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

Memorandum by Universities UK (DHB 31)


  1.  Universities UK is pleased to respond to the Committee's call for evidence on the Government's draft Housing Bill on behalf of the Association of Directors of University Estates, the Universities Safety and Health Association and the Committee of University Business Officers.

  2.  The legislation covers five main areas. Of these, Universities UK is primarily interested in Part 1 of the Bill, concerning health and safety standards, and Parts 2 and 7, on the licensing of houses in multiple occupation (HMOs).

  3.  Universities UK supports the Government's proposed approach to licensing HMOs. The existing system is both inconsistent and ineffective. We share the Government's view that a licensing scheme should be designed to deal with those HMOs that are at highest risk and we agree with the conclusion, in the consultation paper accompanying the draft Bill, that mandatory licensing of all HMOs would be unnecessarily expensive, overly bureaucratic and likely to restrict housing of this type.

  4.  University owned and managed accommodation is well managed by qualified professional staff, and consequently low risk and this is reflected in the exemption from registration under current legislation. To include such housing within the ambit of a licensing scheme would not be consistent with the general intentions expressed in the Consultation Paper. We therefore welcome the Government's proposal to exclude university owned and managed properties from the licensing scheme set out in Part 2 of the draft Bill.

  5.  We do, however, have some concerns about Part 1 of the draft Bill, and will be seeking further clarification from Government on the likely impact of this legislation on HEIs.


  6.  At present student housing owned or managed by HEIs in England and Wales, some of which may constitute HMOs, is (like housing provided by local authorities and registered social landlords) exempt from HMO registration on the grounds that registration of such property would be a) unnecessary and b) costly. It is unnecessary because higher education institutions (HEIs) are responsible landlords regarding accommodation standards and management as of the first importance; the great majority of occupants of HE provided accommodation are able bodied and, in consequence, the health and safety risks are minimised; and available information, particularly with regard to the incidence of injury from fires, confirms the good safety record. It would be costly because without this exemption institutions could be liable to pay a registration fee per dwelling unit—a potential cost to the HE sector overall estimated at about £40 million.

  7.  Universities UK agrees that the current system of assessing the fitness of a house for occupation needs to be replaced with one that better reflects present day hazards and risks. Broadening the criteria however brings a danger that HEIs might face the costs of meeting demands for improvements in health and safety standards that are not justified—given the specialised nature of their accommodation and its occupancy (see para 12 below).


  8.  In 1999 the Government issued a consultation paper (Licensing of Houses in Multiple Occupation) setting out the principles of a licensing scheme for HMOs which would replace the registration scheme. In 2001, a further consultation paper Selective Licensing of Private Landlords was issued.

  9.  In responding, Universities UK recognised that a licensing scheme had the potential to be more effective than the present registration regime. They welcomed the control that would be exerted over unsatisfactory rented accommodation in the private sector some of which was occupied by students.

  10.  Universities UK contended that, as in the case of current registration regimes, specific exemption for houses under the control of, or managed by, HEIs would be the simplest and most appropriate solution given that the sector is demonstrably low-risk (see para. 6 above).

  11.  A similar response was made to the Selective Licensing Consultation Paper. And the same general line was taken on the HMO provisions in the Home Energy Conservation Bill—a private member's bill—in 2002.

  12.  On the Health and Safety in Housing consultation paper (2001) Universities UK agreed with the general objective of replacing the fitness standard with a system more focused on risks to health and safety. A number of specific points were made and two general caveats were entered. The first concerned the possibility of an uncritical application of the proposed method. That might result in some student housing being classified as hazardous because of its unsuitability for elderly people for example. The second stressed the need for clear guidance to local authorities—particularly on the determination of whether a hazard was, or was not, "acceptable".


  (References are to clauses in the Bill).

  13.  On licensing of HMOs (Part 2 of the Bill): student accommodation is included within the definition of an HMO (164(3)). However, HEI owned or managed accommodation is exempt from licensing—as are local authority housing, registered social landlords and some others (165(5)).

  14.  On health and safety (Part 1 of the Bill): exemptions set out in Part 7 of the Bill (in respect of licensing) do not apply to Part 1. All housing is (potentially) subject to the health and safety provisions.


  15.  Universities UK welcomes the Government's proposals to introduce a licensing regime applying to HMOs that constitute the highest risk to occupants as consistent with meeting the Government's stated aims in the most cost effective fashion.

  16.  With regard to Part 1 of the bill, we will be seeking clarification of the Government's intentions. We look forward to having an opportunity to look closely at the draft regulations and accompanying codes of practice and policy guidance, when they are available.

  17.  We will also be seeking clarification of some of the definitions in the Bill. For example, the Bill (Clause 2(1)) defines hazard in terms of "any risk of harm to the health or safety of an actual or potential occupier". The "potential" element gives rise to the possibility of some student housing being deemed hazardous unnecessarily (see paragraphs 12 and 14 of this note above). In university owned and managed accommodation, the complexity of assessing the needs of "potential" occupants is much reduced by the fact all occupants will be students, and the university, in allocating accommodation, can ensure appropriate provision is made for particularly vulnerable students, eg those with disabilities.

  18.  For the same reasons, we will be seeking to ensure that any amenity standards set by the Minister for university owned and managed accommodation reflect the needs of students rather the other groups who occupy residential property (Part 4, 129).

  19.  We are further concerned that there is no longer a requirement to consult with the Fire Authorities with respect to fire safety matters. Fire officers are able to offer professional advice on fire safety matters and are, in general, likely to have a wider range of relevant experience than local authority officers.

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