Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Written Evidence


Memorandum by Leeds HMO (Houses in Multiple Occupation) Lobby (CDHB 01)

  1.  Leeds HMO Lobby is an association of associations, founded in 2000. It comprises some twenty community groups in Leeds, whose shared aim is to effect action on concentrations of shared houses, or HMOs. Our campaign is informed by our shared experience of developments in Leeds, and through our national network of contacts, of developments in another dozen towns throughout the country. The Lobby was established in the wake of the consultation on Licensing of HMOs (1999), and since then we have responded to consultations on Quality & Choice (2000), Selective Licensing (2001) and Use Classes Order (2002). We have participated in Shelter's Private Renting (2002) and Warwick University's Management of HMOs (2003) research, and we have held meetings with two Housing Ministers (Nick Raynsford 2001, Lord Falconer 2002). Locally, Leeds City Council has invited the Lobby to represent the community on the Private Rented Sector Strategic Working Group and its sub-committee, the Student Housing Project Group. In this capacity, we have initiated measures such as the Accredited Tenant Scheme and Task Groups to implement the Council's Shared Housing Action Plan. Further information on the Lobby may be found on its website at:

  2.  Leeds HMO Lobby's three key objectives nationally are legislation enabling (a) a new definition of HMO, in order (b) to identify HMOs (eg through licensing), and thereby (c) to limit concentrations of HMOs (eg through planning controls). Since 2000, we have urged successive Housing Ministers to press for the inclusion in the Queen's Speech of legislation on such measures. Hence, we were pleased when at last the government honoured its manifesto pledges and promised a draft bill on 13 November 2002, and we were delighted on 31 March 2003 to find that the Bill fulfilled two of our three objectives. We have a number of points to make on the licensing proposals in the ODPM's Housing Bill: Consultation on Draft Legislation.

  3.  Leeds HMO Lobby welcomes Annex A (pp25-8) of the Consultation Paper, on the responses to previous consultations on HMO and selective licensing. We would have welcomed more information on the former, for instance a breakdown of the 579 responses, such as is given for the 134 responses on selective licensing. The latter indicates that 6% were from the community (reiterated in s.41, p247). We are anxious to stress that with regard to housing, there is a "third party" who generally remains invisible, and this is the local community. There is occasional acknowledgement of this third party in the document: s.24 (p233) refers to "the impact of HMO usage in the local area" and community implications recur throughout the Impact Assessment of Selective Licensing (pp239-249). But in the Summary on p10, "Whom will these proposals affect?" no mention at all is made of local communities; and in Annex C (pp30-33) the List of Consultees includes no community representation (though the Lobby did write to the ODPM). But both tenants and landlords are entirely dependent on the "social capital" generated by local communities for the viability of their lettings, and indeed it is the very loss of this social capital which creates the areas of low demand to which selective licensing is addressed. Conversely, social capital can be damaged by the wrong patterns of housing. We know from our own experience the "double whammy" that concentrations of HMOs inflict on their host communities: on the one hand, there inevitably follows in their wake a steep increase in local problems (crime, squalor, a "resort economy"); and on the other, there follows a collapse of the local social capital which normally addresses such problems. Government policy itself recognises the link between housing and "balanced, thriving communities" (Quality & Choice, 2000, s.1.10). Despite the lack of recognition in the present document, the Lobby welcomes the measures in the Draft Bill which will be helpful to the third party whom we represent.

  4.  Leeds HMO Lobby welcomes the new definition of HMO proposed in Sections 164-170 of the Draft Bill, especially Section 167 on the "multiple" element of HMO, which specifies that "persons shall be treated as forming a single household if they are all members of the same family." We are pleased that note has been taken of the consultation on HMO licensing when "almost half of respondents supported a "family" based definition" (p26). We recognise that many grey areas may arise from this definition, but these are addressed in the subsections of Section 167. Certainly there is greater clarity here than in the present definition. The Consultation Paper notes that "the definition of HMO has been the subject of much litigation" (s.4, p16), and the case is spelled out in s.6 (p230) on "the uncertainty over the current definition of HMO." The concept of "single household" has effectively remained undefined, hence "there is a lot of housing case law on what constitutes a "household" for HMO purposes. This uncertainty has led to enforcement difficulties" (s.17, p232). In Leeds recently, a house occupied by eight students was accepted as a single household on appeal by the landlord against the Council (even though there was no one room in the house where they could gather as a single whole). We believe there would indeed be "fewer appeals on the basis of ambiguous, out-of-date and inconsistent statutes" (s.40, p236). The new definition will differentiate clearly between genuine single households and houses which are in reality multiply occupied.

  5.  Leeds HMO Lobby welcomes Part 2 of the Draft Bill which proposes mandatory licensing of prescribed HMOs. These are specified in s.133 (p188) of the Explanatory Notes as the larger HMOs, that is "HMOs of three storeys and above in which at least five people live." And we welcome the proposed provisions of the license (Section 65[3]) which include "the behaviour of its occupants", "the condition of the house" (which includes any gardens, Section 80) and "preventing parts of the house being occupied." We recognise that the main aim of the legislation is to provide safe, acceptable and affordable accommodation for tenants (s.3, p16). But the Impact Assessment also notes that an aim is to "lessen the impact of HMO usage . . . on immediate neighbours (s.24, p233). The Explanatory Notes mention that HMOs "are occupied typically by young lower-income single people" (s.7, p174). This leads to a distinctive form of occupation: (a) occupancy is highly intensive (with consequences for noise, waste, etc.); (b) the occupants are typically young adults (whose lifestyle tends to aggravate noise/waste problems); (c) "government" within the house lacks "head of household" (to mitigate problems); and (d) commitment is generally short-term (undermining social networks, and thence social capital). Larger HMOs of course exaggerate these features. Mandatory licensing of these will help to ameliorate their consequences for their immediate neighbours. (However, the Lobby advocates that HMOs prescribed for licensing include those that are three storeys and above or at least five people in order to encompass all those which are likely to be dangerous and/or disruptive.)

  6.  Leeds HMO Lobby also welcomes Section 62 of Part 2 of the Bill which provides for additional discretionary licensing. The nature of the impact of HMOs is twofold, as implied by s.24 (p233). Individual HMOs (especially if they are large) have an immediate and specific effect on neighbouring homes. Numbers of HMOs (especially in concentration) have a longer-term and generic effect on the local area (the double whammy noted in paragraph 3 above). A case in point is "large concentrations of poor quality, poorly managed student houses" (s.22, p233). Discretionary licensing will enable local housing authorities to respond to such circumstances, which have arisen to some degree in most university towns throughout the country, and also in many coastal towns. As noted in s.19 (p232) "LHAs often have great difficulty in identifying and tracking down HMOs." In addition, their registers of licenses "will provide LHAs with much more information on the HMO market (s.53, p238). This will be invaluable, not only for housing policy, but also for planning policy. It will enable local authorities much more effectively to achieve the social mix which is the government's aim in both housing and planning.

  7.  Leeds HMO Lobby welcomes Part 3 of the Bill which proposes selective licensing of rented accommodation in designated areas. These areas are specified as "of low housing demand" (Section 82[2]). We have our reservations about this characterisation, which takes a symptom as the defining characteristic of an area. Low housing demand is in fact the final effect of a chain of causes: it arises essentially from the poor reputation of a neighbourhood, which in turn is the consequence of the decline of the social capital (or community spirit) of this area. (The reasons for this in turn are indeed complex, as noted in s.5, p239; in fact, they are likely to be very varied.) What is clear is that there is an intimate relationship between housing and social capital (or community welfare), and this is demonstrated in the Regulatory Impact Assessment of Selective Licensing. The discussion of Option 2, for instance, refers to lower crime, improved behaviour, improved environment and benefit to local business as the outcomes of licensing (ss.17, 18, 21, pp242-4); and subsequently it is noted that without action "other local residents will continue to bear the costs of associated crime and anti-social behaviour," as well as service providers (s.27, pp244-5). In most cases, what develops is a vicious circle. In an area of low housing demand, the low demand is caused by community decline; elsewhere, community decline may be the direct result of changes in the housing market. Hence, the Lobby welcomes the indication that "licensing could be applied in other limited areas" (Consultation Paper, s.1, p19, reiterated in the Summary, p10, and in the Explanatory Notes, s.157, p191). We are pleased that the Draft Bill follows the 82% of consultation respondents who advocated selective licensing elsewhere (Annex A, p27). Paradoxically, an area of high demand can also "have such an effect on the law-abiding community around them" (s.5, p239). The recent phenomenal increase in the private rented sector in many university towns is a case in point. In Headingley in Leeds, for instance, the principal student residential area, in the last decade the balance of the population living in this sector has expanded from 20% to 50%. The scale and speed of this change is a prime example of "the significant negative impact some private rented sector landlords have on some communities" (s.45, p247). In the Consultation Paper of 2001, four indicators were given of community destabilisation, and all of them are present in this area: (a) high turnover (50% annually), (b) high crime (the country's worst burglary rate), (c) dumping & litter (this year, the Council introduced a special cleansing initiative in the area, the worst in the city), (d) neighbour nuisance (Noise Nuisance and Neighbourhood Helplines have been established). The Lobby would be pleased to offer its experience, knowledge and understanding of these issues in response to the invitation for "information that may help with the further analysis of the possible costs and benefits associated with the application of licensing beyond low-demand areas" (s.8, p240). (We have proposed to Leeds City Council some mechanisms for doing so, a variation of the Council's Neighbourhood-Orientated Model of Area Demand.) We believe that HMO licensing may be adequate to address housing problems in some areas of Leeds. But we believe it is essential that selective licensing is also available, and not only in areas of low demand, to tackle problems where this proves inadequate.

  8.  Leeds HMO Lobby welcomes the commitment that "proposals will be taken forward through the Housing Bill when legislative time allows" (p11). We urge the Housing Minister to press as urgently as possible for the provision of that time. The Consultation Paper refers to "the spiral of decline" in areas of low housing demand (s.4, p19). But this spiral is circling viciously too in other areas where private rented sector landlords have a "significant negative impact" on their host community, and this is especially the case where concentrations of HMOs have developed. Community groups like the Lobby and its allies around the country are struggling to resist this impact with what resources they have at their disposal. We struggle also with our own despair and with the haemorrhaging of the support of neighbours who understandably give up. Our struggle is against time. The Draft Housing Bill offers encouragement. Even more encouraging would be speedy enactment.

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