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.