SOUTHEND Council is using tough new powers to crack down on rogue landlords.

The council’s private sector housing team has been given additional enforcement powers to censure unscrupulous landlords who persist in exploiting vulnerable tenants.

The team can serve intermediate management orders giving the council the power to take control of premises and withhold rents. The authority can also force landlords to pay for essential repairs.

In addition, landlords can be served with penalty charge notices for failing to apply for energy performance certificates, which carries a fine of up to £600.

The initiative comes as it emerges the number of properties bought by buy-to-let investors is soaring.

In 2001, 15 per cent of the borough’s homes were in the hands of private landlords. Latest figures show this is up to 23 per cent.

As a coastal town, where the number of rented flats and bedsits is typically higher, council housing bosses responsible for enforcing housing legislation are used to keeping an eye on large numbers of rented properties.

However, the rise, partly fuelled by the rising cost of accommodation in London, means their resources are being stretched and there has been a rise in slum landlords.

Jacqueline Lansley, the council's head of of procurement, commissioning and housing, said: “The increase in privately rented properties is also fuelling the buy-to-let market, and, sadly, some landlords are refusing to acknowledge they have a responsibility to ensure the units they often let to vulnerable people need to be maintained to a minimum housing standard.”

A council spokesman said new powers were helping.

Officers have now issued one unnamed Westcliff landlordwith an improvement notice to keep his property properly maintained and he could face prosecution.

The council has been hitting rogue landlords in the pocket after the Echo exposed failings in a number of properties.

The housing team last month prosecuted landlord Alfred Katona, 75, of Chadwick Road, Westcliff, for five housing management breaches. He was fined almost £20,000.

The team also used a management order to take control of six flats rented to vulnerable people in London Road, Westcliff, by landlord Steve Beechy, 66, of Sebastian Avenue, Shenfield, after concerns over his management practices.

Mr Beechy plans to appeal against the order.