14 University of Nottingham (UoN) students were allegedly forced to wait over five months for their deposits to be returned as Shields Student Homes failed to respond to their email and telephone correspondence, took down its website and closed its offices on Lenton Boulevard.
The students, who spent the academic year (2015/16) with Shields, found that the managing agent delayed the repayment of their deposits citing an administration backlog.
However, after checking with the government’s Deposit Protection Service (DPS), several of the students discovered that Shields had never protected their deposits, an action that breaches government legislation.
As per DPS guidelines, for the government to intervene in any deposit dispute, a complaint has to be raised within three months.
As students were not made aware of this policy, or the protection scheme itself, they continued to contact Shields directly for their repayments until the three month period had passed. Consequently, many were unable to use the scheme to recover their deposits.
Nicola Swain, a Masters Environmental Management student at UoN, told Impact: “We kept getting in contact with Shields and they kept delaying further and further. It hit October and it started getting a bit ridiculous”.
“I tried going into their offices and they just weren’t open; when we spoke to them on the phone they were really unwilling to help, and our emails were being ignored,” she explained.
“Nine Nottingham landlords are collectively owed over £100,000 in rent payments”
Nicola, like several of the students who spoke to Impact, had not been aware that students should receive a Proscribed Information leaflet after paying their deposits, confirming that the deposit has been protected.
Students are not the only people to have been affected by Shields’ behaviour. According to Unipol, nine Nottingham landlords are collectively owed over £100,000 in rent payments from the managing agent and currently have a court order against the company.
Patsy Shaw, a Nottingham landlord, had to threaten Shields with legal action in January 2016 for money to be paid to her; she stopped receiving payments altogether from August 2016.
Patsy had been using Shields since 2009, and she confirmed that there were no issues with their service until 2015. She told Impact: “In January, money wasn’t being paid, and they kept claiming it was a bank problem. It then turned out, unbeknownst to me, that the company was sold in January 2015”.
She added: “We came to August 2016, and [Shields] stopped paying me altogether. From November and December of 2016, I began to deal with students myself, and stopped using Shields”.
The Unipol stance
Shields Student Homes had formerly been given accreditation by Unipol, a student housing charity that seeks to protect students from exploitation when renting properties.
Unipol offers voluntary Code schemes to landlords and managing agents, allowing them to demonstrate that they have agreed to meet benchmark housing standards.
Given that Shields was registered with and accredited by Unipol, Nicola and her housemates contacted the charity for advice on their dispute. She told Impact that Unipol did not seem to take “an active interest in our case” and “didn’t really offer us any advice in terms of where to go”.
Sam Hussaini, a 3rd year Law student at UoN, had a similar experience. Although Shields’ lack of DPS was, according to Sam, “in violation of the tenancy agreement, the law generally and […] the Unipol code”, Unipol decided not to suspend Shields from their scheme or to hold a Tribunal hearing immediately.
Sam criticised this decision, arguing: “I suppose my perception is that Unipol realised that this whole thing is voluntary – “if we give landlords too hard of a time, they just won’t bother playing and joining in with our system””.
He continued: “So whether it’s actually possible for an organisation like Unipol to be more rigorous and for a voluntary system like that to work, I’m not sure”.
“In January 2017, Unipol finally made the decision to suspend Shields from its code pending a full Tribunal hearing”
Martin Blakey, CEO of Unipol, defended the charity, stating that the Nottingham branch is currently supporting “7 or 8 students” in taking legal action against Shields Student Homes.
Unipol had previously taken disciplinary action against Shields in 2015, although the incumbent Chair of the Code Tribunal considered the problems to be a “one-off” and decided not to suspend the letting agency from their scheme.
When asked why Unipol allowed Shields to retain its accreditation, Martin stated: “This is an independent tribunal review, so I am assuming that what the tribunal felt was that this problem was resolved”.
In January 2017, Unipol finally made the decision to suspend Shields from its code pending a full Tribunal hearing. The charity also stated that it will support complainants who decide to take legal action against Shields for refusing to repay their deposits.
However, in some cases, landlords have already had to fund repayments to students themselves. Nicola told Impact that her landlords decided to repay her deposit after Shields refused to.
Some students have successfully received their deposits back from Shields. However, as in Sam’s case, this was not until six months after his contract had ended.
The view from the SU
Whilst in dialogue with Unipol, the students also contacted the Students’ Union’s Student Advice Centre (SAC) for support.
Sam stated that the SAC “offered good, sound advice”. However, he argued that the SU-based organisation does not have power among landlords and agencies who are not “really that bothered what the Student Advice Centre say or do”.
In a statement from current Community Officer, Abel Hartman, on behalf of the SU, it was confirmed that the SAC “supported a number of students whose deposits had not been refunded or protected by Shields to take action, including raising complaints to Unipol”.
The statement continued: “The Students’ Union feels that Unipol did not act on complaints from students and concerns raised by Students’ Union staff in a timely manner, thus allowing Shields to retain their accreditation status until January 2017”.
“The relationship between Unipol and the University’s Students’ Union soured following the University’s withdrawal of support”
In contrast to Sam, Nicola told Impact that she felt “let down” by the SAC, who, she claims, “did not seem very interested at all” in her case.
“I think the SU, SAC and Unipol should do more to explain things like the Deposit Protection Scheme. I had no idea, and didn’t even know you got a statement in the DPS as my housemates had tended to sort it”, she stated.
The University of Nottingham had formerly funded Unipol but withdrew its financial support for the organisation in 2015.
CEO of Unipol, Martin Blakey, claimed that this was due to “some quite serious tensions between us about the amount of effort the University of Nottingham was putting into informing its students about what housing options they had”.
Blakey added that the relationship between Unipol and the University’s Students’ Union soured following the University’s withdrawal of support.
In a statement issued to Impact, a spokesperson for the University said: ‘The University does not recognise that characterisation of the position it had reached with Unipol when the decision not to renew funding was taken”.
They continued: “While it would not be appropriate to share details of the relationship with Unipol, it is fair to say that the University had concerns about Unipol acting as both a local regulator of housing standards and also an agent for accommodation providers”.
Many students were unaware of the University’s formal withdrawal of support and the three students who spoke to Impact had all recognised Unipol’s accreditation scheme as a form of protection against poor housing standards.
Impact asked Martin whether the tensions between the University, its SU and Unipol had led to reduced protection for students. He replied: “I think the SU, Unipol, Trading Standards and [the] City Council are all reasonably committed to try and improve housing standards. It would be useful if they would all get on and all pull in the same direction to do that”.
He added: “In terms of student disenfranchisement, I don’t think this has made the situation any worse”.
“Abel: “I am launching my own scheme. I do not really see the need for a relationship with Unipol””
However, Martin acknowledged that Unipol has a Rate Your Landlord system in place that it could roll out in Nottingham in four weeks if the SU offered its support. He argued that “if we had had a ‘Rate Your Landlord’ scheme for Shields, we would have picked up some of this stuff much earlier”.
A ‘Rate Your Landlord’ scheme has featured on manifestos for numerous SU Community Officers in previous years, including Abel Hartman, who is currently developing his own SU-based scheme.
Impact asked Abel if a collaboration between Unipol and the SU could provide a new information service for students, a platform which all students who spoke to Impact claimed would be helpful in protecting students.
Abel replied: “I am launching my own scheme. I do not really see the need for a relationship with Unipol when we know that they do not have the best interests of students at heart. Shields is an example of this, and previously, releasing housing listings earlier was another example”.
He added: “What I do know is that students have been affected by this whole issue, and in terms of the deposits they have lost, that is precisely what Unipol exists for: to prevent that sort of stuff from happening. While it might be that the SU can do more, and I agree they can do more, I think that in this case, Unipol has ultimately failed to do what the organisation is for”.
All of the students affected by Shields Student Homes’ behaviour agreed that more transparent information regarding housing law should be provided to protect students from experiencing a similar situation.
Sam told Impact: “I think it’s definitely up to tenants to do their research but, of course, the Students’ Union, if they’re able to, should help people who want to inform themselves. I think from the perspective of the SU, it’s probably quite hard to do that in a responsible way where they are actually informing people”.
The SAC does offer official documentation, including a guide to house hunting, which gives information about contracts and the process of finding the right house. If students are concerned about the housing process, they can visit the SAC to have their contract read over before it is signed.
“Ultimately, the students affected […] expressed their wish to prevent this from happening to future students”
Similarly, the Deposit Protection Scheme website provides documents that set out tenants’ rights in regards to deposits and the process of ensuring that they are protected.
The Unipol website makes public all information regarding the Unipol Code and accreditation system, as well as previous tribunal cases, such as the Shields case from July 2015. It also has a ‘Know Your Rights’ online article specifically directed to Nottingham students, covering the legalities of student housing.
Ultimately, the students affected by unprotected deposits or communication difficulties with Shields expressed their wish to prevent this from happening to future students.
Nicola Swain urged any student looking to rent a property to make sure they have a DPS statement on their deposit and that it is in a protection scheme. She added: “As soon as you move out, make sure you are getting your deposit back within the 28-day period it, and contact the deposit scheme otherwise”.
Due to difficulties contacting Shields Student Homes, Impact was unable to offer them a right of reply. The magazine would welcome a response from the managing agent.
Tamsin Parnell and Connor Higgs
[In collaboration with URN Pulse]
Listen to URN’s special episode of The Pulse for more on the Shields Student Homes investigation: at https://audioboom.com/posts/5652614-urn-pulse-investigates-shields-student-homes
Images: Sophie Ridler for Impact Images
Infographic: Daniel Norman
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The government’s deposit protection scheme information: http://www.depositprotection.com/tenant-info.
Unipol’s ‘Know your rights’ fact sheet for Nottingham students: https://www.unipol.org.uk/advice/students/know-your-rights
The Student Advice Centre is located on B floor in the Portland building, University Park. Opening hours can be accessed here: http://www.su.nottingham.ac.uk/advice/student-advice-centre/