8:21 AM, 22nd July 2013, About 9 years ago 4
I’m writing this, having been involved recently in a case where a landlord got caught in this conundrum. Leona… we will call her for the sake of confidentiality. I thought I would tell her story for you as it is a classic commonplace tale that illustrates how these things work for landlords and us frontline workers.
Leona was renting out a flat she bought as an alternative to a pension, as so many do. She decided she would be best served by using a major high street letting agent. Go to the professionals, get it done right. OK it will cost a bit more but at least you have some comfort knowing you are using the big names.
The agents took 6 month’s rent up-front. Common practice if the tenant has a bad credit rating and if they don’t have a credible guarantor.
5 months in Leona visited the property to talk to the tenant and see if everything was OK and find out if they wanted to continue the letting. Looking through the letterbox she saw dirt all over the carpets and what looked like several black bin liners full of soil. The bathroom window had been ripped from its hinges and was hanging loose. Through the gap she could see there wasn’t any furniture.
Suspecting that the property was being used as a Cannabis factory she contacted the police, who duly gave her a crime number but didn’t investigate further, probably because the bird had flown. Still not wanting to act in any way that may be deemed inappropriate she contacted her agent and told them about it. They said they would send someone to the property but a couple of weeks later she still hadn’t heard anything back.
When she phoned the agent again she was told that the particular employee didn’t work there anymore so nothing happened beyond a visit. They advised her not to change the locks and that they would serve a section 21 notice and begin the eviction process. At which point she came to me for advice.
The TRO story.
The tenant has another month on the fixed term so I am mindful that if Leona forces entry and changes the locks in error she could be committing an illegal eviction. She is nice and trying very hard to do the right thing so I agree to meet her at the property to see the situation first hand, mindful of the possibility that I might be attending a criminal act.
But I’m also very mindful of the fire hazard presented by the presence of a cannabis factory. In the past fortnight two of them have burnt down in our area, fortunately nobody was hurt but Leona’s flat is on the first floor of a tower block housing 60 families so a fire would be unthinkable. I have to act fast.
I also have contacts in the energy company EDF, specifically Bob and Steve who disconnect cannabis factories with the police, so I called Steve and he also agreed to meet up and see what the coup was.
The EDF story.
Bob and Steve disconnect around 9 or 10 cannabis farms each week in our area alone. They tell me that the main boosters for the equipment used can get up to temperatures around 50 degrees so are constantly on the verge of catching fire.
In our manor Vietnamese gangs are behind most of them, sometimes with willing European accomplices and sometime unwilling ones who are being blackmailed into acting as a front. It may be different gangs in different areas.
Steve runs a check and finds that the property is on an electricity key meter and being charged @ around £70 a week, so whoever the tenant really is he isn’t running a TV and food mixer. Also the tenants underneath reported water leaking down through their ceiling. Steve advises this is usually the automated watering system.
The give-away for EDF is either a huge electricity bill or the complete absence of one. Often they turn up and find the electricity meter removed and the supply hot-wired to the street.
The Police story.
Many cannabis farms can be picked up by helicopters using thermal imaging cameras, at which point they contact EDF for them to run a check on electricity usage and billing names. That’s how some of them come to light but it isn’t fool proof. Farms in basements for instance are difficult to pick up.
As for prosecutions…..well. Cannabis farms are such an endemic problem that further investigation is a waste of time. Once the raid takes place the plants are bagged up and destroyed. No point tracking down fictitious tenants using fake documents
20 cannabis plants growing on a kitchen table will net the farmer £40,000 but in police terms would only be categorised as ‘Personal use’, so not worth prosecuting. A three bedroomed house turned over to serious farming will garner you £500,000, so the odd farm lost here and there gets absorbed into the overall costs, as merely risks of the trade.
I recently worked with the police on a farm where they found a black bin liner containing £50,000. In this case they know the owner but will struggle to connect him to the money or the farm even though we all know him by reputation.
Meanwhile back at Leona’s place
The tenant had changed the locks so she called a friend to climb in through the broken bathroom window and open the door from the inside while Steve and I stood by. Me to deal with any legal issues that may arise from the forced entry, Steve to verify whether or not the place was indeed a cannabis farm.
Once inside there were no signs of occupation, not so much as a stick of furniture or a toothbrush, but piles of soil littered the flat, containing marijuana leaves, discarded dead baby plants and bits of horticultural equipment and 10 black bin liners full of used potting compost.
The tower block in which Leona’s flat sits is part of a row of 3 in the same street. While we were there Steve got a call from the police. It transpired that there were another two farms in the other blocks that needed to be disconnected.
Whether or not they are linked to Leona’s tenants is anybody’s guess but at least they won’t get away with harvesting the other ones.
We left Leona, her sister and their friend to begin the clean-up operation. Put back one of the doors that had been removed, sweep up the piles of dirt on the carpets. She got off lightly to be honest. A good afternoon’s cleaning will get it back to normal.
So what can you do to guard yourself?
Well the 6 month rent up-front ploy is a good indicator. They do this so they won’t be disturbed. It may be that rent in advance is simply because they don’t have a good credit rating or a guarantor but bear in mind it is also a classic sign of skulduggery. You have to ask the question; if their credit rating is so bad, how come they have £5,000 or £6,000 to bang down on the counter?
In such cases you could announce a visit after the first month to make sure they are all settling in and happy.
If you think there is something fishy going on call EDF and mention your concerns, they will look into it from their end. They may not tell you the exact state of play on the person’s account, they have to be mindful of the Data Protection Act but they do know the signs and have more powers if something really is amiss.
Talk to neighbours to see if they have noticed strange comings and goings such as late night visits with a van loading and unloading. The equipment is quite bulky and difficult to install on the QT. In Leona’s case they cut the pigeon netting on the balcony and hauled it all up on ropes to avoid being caught by the tower block’s CCTV in the entry area.
If you have strong suspicions call the police in. remember cannabis farms are a major fire hazard and you could end up losing the property entirely, not to mention endangering the lives of the neighbours.
If the police visit and it turns out that it’s all in error, well it’s only a little bit embarrassing, easily set right with an apology and a bottle of wine.
Finally, if as Leona’s agents did, they tell you that they will serve a section 21 forget it. You don’t have the time for that, each day that goes by makes it more dangerous. Call your council, call EDF, call the police, make waves but remember these things are run by criminal gangs, don’t tackle it yourself.