VILLAINOUS landlords could have their houses confiscated, if the chairman of a police watchdog has his way.

Police already have the power to seize the assets of drugs barons such as vehicles, boats and planes.

With growing evidence showing gangs of drug traffickers from the south are snapping up cheap housing on Teesside, Home Secretary David Blunkett is being urged to allow police and local authorities to, in future, seize houses.

Only this week mother-of-six, illegal immigrant Arecia Williams was jailed on Teesside, for three years, after admitting possession of crack cocaine with intent to supply and attempting to pervert the course of justice.

Cleveland Police recently made 18 drug related arrests, most of those arrested were from London and the home counties.

Coun Walker has written appealing to both Mr Blunkett and Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott for laws to put an end to 'drug tourism'.

He says in his letters criminals are being attracted to Teesside from other parts of the UK "because of the apparent willingness of some landlords to rent out their properties without any regard for the fact that they are being used as crack houses.

"Equally, there are examples where, as a result of low housing costs in central Middlesbrough, drug dealers buy up property and, even when the police 'bust' theur operations, they can simply resell the property.''

He adds: "It is totally unacceptable that major criminals should be able to exploit the fact that there is readily available and cheap properties in areas such as Middlesbrough in order to pursue their activities - and that some landlords are prepared to co-operate.

"I believe the Government should consider changing the law to put the burden of proof on criminals and those benefiting from crime to prove that the assets were not acquired from the proceeds of crime.''

Coun Walker, former leader of Middlesbrough Council, is urging the two cabinet members to extend present laws to allow the seizure of houses as a matter of urgent concern, as he says cheap housing is a major factor in the high levels of drugs activity in Middlesbrough - and other city centres.