Daniel Ainsley’s brutal stabbing of Mark Wolsey was the culmination of more than a decade of trouble at one of Harrogate’s most notorious crime hotspots.
Now, as Ainsley awaits his sentence, angry local residents want to know why North Yorkshire Police and Harrogate Borough Council failed to clamp down harder on activities at the house where the murder happened.
They also want to know why the council transferred thousands of pounds to landlord John Willis Properties Ltd to accommodate homeless people, and accuse the council of being complicit in the problems by funding the volatile situation in the property when it should have been taking action.
Numerous residents, whose campaign to make the area safer fell on deaf ears, have vented their frustration to the Stray Ferret. They want to know why so little was done to address longstanding problems at the house — and what is being done to prevent a repeat.
A recipe for trouble
38 Mayfield Grove was branded the House from Hell in 2005 when a court granted a three-month closure order following a spate of crime, including a crossbow being held at a resident’s head.
The house, owned then and now by John Willis Properties Limited, of which the landlord John Willis is the sole director, has absorbed a huge amount of police time since then.
In this report we’ll hear the views of the local residents, Mr Willis, the council and the police. There is no suggestion of illegal activity by Mr Willis’ or John Willis Properties Limited’s behalf.
But the situation highlights how the system can fail to protect homeless people.
255 police reports about 38 Mayfield Grove
A Freedom of Information request by the Stray Ferret revealed that between April 2008 and July this year, the public reported 38 Mayfield Grove 255 times to North Yorkshire Police. This averages almost two reports a month over 13 years.
The house is divided into six privately let bedsits and tenants often have guests. Ainsley was staying in Mr Wolsey’s bedsit when he killed him. Many tenants over the years have had multiple issues, such as drug and alcohol addictions and mental health problems, as well as backgrounds of homelessness and crime.
Local residents told us it’s difficult to think of a more dangerous scenario than housing people with multiple needs together in a terraced home on a busy street, and this problem should have been identified and tackled.
Daniel Neill, who until recently lived on Nydd Vale Terrace, a street parallel to Mayfield Grove that has other properties let by Mr Willis’ company, has been at the forefront of the residents’ campaign for a safer neighbourhood. He said:
“The entire set-up is a recipe for trouble. It doesn’t take a genius to work it out. The worst thing you can do with addicts is put them alongside other addicts.
“For 15 years people knew that 38 Mayfield Grove was the place to go for drugs. It was an open secret. Police did regular drive-bys. Yet it just kept going on.”
£7,000 council payments to John Willis Properties Ltd
Yet despite longstanding concerns about 38 Mayfield Grove, the council transferred £2,112 in 2017 and £5,424 in 2018 to John Willis Properties Ltd.
The council says the payments were “for the benefit of our homeless customers and were not made as part of a contract or agreement with the landlord”. It adds:
“The money paid to John Willis Properties Ltd was transferred to help customers assessed as homeless or threatened with homelessness to access private rented accommodation.”
Taxpayers’ funds were transferred to John Willis Properties Ltd until as recently as December 2018.
- Mayfield Grove: house at centre of crime concerns allowed to re-open
- Harrogate man Daniel Ainsley found guilty of murder
While the council was paying John Willis Properties between March 2017 and December 2018, it received six housing complaints relating to seven properties let by the company and seven noise complaints relating to five properties.
Residents, who tried unsuccessfully to get a closure order against another of Mr Willis’ properties in the area in 2018, say the council not only failed to tackle problems going on inside the house but contributed to them by funding the landlord.
A letter from 45 residents to Richard Cooper, the leader of Harrogate Borough Council, sent after the murder, accused the council of oversight and complicity. It added:
“We don’t feel like valued members of the community. We don’t feel safe. We don’t feel like our voices are being heard.”
The letter also accused the council of “pulling the plug” on police and residents’ efforts to tackle issues at 38 Mayfield Grove.
What could the council have done?
The council argues it has limited power to act but Mr Neill says the payments beggar belief considering the well-known problems associated with some of Mr Willis’ properties. The council, he says, was either blind or neglectful.
The options included adopting provisions in the Housing Act 2004, which give local authorities the power to use selective licensing to tackle anti-social behaviour, or introducing special interim management orders, which allow local authorities to take over the management of houses in multiple occupation.
The council’s private sector housing enforcement policy, which sets out its approach to complying with its statutory duties to ensure private sector residents live in good quality, safe accommodation, says the council will adopt ‘a positive prevention, intervention and enforcement approach’ to protect people from harm.
Three John Willis properties closed since murder
In the wake of the murder on March 5, the police and council moved swiftly to get a court order to close 38 Mayfield Grove for three months from March 22, which meant tenants had to find alternative accommodation.
On June 28, magistrates granted the police and council partial closure orders against two other properties let as bedsits by Mr Willis, at 19 and 31 Avenue Grove, Starbeck, due to crime concerns.
The police and council have also organised a residents’ summit and a community engagement drop-in session to discuss 38 Mayfield Grove and to reassure people that ‘the Harrogate district remains a safe place to live and any anti-social behaviour is taken very seriously’.
But residents say the recent flurry of activity contrasts sharply with years of inertia that allowed crime to scar the neighbourhood and blight residents’ lives. They also want to see action to prevent a repeat.
Mr Neill, who like many people in the area was concerned about the safety of his family, said:
“These problems have been going on for years.
“I don’t want individuals fired. I just want to make sure this doesn’t happen again, but I don’t get the impression the council is facing up to it.”
Mr Neill says local police officers “have been nothing but helpful and straightforward” and share residents’ frustrations about the lack of council action.
But he was critical of a police initiative asking 120 homes to log anti-social behaviour, which attracted just three replies. The log obliged people to leave their names and addresses, which many residents were scared to do because it came shortly after a woman who was dragged down the street by her hair was threatened after going to the police
Another resident, who asked not to be named, said she had struggled to sell her house because of the area’s reputation. Another said:
“The amount of hassle caused by people in that house over the years is unbelievable.
“It’s almost like there are no lessons being learned. The same things happen again and again. I’m sick to my back teeth about it because nothing ever gets done.”
“I’m passionate about helping disadvantaged people”
The Stray Ferret put these accusations to John Willis. He said he was passionate about helping disadvantaged people, unlike many other housing providers, and did everything he reasonably could to protect them.
“Other landlords cherry pick the best tenants and sadly that leaves a disadvantaged group. Homeless hostels are full. I try to help them.”
Mr Willis said he lets 10 properties in Harrogate and the average age of his tenants is 50.
He said he’d taken many tenants from the council and partner agencies, such as Harrogate Homeless Project on Bower Street, close to Mayfield Grove, during his 31 years as a landlord. Some tenants, he said, had been with him throughout that time.
Asked whether housing people with multiple problems under one roof was a recipe for trouble, he said:
“Some have drug and alcohol addictions but they are mostly engaging with healthcare providers. Sometimes I’ve had to evict tenants but I have always had to work within the framework of the law.
“Sometimes you have to find likeminded people to live together. It can be difficult with tenants with challenging behaviours, that’s why it’s so important to engage with external agencies. But it can accentuate problems when you have them largely living under one roof.”
Mr Willis said he offered to pay for a support worker to help tenants in his 10 Harrogate properties.
“I advertised for it and had 22 applications. But the council said it wasn’t a direction they wanted to go in because there was sufficient help already.”
The council, he said, had told him it had “paused” recommending tenants to him.
He said the 255 police reports about Mayfield Grove could include numerous cases of incidents merely being logged. But he added:
“There have been incidents and they have been followed up. Most tenants did have some healthcare professional or support worker. They were all on the radar.
“But it’s not 24/7 support and there’s only so much you can do.”
Mr Willis said he occasionally moved tenants between properties if they didn’t settle.
“Some tenants want to move and this is discussed with external agencies.”
He said he was responsive to tenants’ needs and operated legally.
“I’m not an absent landlord. It’s just unfortunate that there has been this incident.”
He said he and police had met Mr Wolsey a month before his death to discuss ways of helping him.
“He was a jovial character and I was very sad about what happened but at the end of the day there’s only so much a landlord can do.”
Police and council joint statement
The Stray Ferret asked Harrogate Borough Council and North Yorkshire Police a series of specific questions about why they hadn’t done more to address concerns at 38 Mayfield Grove and their relationship with Mr Willis. It also asked what actions were being taken to prevent further problems.
The two organisations issued a joint statement after the murder verdict. It said:
“Anti-social behaviour can blight the lives of residents and shatter local communities and we are absolutely committed to taking a multi-agency partnership approach to deal with any issues in Harrogate in both the short and long term via a range of strategies.
“In relation to 38 Mayfield Grove, extensive work has been undertaken over the years to ensure that a robust plan is in place to respond to concerns about crime, drug use and anti-social behaviour at the property and improve the quality of life for those living in the area.
“This has included undertaking a full options appraisal to consider the best use of available legislation and powers; progressing the use of a closure order at the property; and meeting with the landlord to specifically discuss the management of the property including the vetting and letting of perspective tenants. Further to this, a number of online meetings have taken place with community representatives; a community engagement event took place in June 2021 with representatives from both the police and council and residents have been sent several updates via letter.
“Since 2008, North Yorkshire Police has received 255 reports connected to the address – an average of around 20 reports a year – which has enabled authorities to respond and deal with issues quickly and effectively. The local community are our eyes and ears, and we would urge neighbours and residents to continue reporting matters and intelligence to us and we will continue to take the necessary action. If people commit criminal acts then they will be held to account for their actions.”