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Refuse and pests

This content applies to England & Wales

Hazards from refuse and pests, particularly vermin .

Refuse and pests are grouped together in one of the hazards specified under the Housing Health and Safety Rating System. This means that local authorities can use the provisions of Part 1 of the Housing Act 2004 to address problems that occur. The rating system and relevant provisions in Part 1 of the Housing Act 2004 came into force on 6 April 2006.

Refuse

Rubbish that is allowed to accumulate may attract vermin and constitute a danger to residents. Occupiers should contact the local authority, which has powers to require removal of accumulations. Depending on the circumstances, environmental health officers could use powers under:

  • Part 1 of the Housing Act 2004 - 'Domestic Hygiene, Pests and Refuse' is one of the Housing Health and Safety Rating System hazards
  • the Environmental Protection Act 1990 (see the section on Using the Act)
  • the Public Health Act 1961 or
  • the Prevention of Damage by Pests Act 1949 (see below).

For all residential accommodation, under the Housing Health and Safety Rating System, inspectors will take account of deficiencies that contribute to the domestic hygiene hazard, including:

  • poor design, layout and construction, such that the dwelling cannot be readily kept clean and hygienic
  • access into, and harborage within, the dwelling for pests and
  • inadequate and unhygienic provision for storing and disposal of household waste.

In multi-storey blocks of flats, problems may occur if rubbish chutes and collection bins are not regularly cleared. These would be taken into account in an inspection under the rating system. However, a tenant living in a flat adjacent to a blocked chute, or collection bin that has spilled over, and who is suffering as a result, may be able to take action for breach of the tenancy agreement. If there is no relevant express term in the tenancy agreement, case law has determined that there is an implied term to maintain facilities such as lifts, communal lighting and rubbish chutes.[1] Occupiers who cannot rely on the tenancy agreement, such as friends staying with tenants, or children of tenants, may have an alternative remedy against the landlord in a private nuisance action.[2]

Vermin

Disrepair, accumulation of refuse or poor building design may result in infestation by cockroaches, ants, mites, silverfish, bedbugs, fleas, rats or mice. Occupiers should contact the environmental health department of the local authority, which has a duty to take action to control the pests.[3] If the tenant's landlord is the local authority, its environmental health department cannot take legal action against itself, and if the problem is not resolved the tenant can take court proceedings under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 her/himself (see Action by occupiers).

Many local authorities now charge residential occupiers for pest control, although their services are usually cheaper than private firms. The occupier will not usually be charged if the landlord is responsible (eg if the infestation has occurred because of disrepair) or if the problem is not attributable to anyone. However, at certain times of the year, local authorities may not respond as quickly as private contractors; the response time may also depend upon the type of pest in question.

Infestations

Infestation of an entire block by ants or cockroaches is not uncommon in modern 'system-built' dwellings. In one case, a council tenant took action against the landlord for cockroach infestation over several years and was awarded damages of £28,650.[4] The entire block must be treated to achieve complete and permanent removal of the infestation.

Infestations may be a statutory nuisance under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and, if the problem is not resolved or the council takes no action, individual occupiers can take action through the courts against the person responsible for the statutory nuisance (see the section on the Environmental Protection Act).[5] In council or registered social landlord blocks, an alternative remedy would be action by a tenants' or residents' association. Tenants could ask for:

  • proper identification of the nature of the infestation, its causes, and a plan to deal with it
  • full information on the methods to be used, followed by a public meeting to discuss them (information should be provided in all community languages)
  • checks for asbestos to be made if the work involves piercing walls (see the section on Asbestos for details).

If the council or registered social landlord refuses to act it may be possible to apply pressure on it to act through councillors. Tenants would need to raise awareness through meetings or leafleting and could demonstrate the extent of the infestation by conducting a survey using sampling traps. The results should be written up and presented to councillors at a meeting, including any samples.

If the local authority is prevented from treating property because it cannot gain access, it can take action to obtain access to premises and carry out the treatments.[6] Council officials must obtain a warrant from a magistrate and can enter at 24 hours' notice.

Rats and mice

Local authorities have a duty to take steps, when necessary and practicable, to try and keep their area free from rats and mice. To this end they must.[7]

  • carry out inspections from time to time
  • keep land and properties the authority itself occupies free from rats and mice
  • take action against the owners and occupiers of land

Landowners and occupiers must inform the local authority in writing if 'substantial numbers' of rats or mice are on their land or property. This obligation does not apply to agricultural land.[8]

The local authority can serve notice on owners and occupiers that may specify treatment at prescribed times and/or the carrying out of structural or other works.[9] Local authorities have the power to enter any land, giving at least 24 hours' notice, to inspect or enforce notices[10], including the carrying out of treatment or works.

Failure to repair holes in walls or floorboards to stop rats or mice entering the property can also be a breach of the landlord's repairing obligations.[11]

[1] Liverpool CC v Irwin and Another (1976) 13 HLR 38, HL.

[2] Sillitoe v Liverpool CC [1988] 29 November, Liverpool County Court, unreported.

[3] s.83 Public Health Act 1936 .

[4] McGuigan v Southwark LBC [1995] 15 September, CC; HAU Issue 47, page 21.

[5] s.82 Environmental Protection Act 1990.

[6] s.287 Public Health Act 1936.

[7] s.2 Prevention of Damage by Pests Act 1949.

[8] s.3 Prevention of Damage by Pests Act 1949.

[9] s.4 Prevention of Damage by Pests Act 1949.

[10] s.22 Prevention of Damage by Pests Act 1949.

[11] for example, see Read v Notting Hill Housing Trust, Bow County Court, Legal Action December 2013/January 2014.

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