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

Damp Deputation and Hollingdean Housing

A permanently damp wall in a Brentwood Road flat

A permanently damp wall in a Brentwood Road flat

A doorknocking session on Brentwood Road recently revealed that some council flats have severe damp problems, which have been reported numerous times but not sorted out. Councillor Jeane Lepper had also appealed to Mears for reasonable solutions (ie not just a dehumidifier!) with no success. So I took a deputation to Thursday’s Full Council meeting, drew attention to some of the issues (with photographic evidence), and asked that the problems be looked into. In particular, I was hoping that the damp issue might be investigated as a whole rather than each resident’s problem considered in isolation. If there is a damp problem in a flat it may well affect several of the flats in the same building and would most efficiently be treated collectively.

Councillor Bill Randall, responsible for housing, responded that the issue in the particular flat I was talking about would be sorted out by the end of the month, and that in a neighbouring flat by mid August. In fact, the visit to the first flat happened on July 10th. I sent the detail of my documentation and photograph in to the council on July 8th. Whether this is a coincidence or not, I’m glad the issues are being looked into, and will keep in touch with the residents concerned to make sure things are sorted out.

While I realise that political grandstanding is a key part of the proceedings at Full Council meetings, I was rather taken aback by Councillor Randall’s robust attack on Labour’s housing policy in his response to me. I hadn’t framed the deputation in a party political way at all. Failures of service at an individual level could happen under any administration and I wasn’t making a point about the current Green-led administration as a whole. Councillor Randall’s criticisms all dated back to Labour’s time in administration in the city, ie before 2007. Next time someone says to me that Labour “shouldn’t be negative about the Greens” I will remember Councillor Randall’s somewhat disproportionate response to me!

The deputation also mentioned the importance of tenants’ associations. A few of us at the Hollingdean Development Trust have realised that with no active tenants’ association on the estate, keeping abreast of maintenance issues will continue to be a problem. It also means that housing development grant funding is not being applied for. This is something we have highlighted in our most recent letter to residents, and I’m also involved in an initiative with the trust’s community worker and housing officer at the council to doorknock to try to identify a few people who would be willing to step forward.

 

A Tale of Two Cities

It has often been observed that Brighton and Hove is two cities in one, and the more I campaign the more I believe this to be true. Looking at educational attainment, for example, there are areas of the city where the number of people not attaining five A to C grade GCSEs is lower than average, and yet we also have high numbers of students and graduates. We have an exciting digital media industry offering opportunities to skilled professionals, but we also have a local economy that is dependent on tourism where pay is not high. The city benefits from a well developed private sector and lots of start-ups, freelancers and SMEs – but youth unemployment is also an issue.

That’s why the local Labour Party’s pledge to set up a fairness commission is such welcome news. An independently-chaired commission will take evidence from residents, volunteers and workers from across the city and make recommendations (within a year of its formation) specifically on equality issues.

These will include finance and debt (on which Labour has already taken action), child poverty, youth unemployment, housing cost and quality, and health.

Housing in particular is one of the key challenges the city faces: it’s estimated that 40,000 homes across the city do not meet the decent homes standard, over 92% of which are in the private sector, and that 42% of vulnerable households in the private sector do not meet the decent homes standard. The Home Sweet Home campaign which has been active for almost a year has already made progress in this area.

And in terms of health, the gap in life expectancy between the most and least deprived people in Brighton and Hove has widened to more than ten years for men and six for women.

Over the past three years I believe the city has become more polarised in its attitudes, with city centre and relatively affluent populations tending to back the Green council (certainly in its early years) while those less well off and further away from the city centre feeling increasingly pushed out. We need a fairer city, which offers great opportunities to everyone whatever their background and income. The issues which will be explored by the Fairness Commission are real and important to everyone, and are also ones which a local council is able to influence.

I very much look forward to the Fairness Commission being set up in less than a year’s time.

 

 

Brighton and Hove European election result: from the count

I was at the count of votes all evening last night for the European elections. Because the verification (first check that the number of ballot papers matches the numbers recorded in polling stations) was done on Friday, by Sunday the ballot boxes had already been opened and the votes were being counted from several ballot boxes at time.

I had never been to a count before the general election of 2010, so had no idea this went on, but what most parties do is try to get a “heads up” of the election result in advance by watching the ballot papers being counted and writing down a tally of votes for each party. When the ballot papers come straight out of the ballot boxes, this also gives a rough indication of how the voting has gone within each polling district (and therefore ward and constituency). It’s a rough-and-ready exercise for party internal use only.

The European election result is announced across the whole city, not by constituency. Labour topped the ballot, more than doubling our vote since 2009. However, Caroline Lucas appears to be claiming on Twitter that the Green Party (which came second) won in Pavilion. Presumably this comes from the samples which were taken at the count. Aside from the fact that these figures are not reliable enough to be published (and it wouldn’t be appropriate anyway because they are not an official result) there is no way the Pavilion votes could have been sampled separately from those of other constituencies, because they were not counted separately.

I was at one table where all the votes for Hanover and Elm Grove and Queens Park (Pavilion and Kemptown) were counted. Any sampling at that table would have reflected the vote across both of those wards. Labour and the Greens were both strong. Later, I watched votes being counted from one polling station in Patcham and another in Hollingdean and Stanmer, which may have included Sussex campus and part of Coldean (depending on which bundle the counting agents picked up) but may not. From the ballot papers I saw, UKIP was ahead (they came fourth overall across the city).

My observations suggest that Labour and the Greens were very close in the inner parts of the city where much Green support has come from over time. In areas which are more typically Conservative, UKIP got a strong showing and the Greens hardly any. Labour got a reasonable vote in these areas too – certainly more than the Greens. Some of these areas, such as Patcham, are within Pavilion. Even if the Greens held on in their strongholds, Labour polled a lot of votes in those areas too and also did passably in the more Tory areas. So it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Labour had polled more votes in the whole of Brighton Pavilion than the Greens.

This is all speculation though, since results by constituency are not available. It does smack of desperation that Caroline Lucas is so keen to show she is ahead at all, when the Greens polled twice as many votes as Labour back in 2009. This on a turnout of 37%. With a general election turnout hopefully coming up to twice that in a year’s time, things are really looking grim for her.

This post is in response to Caroline Lucas’ tweet. I’ll post again later on the European result more broadly.