground floor and six self-contained flats on the first and second floors.

Prosecuting, Christopher Machin described how there was no additional fire protection system for the flats over and above that on the ground floor premises, while a key had been left in a fire control panel meaning it was at risk of being tampered with.

He also highlighted:

  • Doors with defects including missing hinges and damaged linings
  • Inadequate partition walls which did not offer an adequate fire barrier
  • A light switch plate in a lounge which was not secure, leaving wires exposed
  • A stair which had no handrail
  • General refuse left in communal areas, including food waste and drug paraphernalia
  • Windows and sills covered in bird excrement and signs of damp.

Mr Machin said: “Magistrates will have heard of rogue landlords in the media.

“Mr Neary is one of those rogue landlords.”

He said the local authority became involved in July last year following complaints that communal doors were not secured.

He described various efforts that were made to contact Neary, including letters, phone calls and visits to the property and his home address with “very little response from the defendant”.

It also sent a schedule of works that needed to be completed in order that the relevant legislation was complied with.

In March a warrant was obtained to enter the property and flats and later executed with Mr Machin stating that a locksmith was required to drill the locks to enter.

An inspection subsequently revealed a catalogue of faults with the fabric of the building and inadequate fire safety measures, along with issues in communal areas.

The prosecutor said the local authority discovered one tenant who was reliant on a portable heater to keep warm, which he carried around with him and which was not electrically tested and also a fire risk.

The Northern Echo: Teesside Magistrates' CourtTeesside Magistrates' Court (Image: LDR)

He recounted how the tenant was distressed and told council officers his electricity had been cut off, even though the bill to be paid was in Neary’s name, and he had been reliant on top ups from a local shop until it closed.

Mr Machin said tenants were at risk of dying in a fire, electrical shock or being hurt in a fall and the admitted charges were “significant”.

He said: “In terms of culpability it [Neary’s offences] falls within the very high category.”

He told magistrates: “By imposing a fine you will send quite a clear message to other landlords within the borough of Redcar and Cleveland.”

Neary, who bowed and shook his head at points in the proceedings, was said to be a professional landlord with a portfolio of properties the prosecution said amounted to 50, although his solicitor said the figure was nearer 30.

Mr Machin said council tax records and tenancy agreements in Neary’s name showed the flats on the premises had been occupied and were being rented at £350 per month, giving him a “considerable” rental income.

‘Hoping it all would go away or he did not care’

Recalling how Neary had failed to respond to council efforts to contact him, Mr Machin said: “The defendant was either hoping it all would go away, or he did not care, or it was a deliberate strategy of avoidance.”

Referring to the defendant as a serving fire officer, he said: “Of all of the people who should have been aware of the importance of fire safety, he seems to have shown little regard for the fire safety of his tenants.”

Neary, of The Mount, Normanby, Middlesbrough, pleaded guilty to the following offences charged on March 7:

  • Failing to ensure that he displayed his name, address and any telephone contact number in a prominent position in common parts of the HMO
  • Two charges of failing to take all such measures as reasonably required to protect occupiers from injury having regard to the design of the HMO, the structural conditions and the number of flats or occupiers
  • Failing to ensure that all common parts of the HMO were maintained in good and clean decorative repair and in a safe and working condition
  • Failing to ensure that fixtures, fittings and appliances in each part of the HMO used as living accommodation were maintained in good repair and in clean working order
  • Unreasonably causing the electricity supply used by any occupier to be interrupted.

Cleveland Fire Brigade previously said it was “aware of an ongoing court case which concerns a Cleveland Fire Brigade employee”.

The brigade suggested an internal investigation it was conducting could go beyond the conclusion of the criminal proceedings and it would not be commenting further at this stage.

Victoria Molloy, representing Mark Neary, said he wasn’t a typical rogue landlord and his biggest issue was failing to engage with the council when he “absolutely ought to”.

She said the premises had not been occupied since December last year when all but one flat was vacant.

The solicitor said Neary had always maintained good relations with his tenants and the local authority, and never been in trouble with the police or before a court.

She said circumstances with the Eston flats were different to other properties he owned and described a troublesome tenant who had previously moved in who caused issues with anti-social behaviour and vandalism.

Ms Molloy said: “He had a number of issues with one individual in the property who was known to police.

“He was aggressive, he prevented access to the property and made threats of violence towards Mr Neary.”

She said notices required to be put up had been damaged, while debris and rubbish that was scattered about was “indicative of the type of tenant residing in the property at the time”.

The solicitor claimed the council had been in a negotiation to buy the property as part of regeneration efforts in the area.

She said: “He [Neary] did not believe there was a risk because the tenants had moved out and the property was to be demolished.”

The Northern Echo: Neary is a serving firefighter for ClevelandNeary is a serving firefighter for Cleveland (Image: LDR)

Smartly dressed Neary, a father-of-two, was said to be a man of good character and had been a fire officer for more than 25 years, recently receiving a long service award.

Ms Molloy said he was now under investigation by Cleveland Fire Brigade and on sick leave.

She said: “It is a real possibility he may lose his job as a result of his conviction.”

There was reference to Neary’s financial circumstances with Ms Molloy stating he had £300,000 of realisable assets bound up in property and planned to sell one of his properties to release cash funds.

Sentencing the defendant, magistrates said they had given him credit for his guilty pleas at the earliest opportunity.

Neary was fined £15,500 and ordered to pay a court surcharge of £6,200 and prosecution costs of £4,647.

He offered to pay the £26,347 total penalty at a rate of £1,000 a month, which was agreed by the court.

Speaking after the case, Andrew Hall, a director with PH Estate Agents, based in Eston and Redcar, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service landlord Neary had been a client, but the relationship was ended by the firm amid concerns over safety and the state of his properties.

Mr Hall also criticised Redcar and Cleveland Council who he said had been slow to act in shutting down the premises in Eston High Street.

He said: “As a responsible letting agency, we set high standards for both ourselves and our clients to ensure the well-being and safety of our tenants. 

“Unfortunately Mr Neary’s properties did not meet these housing standards, which led us to make the difficult decision of terminating our agreement with him.

“Despite our earnest efforts to offer support and guidance to Mr Neary to improve his properties, he chose to disregard our advice. 

“His lack of cooperation was disheartening, especially considering his role as a serving firefighter, a position that we assumed would instil in him a deeper understanding of safety rules and regulations.”

Mr Hall added: “Our commitment to our clients goes beyond contractual obligations to landlords. 

“We believe in our duty of care towards tenants and we strive to ensure their living conditions are safe and comfortable. 

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“It is unfortunate that Redcar and Cleveland Council took several years to shut down the premises, a process that could have been expedited given their prior knowledge of the issues at hand. 

“In light of these events, our resolve to protect tenants and guide landlords responsibly has only been strengthened.”

In a statement, Councillor Adam Brook, cabinet member for neighbourhoods and housing at Redcar and Cleveland Council, said: “People deserve to live in decent homes and we will do whatever we can using the legal powers we have to ensure housing standards are maintained in the rented sector – including when necessary taking landlords to court.

 “The vast majority of our landlords are law-abiding and cooperate with officers when issues arise. 

“However, if that cooperation is not forthcoming formal action such as prosecution will be taken.  

“We take into account the property conditions, the response of both the landlord and tenant, gathering the information to determine the most suitable course of action.  

“This process is time consuming and extensive.”