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Everybody needs good neighbours: dealing with disputes

Sally Walmsley
Written by Sally Walmsley

A dispute between tenants and neighbours can be a real headache for landlords – regardless of who is at fault. In this article first published in Residential Property Investor magazine, we take a look at what you can do to nip niggles in the bud, before things get out of hand.


Noise, pets, bins and ball games – all are potential flashpoints when it comes to neighbour relations.

You can’t control who moves in next door, whether a home-owner or a tenant, and there is a strong chance that, at some point, you may have a tenant and neighbour who do not see eye to eye. No-one wants to take that phone call from an angry neighbour or a distressed tenant, but tackling the issue head on in the early stages can prevent things from getting out of hand further down the line.

Do landlords have a duty of care to neighbours?

The answer, in short, is yes and no. You can take all the references in the world, but until someone moves into your home, you don’t know what they are really like as a tenant.

However, landlords ARE considered responsible for nuisance tenants in some circumstances – for example if they knew the tenant had a history of anti-social behaviour, yet still let the property to them, or were in some way actively involved in causing the problem. Similarly, landlords should always inform their tenants before they sign a tenancy agreement if there is an existing issue with problem neighbours.

Tackle the problem before it arises

Make sure your tenancy agreement is robust and clearly prohibits antisocial behaviour. Legally this is often described as “nuisance or annoyance”. For nuisance the behaviour complained of must be sufficiently serious as to amount to legal nuisance either under environmental protection legislation or common law.

Therefore, do not use the word ‘nuisance’ alone. The much wider prohibition is to forbid “annoyance”. This word is very widely interpreted and can include any actions or behaviour which might adversely affect someone else. There should also be a clause prohibiting illegal or immoral behaviour.

Be clear about what you expect

You can also include a descriptive clause in your tenancy agreement – which will commit your tenant to certain behaviours. This could include, playing music and watching television at a reasonable volume, only carrying out DIY during sociable hours and keeping the garden and any communal areas tidy and free of any animal mess (should you allow pets).

Talk about it

The easiest way to tackle neighbour disputes is by talking, so the first thing to do is to ask the aggrieved party, whether that is your tenant or the neighbour, if they have spoken to the other person about the issue. It may sound odd, but in many cases this doesn’t happen.

Sometimes people are genuinely unaware of the impact their actions are having, so if the neighbour doesn’t raise the issue with them, they are never going to change. The neighbour might simply not know that the people living next door can hear their television, or that they couldn’t leave bin bags in a certain place, for example.

What if this doesn’t work?

If an initial contact hasn’t worked you, as the landlord could speak to your tenant and the neighbour to propose a potential solution. If the neighbour is a private tenant, you could also involve their landlord, or contact the council or housing association if they are a social tenant.

Landlord David Lawton sat down with his tenant and their neighbour following a noise complaint and helped the two parties reach a compromise. You can read his story overleaf on page 18.

Evidence

The RLA and Citizens Advice both recommend neighbours keep evidence of any issues arising, with times, dates and as much detail as possible. For example: ‘July 5, dogs barking from 12pm-2pm. Could hear in lounge, turned up TV to drown out the sound.’ They should also keep any notes or letters that are sent to them and take photos or videos to back up their claims, for example if rubbish is being left in the wrong place. These records could be vital if the neighbours can’t reach an agreement and things have to go further.

Mediation

Another route would be mediation using a professional third party. Mediation is a way of helping resolve a dispute through dialogue outside the court process. Taking disputes through the courts can be very expensive and using a professional mediator could be a more affordable solution. Iain Christie is Secretary of the Civil Mediation Council (CMS) which promotes the use of mediation to resolve disputes.

He said the process can be very effective in taking the heat out of what can be emotional exchanges. He said: “The first thing people generally say to us is: ‘This won’t work, I have tried talking to them and it has made things worse’. People don’t realise the difference that having an experienced, neutral third party to facilitate the conversation will make.

“Very often people are simply unaware of the impact their actions are having on their neighbours and these situations can be resolved. “The mediator doesn’t make a decision or judgement, but helps the parties communicate with each other and establish what their underlying interests and needs are. People usually have a common interest to live harmoniously with their neighbours and get on with their lives without conflict.”

The normal process is for the mediator to spend some time with each side individually to listen to their side of the story and then bring the parties together to explore the options for resolution. If the process works and an agreement is reached it is then written down and signed by both parties. Iain said: “In most cases, mediation is the most effective way of resolving a neighbourhood dispute in a way which will last and actually rebuild relationships.”

What if the situation can’t be resolved amicably?

If it is the neighbour, rather than your tenant that is causing the problem and talking hasn’t worked there are a number of options. If the problem is something that would be considered a statutory nuisance you should contact your local authority. Statutory nuisance A statutory nuisance is something that, under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, affects a person’s health or causes disturbance to them in their property.

This can include, but is not limited to: l noise l smoke l smells (for example, sewage treatment works, factories or restaurants) l light pollution
l insect infestations from industrial, trade or business premises l waste and litter Most local authorities will have a noise abatement team and tenancy relations officers or an antisocial behaviour team who can support you.

To take action on your behalf the council must witness and experience the nuisance you are complaining about for themselves AND be satisfied that they have evidence to show to a court that the disturbance is serious enough to be considered a ‘statutory nuisance’ in a legal sense. If officers do not witness the problem or fail to gather enough evidence to demonstrate that it exists, you can take private action directly to a Magistrates Court. This is done using the same law used by Environmental Health Officers – the Environmental Protection Act 1990.

Do I need to call the police?

Neighbour disputes are not a matter for the police per se, however Merseyside Police says you or your tenant should contact the police if a neighbour is: l violent, abusive or threatening l harassing you l breaching the peace, such as being rowdy l committing a crime (or you suspect they might be) You should also report any concerns about children playing in the street if you believe they could be a danger to themselves or others.

My tenant is the problem

If your tenant is breaching the terms of their tenancy agreement, you have explained the issues to them and they are not willing to change their behaviour you can evict them, using either the Section 21 or Section 8 process. Section 21 is the so-called ‘no fault’ eviction.

Although the government has pledged to abolish Section 21, and plans are currently being consulted on, landlords are still able to use Section 21. Section 21 cannot be used in the fixed term and the notice period is longer, but obtaining possession is easier – as there is no need to prove a ground.

There are grounds to obtain possession where a tenant is guilty of anti-social behaviour under Section 8, mandatory ground 7a and discretionary ground 14.

Help and support

The RLA’s landlord advice team offers help and advice to landlords experiencing issues with neighbour disputes and can be contacted on 0300 0142998. Only RLA members can access our advice team. Not a member? Join us today for unlimited one to one advice.

The Civil Mediation Council has a search facility allowing you to find mediators in your area. This can be accessed via the website


About the author

Sally Walmsley

Sally Walmsley

Sally Walmsley is the Communications Manager for the RLA and award-winning Editor of RPI magazine. With 16 years’ experience writing for regional and national newspapers and magazines she is responsible for producing articles for our Campaigns and News Centre, the weekly E-News newsletter and editorial content for our media partners.

She issues press releases promoting the work of the RLA and its policies and campaigns to the regional and national media and works alongside the marketing team on the association’s social media channels to build support for the RLA and its work.

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