Record fine handed to “lost at sea” landlord in South Gloucestershire
10 July 2023
A LANDLORD who rents out homes in the South Gloucestershire and Bristol area has been ordered to pay over £44,000 after a court found him guilty of a serious housing offence and contravening a Local Government Act.
Giuseppe Sutera, also known as Joe Sutera, attended Bristol Magistrates’ Court on Monday 26 June for the prosecution brought by South Gloucestershire Council, but refused to identify himself (stating only that he was “a man” and that Joe Sutera was “lost at sea”).
As he had not properly identified himself, the court decided that Joe Sutera was not in fact present and he was found guilty in his absence. He was ordered to pay a total of £44,270.26, which is a record fine secured by South Gloucestershire Council’s housing team.
Those present at Bristol Magistrates’ Court heard how Sutera had breached an Emergency Prohibition Order served by South Gloucestershire Council’s housing team by continuing to let a property where there were serious fire safety issues and where tenants’ lives were being put at risk.
Sutera had also failed to respond to a notice served by the team requiring him to provide his address and details of the property he rents. Sutera consistently refused to provide his home address, while his unco-operative attitude at court served to highlight the way in which he has hampered the investigations of the private sector housing team.
South Gloucestershire Council was first alerted to the property in Eagle Drive in Patchway on 26 August last year following a complaint from the tenant occupying the House in Multiple Occupation (HMO). An unannounced inspection was carried out to assess whether any hazards were present that posed a risk to the Health and Safety of tenants or visitors to the property.
Following this inspection, a high Category 1 hazard for fire was established as there was the potential for serious injury or death to the occupants due to there being no safe escape route in the event of a fire.
The shared kitchen was located in the middle of the main escape route of the property. There were no fire doors to any of the bedrooms and there were no working smoke alarms in the property. The secondary escape route was located in a bedroom where there was also a makeshift kitchenette located in the porch, effectively also blocking access to that escape route.
On 25 October 2022, two notices were served. An Emergency Prohibition Order was served under Section 43 of the Housing Act 2004 and also a Requisition for Information under Section 16 of the Local Government Act (Miscellaneous Provisions) 1974. The notices were hand-delivered. The housing team was aware of several other properties owned by Sutera, and as he had not provided his home address, copies of these notices had to be hand-delivered to all of those addresses.
The Emergency Prohibition Order required Sutera to ensure that the property was not occupied until the fire risk was removed. This would involve a reconfiguration of the premises, including ensuring the shared kitchen was separated from the stairwell with a suitable fire door. It also required that the kitchenette in the ground floor front bedroom was either re-located to a more suitable location or otherwise removed. There had to be adequate fire protection throughout the residence.
The Section 16 Requisition for Information Notice was served to establish ownership and to identify those people with an interest in the property and their home address(es).
With the full knowledge that the Emergency Prohibition Order had been served prohibiting occupation of the premises, Sutera continued to let the property, in turn putting his tenants’ lives at risk. The housing team members provided evidence that they had inspected the property on several occasions following the Emergency Prohibition Order being served. Not only were existing tenants continuing to live in the property, but Sutera had also set up new tenancies and new tenants had moved into the property since the Emergency Prohibition Order had been served.
Councillor Leigh Ingham, cabinet member with responsibility for environmental health at South Gloucestershire Council, said: “South Gloucestershire has approximately 17,000 privately rented properties. We will not tolerate landlords failing to meet their legal responsibilities in relation to the conditions of the homes they offer for rent.”
Ingham continued: “Our private sector housing team members always try to work with landlords to bring their properties up to standard. Where an informal approach fails, we will look to take enforcement action. The level of the fine in this case serves as a serious warning to all landlords that they have a legal responsibility to protect their tenants and provide a safe and decent property for them to live in. If they fail to do this, we will take action.”
South Gloucestershire Council’s private sector housing team is aware of at least eight other properties which Sutera owns within South Gloucestershire and will continue to investigate them in order to ensure the safety of their tenants. According to Bristol City Council, Sutera owns a further four licenced HMOs in the Bristol local authority area.