The Council can and should do more on HMOs

The actions below are proposed by Labour candidates in areas which are affected by the rapid proliferation of houses of multiple occupancy. As well as campaigning for their inclusion in the Labour manifesto for the 2015 local election, we will be asking the council directly to adopt these actions.

HMO Licensing and registration in Article Four areas

Labour Manifesto Process Discussion Points

  1. The council should use all data available to proactively identify existing HMOs, including the council tax and/or electoral register rather than just waiting for public input.
  2. Set a cut-off date by which time all existing HMOs will have been identified, such as the end of July 2015. (this date for policy planning purposes only at this time)
  3. Advise all HMO applicants after the cut-off date that an HMO license cannot be processed until planning consent has been given.
  4. Currently, properties without planning permission or an HMO licence are being marketed to tenants by both landlords and letting agents. The council should clearly advise all HMO applicants that planning consent should be granted before the property is used as an HMO; that HMO licensing requires that the property meets particular specifications and if these are not met a license may not be granted; and that any risk that tenants have been exposed to due to the use of the property contrary to planning permission is entirely the responsibility of the owner and/or letting agent.
  5. From this point on, letting agents which are accredited by the council and are still advertising properties for a use as an HMO would be doing so contrary to planning permission. The council should write to all accredited letting agents which market properties in Article 4 areas, and advise them that planning consent is required for any HMO conversions and that until that consent has been granted the property should not be marketed to potential tenants. Failure to do this by the letting agent should result in loss of their accreditation
  6. Sales agents sometimes claim that they do not know of the planning restrictions when marketing properties to buy-to-let investors. This is not acceptable. We ask the council to draw up an Information Pack, downloadable from the website, explaining all of the restrictions around HMO licensing and planning in Article 4 areas, and ask sales agents to pass it to all potential buyers in those areas. A paper copy should also be given to all sales agents by the council.
  7. The council should set up a landlords’ registration scheme with annual fees which reflect the full and complete cost to the council of providing services to HMOs and their impact on the community. These services all cost money. Many HMO landlords operate several properties as a business and do not pay business rates to the council. Similarly, students do not pay council tax even though the council provides many services to students living in residential areas. The money to fund these services has to be found from somewhere.

Policy proposal from

Tracey Hill (Labour candidate for Hollingdean & Stanmer)

Chris Taylor (Labour candidate for Hanover & Elm Grove)

Noisy Neighbours? A quick guide

This blog contains some information from the environmental protection team at the council who were represented at the Hanover and Elm Grove Local Action Team meeting (HEGLAT) I went to recently, and also some info from the Sussex community liaison officer.

It’s a time of year when many people have new neighbours, and there are parties going on because it’s the beginning of the university term. That’s not to say that all problems with noise are due to students – there are plenty of lovely quiet student houses, and a fair number of noisy non-student households. However, some of the problems are with student houses not least because they are on a different schedule so can socialise later at night and on weekdays which can clash with families needing to get a night’s sleep before school or work.

The first thing to do is to talk to them (if you feel it’s safe to do this) to make sure they understand the problem and give them a chance to correct it. That seems fair enough and it may be that they are just a bit thoughtless and that does the trick. In the meantime, start making a note of dates and times. This is because the council will want a noise diary (see below).

If talking didn’t help, and you think it’s a student house, you can contact the following people:

  • University of Sussex . Housing Team – Mark Woolford. 01273 678219. email m.a.woolford@sussex.ac.uk
  • University of Brighton : Community Liaison Officer – Kevin Mannall 01273 643102. k.mannall@brighton.ac.uk, or Andrew Keefe A.W.B.Keeffe@brighton.ac.uk
  • Also see: http://www.brighton.ac.uk/about-us/contact-us/community-liaison-team/index.aspx
  • BIMM (Brighton Institute of Modern Music): Accommodation Officer – Jackie Phillips 07885 328411 jkephillips@supanet.com

They should be able to find out whether the household is occupied by their students, and should be prepared to intervene and talk to the students in liaison with the council.

Whether the neighbours are students or not, you can also go to the environmental protection team at the council. (EHL.environmentalprotection@brighton-hove.gov.uk). There’s some info here about how to make a complaint. There is a noise patrol team from 10pm to 3am on Friday and Saturday nights. As pointed out at the LAT, in an ideal world this would be every night, since student parties can just as often be midweek as at the weekends.

Officers stress that noise nuisance is assessed by how much it affects quality of life, and isn’t based on a certain decibel level. They may ask you to fill in a noise diary for two weeks – so that’s something you could start doing straight away. They will also need to witness the noise, so some liaison with them is necessary.

The council has the power to serve a noise abatement notice to everyone in the house. If this is broken, they will end up with a criminal record. The council also has the power to impose a fine, and seize belongings to the value of the fine. More information in this leaflet. Ideally, it wouldn’t get to that stage and between the council and the university teams working together the problem can be resolved.

At the LAT meeting there were some comments about some areas starting to be seen as “student areas” where it’s implicitly okay to make a lot of noise. This is something that really needs to be avoided. I believe more can be done to give students the right impression immediately they arrive in the city (particularly for first year students who are living out, or living in halls that are adjacent to residential areas). If particular effort were put into noise patrols on the first few days of term, and if the beginning-of-year parties were pointedly brought to a close at a suitable time, with warnings about continuing the noise elsewhere, that might send the right message about the importance of being quiet at night.

HMO’s and planning – what can be done

I went as an observer to tonight’s Local Action Team (LAT) meeting in Hanover and Elm Grove, because a number of council officers were there to talk about the proliferation of houses of multiple occupation (HMOs), which is also an issue in Hollingdean, Coldean and elsewhere in the ward.

It’s important to remember that not all HMOs are occupied by students, and that they are a completely legitimate form of housing for which there is a current and ongoing need. The problem is that, partly because the number of students in the city is rapidly expanding, the number of HMOs is increasing, and where there are a lot in one place can change an area quite dramatically. Each family house converted into an HMO means one less house for a local family, so we need to try to retain some of these family homes and keep a balance and healthy mix of housing types as much as possible.

To this end, there are now certain areas where planning permission is needed to convert a property from a family house into an HMO. If the housing in the immediate area is already more than 10% HMO, the application should be refused. Planning applications have successfully been refused on this basis, but there are a number of problems.

One is that the City Plan has not formally been signed off, which means that the policy of refusing planning where the density is more than 10% is not official policy. Some landlords have appealed against their application, and some of these appeals have been withheld on the basis that the 10% is not policy. However, other appeals have been dismissed – so the ruling on appeals is not very consistent. This is something the officers are hoping to sort out with the government.

Another problem is that the planning department can’t take action unless the change of use has actually occurred. So, if landlord had their planning application turned down or didn’t apply for one in the first place, the council can’t do anything to enforce this until the property is actually occupied. This is frustrating for neighbours who can see that a conversion is being done, and have even seen it being advertised as an HMO, but no action can be taken until people have actually moved in. Once that’s happened, the council can act but has to give the landlord a reasonable period of time to comply. If it’s a student house, this generally means they don’t have to comply until the end of the academic year, so that the students don’t lose their home.

A third problem is that there have been cases where an HMO license has been granted to a property which is being converted into an HMO in an area where planning permission would be required, before planning consent has actually been given. I’ve read that the licensing team cannot refuse to give a licence on the basis that the property doesn’t have planning permission, because their remit is only to look at the suitability and quality of the property and not about whether it should be an HMO in the first place. I wonder, though, why the granting of an HMO licence cannot simply be delayed until planning consent is given (or not).

In short, there are a great deal of frustrations around this, and some anger was expressed at the meeting that the issue had been around for nine years without any big improvement. I would say that in terms of the regulation, we have moved in the right direction, but it will clearly take a lot of persistence and determination to really use these regulations to regain control of our neighbourhoods. I do want to say that this isn’t about trying to drive out students or other occupants of HMOs, who add enormously to the vibrancy of the city, but to maintain a balanced community in which people of different life stages and lifestyles can live side by side.

One thing which would help is to ensure that every HMO is licensed. The licensing team think that they have now “mapped” every HMO in the city. I am not so sure. In fact, I am convinced that there are HMOs in my street and in neighbouring streets which do not appear on the published list. The council is saying that they work with LATs and take lists of properties from them in order to check them and ask for licence applications. I’m intending to find out more about how this process works and try to get HMOs fully licensed.

HMO licensing is good for tenants as well as neighbours, because the properties are quality checked for things like fire safety and insulation, and if anything is amiss the landlord is required to put it right. The HMO team is currently checking that the conditions imposed when the HMO licence was granted have in fact been met, although it sounds like it has not be doing this universally. Many of the people who express concerns about HMOs are not bothered so much about the occupants but the state of the property itself. A robust and complete licensing system will help with that.

 

Hollingdean Sure Start – petition for weekend opening

Annual play event T in the Park with the Sure Start centre open in the background

Annual play event T in the Park with the Sure Start centre open in the background

Hollingdean and Stanmer Labour candidates support local residents’ calls for the Sure Start centre next to Hollingdean Park to be opened at weekends. There is now a petition on the Council’s website we are asking people to sign.

The Sure Start building is owned by the Council. Allowing the centre to open at weekends would open the way for community activities such as a community cafe, and it would mean that the toilets would be available. This would encourage greater use of Hollingdean Park as we have seen at the annual T in the Park event pictured above.

The centre is already a valuable hub for the local community, and opening at the weekends would enhance this. There have already been inquiries from community workers who would like to hold classes at weekends but lack a suitable venue. The venue could also be used as a place to purchase cheap staple food, helping local families out in this time of hardship, and possibly other amenities like a library or book swap.

We are not asking the Council for funding or to run any of the activities in the centre at weekends, only to make the building available as a community asset. Once it’s agreed, we would then need to come together as a community to make it happen. But as a first step we need the council to be prepared to allow the centre to be open, and for officers to look favourably on this proposal.

Please sign the petition if you want to support this campaign. If you have more ideas for what else the Sure Start centre could be used for if open at weekends, or would be willing to help as a volunteer occasionally to keep the centre open, it would be great to hear from you.

Please email hollingdeanandstanmer@brightonhovelabour.com and we will pass your comments. on.

It was a vision of the last Labour government to create a Sure Start hub in every community, bringing together child care services. This remains a core part of Labour’s local government policy:

“To give every child a good start in life, Sure Start Centres should become hubs of support for children, with local services for health and family support having a duty to co-operate and co-locate to provide a single point of access in every community.”

Labour’s Local Government Innovation Taskforce, July 2014

HMO licensing and ongoing housing issues

I attended the housing committee meeting yesterday, as I understood that my deputation on the damp flats in Brentwood Road would be discussed. As well as an update on progress in the affected flats, I was looking forward to hearing some comments about whether the contractor’s response to damp complaints could be made a little more holistic, ie looking at the problem in terms of the whole building, not just one flat at a time. Possibly even being proactive and identifying where there might be a problem, even if it hasn’t been reported. Sounds optimistic, but addressing a problem before it gets really bad would save money. Also, some of the solutions offered seemed not only “patching up” from the tenants’ point of view but not best value from the taxpayer’s point of view either. Replacing plasterboard when you don’t know what is causing the damage in the first place doesn’t sound sensible to me for anyone.

Unfortunately my hopes were not realised. What I actually got was the committee chair Cllr Bill Randall reading out exactly the same response he gave at the full council meeting, word for word (without the “political comment” thank goodness). That was it. No discussion at all. It seems that as far as the administration is concerned, everything is now fine. I’m not so sure, I have to say.

I was also hoping to hear something about what the council could do when a tenants’ association folds because key residents move away. It’s all very well saying that tenants can come forward if they want to be part of as association, but it may not have occurred to most tenants that this is something they could or might want to do. I’ve been knocking on doors with a community and council worker in the Hollingdean estate recently, and hardly any tenants are aware that money is available for estates improvement if tenants bid for it. Sitting at the town hall and waiting for tenants to come in and ask to be involved is just not going to work.

There was also a discussion on HMO licensing which covered some of the key problems in the private rented sector. The report on which it was based is here. While HMO licensing is definitely improving the quality of multiple occupancy housing and the accountability of those who offer it, several councillors pointed to some ongoing issues. Not all HMOs have been licensed. There is an issue with licenses being given to properties that should not be granted planning permission, and this wasn’t dealt with – it’s been carried over to another committee meeting, apparently. Landlords and agencies move tenants in before planning permission has been granted and a license acquired, putting the tenants in a precarious situation. There are ongoing issues with refuse and noise around some HMOs.

In a street near me, a small close which already has one large HMO, another house was bought and converted into one. It does not have planning permission or a licence. The Council said that they could do nothing, even when the house was being advertised as a six-bedroom shared let. They said that the occupants would have to move in first before they could enforce the unauthorised change of use. This kind of thing is extremely frustrating for residents who feel that they and the Council have no control over their local area. There is clearly a lot more to be said and done on this topic.

One thing residents can do, and at this meeting were asked to do, is report to the Council any properties which appear to be being used as an HMO but do not have a licence. The Council will then investigate. The licence list is here. I would like to see as many non-licensed HMOs reported to the Council as possible, and will be following the discussion on the planning permission issue as well. It seems obvious to me that an HMO license should not be given to a property that is in the area where planning permission is required, until planning permission has actually been granted. Another point to raise is why agencies and landlords are offering properties for rent on the open market which are not licensed and do not have planning permission. This is something else I will be looking into.

Desperately seeking a Home Sweet Home

At the Home Sweet Home at Brighton University's househunting fair

At the Home Sweet Home at Brighton University’s househunting fair

On Friday morning Ric and I from the Home Sweet Home campaign attended the third in a series of house-hunting fairs organised by the University of Brighton’s accommodation office, to help students arriving in the city find private rented accommodation. The first of these was in late August and was also attended by Home Sweet Home. We have been collecting students’ email addresses in order to send copies of the tenants’ guide, which was created to help new tenants deal with the many issues with private sector renting.

It’s a difficult talk for first year students, many of whom are leaving home for the first time, to find a new place to live in a new city, as well as organising themselves into house share groups despite the fact that they have never met. The house hunting fairs start at 10am and most people on the dot if not before, so that they can get hold of as many property details as possible and view them the same day. They are not yet living in the city, so are having to pay for travel and accommodation costs each time they visit. Ideally they will want to view the properties with their new housemates, and agree and sign together. There is enormous pressure on them to find a place so that they know they will have something by the beginning of term.

Brighton University’s accommodation office does their best to make this task easier, with dedicated staff providing a great deal of support and advice. Only approved agencies are allowed a table at these house hunting events (together with supporting organisations like the student’s union, the council, and, by invitation, the Home Sweet Home campaign) but representatives from other agencies show up outside and approach students there with house particulars. At the first session, it did feel a little like these students are being fed to the wolves, as they are so desperate to find a place and sign on the dotted line.

Yesterday’s session was almost worse, though, because agencies were running out of accommodation. One agency, one of the biggest for student properties, was giving out a flyer with the headline: “Only five properties left – once they’re gone, they’re gone”. I found it hard to believe that that was really true, but was told that more students than usual went through clearing this year, landing the city with an enormous glut all looking for housing at exactly the same time. It made me wonder what kind of accommodation some of them will end up in – sub-standard overpriced house shares, houses miles away from campus or the city centre, single room shares and bedsits with non-students maybe. It’s feasible that some of them will decide that it’s simply not worth it and not take up their place at all.

It was a revealing insight into a difficult process and made me think that there must be a better way of doing this. I also felt that I was watching the ugly results of a chronic housing shortage played out in front of me. Home Sweet Home has just celebrated its first birthday and there is much to celebrate including the tenants guide and the fact that we are now being invited to events such as these. But given the severe demands on housing there is still a need for us to keep campaigning to protect the interests of private sector tenants in the city.

Hollingdean Sure Start – Weekend Opening

Annual play event T in the Park with the Sure Start centre open in the background

Annual play event T in the Park with the Sure Start centre open in the background

Hollingdean and Stanmer Labour candidates support local residents’ calls for the Sure Start centre next to Hollingdean Park to be opened at weekends.

This would encourage greater use of Hollingdean Park because the cafe and toilets would be available for people using the park, as they are for the annual T in the Park event pictured above.

The centre is already a valuable hub for the local community, and opening at the weekends would enhance this. There have already been inquiries from community workers who would like to hold classes at weekends but lack a suitable venue. The venue could also be used as a place to purchase cheap staple food, helping local families out in this time of hardship.

Previously, appeals have been made for local people to volunteer to staff the centre for a few hours at weekends. But we also need the council to be prepared to allow the centre to be open.

We are appealing to officers to look favourably on this request and are planning to launch a petition in due course.

Please get in touch if you:

  • want to support this campaign
  • have any ideas for what else the Sure Start centre could be used for if open at weekends
  • would be willing to help as a volunteer occasionally to keep the centre open

Please email hollingdeanandstanmer@brightonhovelabour.com

The cafe at the Sure Start centre is also open for tender (deadline August 22nd). Follow this link for more details.

It was a vision of the last Labour government to create a Sure Start hub in every community, bringing together child care services. This remains a core part of Labour’s local government policy:

“To give every child a good start in life, Sure Start Centres should become hubs of support for children, with local services for health and family support having a duty to co-operate and co-locate to provide a single point of access in every community.”

Labour’s Local Government Innovation Taskforce, July 2014