Improving the private rented sector: Fenland District Council

Work by housing and police officers in visiting targeted properties, talking with the occupants and assessing the conditions uncovered a range of criminal activity and poor conditions, including exploitation, fraud, sham marriages and human trafficking.

Key points

  • Track record of partnership working to combat exploitation of migrants living in private rented sector.
  • Consistent set of housing and police officers builds experience.
  • Increased political priority and resources on tackling problems.
  • Stronger approach to enforcement, coupled with landlord engagement.
  • Range of support for vulnerable tenants and victims of exploitation.


Fenland is a very rural area of north east Cambridgeshire, comprising four towns and numerous villages. The administrative centre is in March, while the largest town and main centre for private rented sector activity is Wisbech. The area relies heavily on agriculture and food production and incomes are lower than in other Cambridgeshire districts.

Wisbech attracted a large population of East European nationals from 2004, coming to work in the agricultural industries. Most of these initially lived in overcrowded private renting, though many of those who have settled have now acquired their own housing. Among the indigenous population there is poor health and problems associated with ageing.

Action on housing, exploitation and the migrant population

Fenland DC has a long track record of working with the police and other agencies to tackle exploitation among the new migrant populations, particularly in Wisbech. The multi-award winning Operation Pheasant began in 2012 when police became aware of agents and gangmasters bringing East Europeans to the district on the promise of work. The people were placed in overcrowded houses and put in debt to the gangmasters who could move them around addresses, control their access to work and generally exploit them. The activities were centred on private rented housing in Wisbech.

Work by housing and police officers in visiting targeted properties, talking with the occupants and assessing the conditions uncovered a range of criminal activity and poor conditions, including exploitation, fraud, sham marriages and human trafficking.

In the first 30 months of the operation, 76 cases of human trafficking were uncovered. Rogue landlords working with gangmasters were found to be responsible for overcrowded properties, with safety hazards including no smoke detection, exposed wiring, blocked means of escape, damp and mould, and tenancy issues including harassment and illegal eviction.

Since then the joint operation has extended and evolved to target other types of exploitation. This has brought in other relevant agencies such as trading standards, Fire and Rescue, and HM Revenue and Customs, as the nature of the criminal activity changes and becomes more sophisticated.

Alcohol and tobacco offences, ‘cut and shut’ cars, tampering with cash machines and other criminal activity has been uncovered. Victim support officers are also very much involved to support those exploited. The council believes a consistent team of officers working in partnership and building experience over time has been key to the operation’s success.

Approach to enforcement

In recent years action on private rented sector conditions has become a top priority of Fenland DC, with increased support from council members and more resources. Although the administration of the time opted not to apply for selective licensing, since 2017 the council has begun to take a more active line on enforcement. A formal enforcement policy sets out in detail what is expected of landlords and what they can expect, supported by an action plan.

The council has begun serving civil penalty notices for high level cases and feels that the system is working well. It is less costly and involves less officer time than a full court case. The council has obtained some income from CPNs, which is going towards the extension of two officers’ contracts begun with central government Controlling Migration funding. This is supplemented from the general fund, reflecting the high priority from councillors.

Enforcement action is balanced with an active approach to engaging with private landlords and working to inform and support them. Several landlords’ forum meetings recently have been successful with large numbers engaged, which the council feels are breaking down previously defensive attitudes among landlords. The council has identified some new London-based landlords buying property in the district and seeks to engage with them as quickly as possible.

The team also works with people from the settled migrant population, many of whom have now bought property to live in with their family and friends. Such owners may become ‘accidental’ landlords, often not realising they have created a house in multiple occupation and are therefore subject to legal requirements.

Tenant support

The council works with a range of third sector agencies to support vulnerable tenants. The police have established a ‘victim hub’ with officers speaking East European languages, based in nearby Peterborough and covering Wisbech. In addition, the Rosmini Centre supports migrants with welfare benefits and Right to Reside issues, as do Citizens Advice Bureaux (CAB) and another third sector organisation, Access. Fenland DC funds a Cambridge-based service working on rough sleeping and substance abuse, again with East European language speakers. Trailblazer, a Cambridgeshire-wide organisation, aims to prevent homelessness by identifying tenants at risk.

Emerging activity and issues

Fenland DC has been working on EPC and minimum energy efficiency standards (MEES) since they came into force. This being a two-tier local government area, Cambridgeshire County Council’s trading standards department would have responsibility for enforcement. But the districts have obtained delegated powers from the county to undertake this work, and Fenland is set to begin activity later in 2020.

Brexit continues to raise some concerns for this district of high in-migration. Although no specific effects have been noted as yet, the council anticipates that lower future rates of in-migration could lead to low demand for private renting and some landlords exiting the sector.