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Tackling multiple occupancy

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To cheers from campaigning residents and howls of protest from landlords, local authorities will soon gain powers to limit the spread of houses in multiple occupation (HMOs).

In a statement at the end of January housing minister John Healey confirmed the creation of a new use class for HMOs.

From 6 April any new HMO - defined as a house shared by three or more people who are not members of the same family and who share basic amenities - will need planning permission. Up to 400,000 existing HMOs will be unaffected.

The new use class was supported by 84% of respondents to a government consultation

Julian Birch

The move came mainly in response to concerns about ‘studentification’ - the dominance of students in some areas in towns and cities such as Leeds, Nottingham and Bath. It is also an issue in coastal and market towns, and communities and local government secretary John Denham has been a long-time campaigner on the matter in his Southampton constituency.

Resident support

The new use class was supported by 84% of respondents to a government consultation. Mr Healey said it would “stop the spread of high concentrations of shared homes where it causes problems for other residents or changes the character of a neighbourhood”.

However, landlords accused the government of taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and warned that it would reduce the supply of shared housing. Shared housing already accounts for 20% of private rented homes and the proportion is rising.

Supporters of the plan say that the review only looked at studentification on a ward level

Julian Birch

While the creation of a new use class was one option recommended in a report by consultants, it was rejected as over-burdensome in an independent review of the private rented sector commissioned by the Department for Communities & Local Government.

The Rugg review described the idea as “an extreme response, given the limited nature of the problem. Change to the use classes order introduces the need for additional activity that local authorities are ill-equipped to handle.”

However, supporters of the plan say that the review only looked at studentification on a ward level, whereas the real problem arises in smaller clusters of streets that come to be dominated by HMOs.

New territory

The HMO plan will take planning departments into some interesting new territory. Some councils might limit themselves to processing planning applications but others might face enforcement problems. How, for example, will planning officers decide whether the members of a household are related or not?

Some London authorities are also concerned about the problem in reverse. Under the proposals, planning permission will no longer be needed to convert an HMO back into a single dwelling house. However, that could cut across some established local plans that seek to protect the supply of affordable accommodation by preventing conversion back to single family houses by landlords looking to cash in on property prices.

The new use class is the first in a series of reform measures planned for the private rented sector that will affect local government.

Mr Healey is also proposing to give a general consent for councils to introduce licensing schemes in areas where they judge landlords are not managing or maintaining their properties properly. He also confirmed plans for a new national landlords register.

Local waiting lists

The National Landlords Association (NLA) said the plans would reduce choice for tenants and increase pressure on local authority waiting lists. The new licensing schemes would result in a “nimby’s charter”, says chair David Salusbury.

Councils work hard to make sure neighbourhoods remain good places to live for all their residents

Gary Porter (Con), chair of the Local Government Association environment board

“The government has bowed to a small minority who shouted the loudest. It has ignored the vital role these homes play in contributing to vibrant and mixed communities,” he says.

“These plans will do nothing to improve housing or increase choice for tenants but are more about placating local protest groups,” he adds.

Mr Healey has acknowledged the extra workload by promising to review “the support available to local authorities in relation to regulation of the private rented sector”.
A DCLG spokesman adds that the decision followed an extensive consultation that drew more than 900 responses and that it was convinced this was “the best way to go about managing this problem”.

Gary Porter (Con), chair of the Local Government Association environment board, says the LGA will look carefully at the details.

“Councils work hard to make sure neighbourhoods remain good places to live for all their residents.

“We will look carefully at the details of the proposed changes to the planning laws to make sure they make a genuine positive difference for local people and will not add bureaucratic and financial burdens to landlords and councils.”

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