Parliament will today debate a legacy of Durham’s mining past: cheap terraced houses rented out by private landlords. Chris Lloyd reports.

IN the tight terraces of a former Durham mining community, it feels as if every other house is to let. Agents’ signs hang off the walls and are propped up in the windows. Yellow signs, green signs and blue signs. Professional signs, amateur signs, and signs that have clearly been knocked out on a computer.

The signs are a sign of Durham’s mining past. Since the pits closed in the Sixties and employment waned, the former National Coal Board properties have flooded the market and have been bought cheaply by property speculators.

More than half the houses in streets in Ferryhill, Chilton and Trimdon Station are owned by private landlords who don’t live in them.

Indeed, 51 per cent of those landlords don’t even live in County Durham. In fact, parts of Dean Bank are said to be owned by a landlord in Dubai.

This trend has created new problems. Absentee landlords can let the properties to anyone, possibly even those evicted from elsewhere for anti-social behaviour.

“We’ve had people coming into our area who aren’t natives,” says Joan Weston, secretary of Dean Bank Residents Association, in Ferryhill.

“People from Tyneside, Wearside, Teesside.

Dean Bank became a dumping ground. It’s such a shame because it is a good place to live.”

The stories she can tell make the hair curl, from nuisance and noisy neighbours to neighbours who urinate in the street, who deal in drugs, who trash their houses and then move on.

Some landlords who bought properties dirt cheap can even afford to leave them semiderelict and boarded-up because they know that, over time, the inexorable rise of the property market will give them a return on their investment.

But 18 months ago, Dean Bank became one of Durham’s first “selective licensing areas”.

All private landlords now have to pay £450 to register with the county council. The council then ensures they maintain their properties to a minimum standard, that they tackle antisocial behaviour and that they vet prospective tenants thoroughly.

An unregistered landlord faces a £20,000 fine.

There are 15 other areas of the country that are designated as “selective licensing”, including Chilton West and the Wembley ward of Easington Colliery.

Today, in the House of Commons, Sedgefield MP Phil Wilson will lead a debate on how selective licensing should develop. He believes all private landlords, and their agents, should be licensed like taxi-drivers and publicans.

“The most vulnerable tenants end up in the most unregulated housing stock, and that’s not right,” he says. “Some private landlords are amateurs and need to be skilled in how to run properties. Some of them just want to make money out of their houses – but they also have a moral obligation to the local community.

“These have been very proud mining communities and we don’t want them fractured.

But people are being moved into these settled communities after having their own difficulties with the law elsewhere.”

Mrs Weston, in Dean Bank, is frustrated at selective licensing’s pace of change. “We are hopeful it will be our saviour, but it’s taking such a long time,” she says. “More resources should be made available to the council to see it through.”

A spokeswoman for Durham County Council said: “We are nearly two years into a fiveyear process, but we have seen a huge growth in the number of private landlords who engage with us where previously they didn’t, and that’s positive.”

In the Windlestone area of Chilton, keen residents are agitating to become Durham’s fourth designated area. “It is not the panacea for everything, because problems still occur, but you have more bite to do something,” says local councillor Brian Avery.

The most surprising voice of support comes from one of the private landlords, Andrew Marshall.

A Sedgefield lad, he owns 24 houses, including six in Dean Bank, and looks after another 90 across the North-East. He was prepared to discuss the issue where other members of his profession weren’t.

“When licensing came in, I was very sceptical,”

he says. “It was just an extra hoop and an extra cost. But as an agent, I’ve worked on certain properties that are clearly driving problems into the area. They are of a poor standard, where landlords are putting in tenants who you know are going to be problematic because they are not carrying out the references.”

However, he says the licensing requirements have forced those landlords to clean up their act – and their properties.

He sees the benefits in the council helping vet new tenants and he is enjoying the back-up provided by the licensing authorities.

“In the past, the landlord had to deal with anti-social behaviour problems on his own, without having any powers,” he says, “but having the council team and the police to turn to is a step in the right direction.

“I’m now seeing the positives that I didn’t see when the scheme started. I’m looking forward to seeing Dean Bank improve with better tenants – and my prices increasing.”

Which is great for Dean Bank. But it leaves a problem for society in general.

“Where do these people go after they have been pushed out of social housing and excluded by the licences from the private sector?”

asks Mr Wilson. “In the debate, I’ll be talking about how Tees Valley Homes have a unit for dysfunctional families where they help them and then put them back in the community.

“This is an upcoming issue about how we look after our most vulnerable people and keep our communities strong.”