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

Memorandum by The National Union of Students (NUS) (DHB 39)


  The National Union of Students (NUS) represents over five million students in higher and further education in the UK. NUS estimates that at least six hundred thousand students rent accommodation within the private sector, the vast majority of whom live in a property of multiple occupation (HMO). Although there is undoubtedly some good quality accommodation available within this sector, there is evidence to indicate that some students are living in very poor sub-standard accommodation that is detrimental to the health and consequently their studies.


  NUS is concerned that by excluding from legislation any properties that consist of less than three storeys and which are occupied by less than five people, this part of the Bill leaves the majority of students who live in the private rented sector without the legislative protection they need.

    —  The largest proportion (30%) of the estimated 600,000 students who rent properties in the private sector live in groups of four. An analysis of our housing survey also reveals that 48.5% of students live in groups of five or more, which means that the majority (51.5%) live in groups of four or less.

    —  As for the size of properties in which students live, our survey indicated that 74% of students live in houses that consist of only two storey. However, this percentage rate was much higher (87%) for students who live in groups of four or less.

  NUS calls for:

    —  The government to define HMOs as habitations with two storeys or more, which are occupied by four or more adults.


  NUS is concerned that by excluding from legislation any properties that consist of less than three storeys, and which are occupied by less than five people, a vast number of students will live in accommodation which does not adhere to minimum health and safety standards. The case of Sheffield vs Barnes—amongst other rulings—has created an unacceptable condition, especially for students living in shared houses. As a consequence of the judgment, some local authorities have been prevented from taking action to ensure improved standards in such accommodation because of fear of legal action from landlords. At the centre of this has been the blurred definition of an HMO.

  NUS calls for:

    —  A clear definition of HMOs enshrined in secondary legislation, in order to prevent any legal loopholes.


  NUS believes that buildings or part of buildings should not be exempt from the definition of HMOs if they are occupied only by persons whose purpose is to undertake a full-time course of further or higher education at an educational establishment or other (see Draft Housing Bill March 2003 p126, $165 (5) (a)). This would leave out a vast number of students: in 2001 for example, university-owned accommodation offered over 265,000 bedspaces to students. Full-time students pay the same as other people, so excluding them is treating them as second-class citizens.

    —  The Scottish parliament has recognised the need to be able to assure Scottish parents that, when their children leave home to become students, the shared accommodation in which they are likely to stay is of a reasonable standard and, most importantly, safe. The Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 (Licensing of Houses in Multiple Occupation) Order 2000 explicitly includes shared accommodation occupied by students during term time.

  It is sometimes assured that so-called larger HMOs are a higher health and safety risk than those of less than three storeys. The NUS Housing and Health Survey 2001 indicates that such a conclusion is not so easy to come to in the case of student-shared houses.

    —  slightly more than half (50.5%) of all students sharing in groups of four or less stated their house experienced problems with damp, four out of ten evidence of mould, and 52% reported that repairs had not been carried out by the landlord.

    —  One of the most worrying findings of the survey was the fact that 47% of students reported that their landlord had not complied with existing gas safety regulations, as required by the Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations.

    —  One in five houses is not fitted with a smoke detector, half of properties housing four or less people do not possess security locks on all windows and doors, and 14% of students who live in groups of four or less believe that their health has suffered as a result of living in these properties.

  The Scottish parliament has recognised that the smallest HMOs can be as badly managed, dangerous and inadequate as larger HMOs. In 2003, the threshold for the definition of HMOs is three or more and will eventually go down to two or more.

  NUS calls for:

    —  Buildings or part of buildings occupied only by persons who occupy them for the purpose of undertaking a full time course of further or higher education at an educational establishment or other to be included in the definition of HMOs.

  NUS believes that any building or part of a building should not be exempt from the definition of HMOs if that building is controlled or managed by the educational establishment in question or another person (see Draft Housing Bill, March 2003 p126, $165, (5), (b)).

    —  NUS believes that among numerous examples of good practice throughout this sector of the accommodation market, there will always be exceptions. The most dramatic and recent example of poor university accommodation is the hall of residence belonging to the University of Wales at Aberystwyth, which burnt down. Whilst the cause of the fire was a fault in the adjoining building, it does underline the fact that student halls of residence are not immune from accidents.

    —  NUS also had reports of universities spending thousands of pounds in legal fees in order to prevent local authorities from enforcing safety standards, whilst others have threatened students with disciplinary action if they attempt to contact environmental health officers to report inadequate facilities. According to a new HEFCE guideline, universities cannot invest further amounts on housing and conferencing facilities. As a consequence, in some universities student accommodation facilities have been in shortage. For example, in Manchester this year, 300 students lived in a condemned building for three months because the university had run out of accommodation for them. Without legislation, students are as vulnerable in university-owned accommodation as in the private sector.

  NUS calls for:

    —  building or part of a building not to be exempted from the definition of HMOs is that building if controlled or managed by the educational establishment in question or another person (see Draft Housing Bill, March 2003 p126, $165, (5), (b)).

Cost of the licence

    —  NUS believes that the cost of the licence should be capped to a level acceptable to landlords, otherwise the cost might be passed on to tenants. If students meet inflated rent prices, they will be required to get into more debt, or work longer hours in part-time jobs. NUS is opposed to students being placed in more debt.

    —  Expensive licences may also deter prospective landlords and landlords to put their properties on the letting market, thus causing problems with the supply of rented housing. Landlords could also go underground for fear of paying their licence.

    —  NUS believes licence prices should not vary too widely according to where you live. In Scotland, local authorities have discretion in charging. While permitting flexibility, this has resulted in wide discrepancies in charging: prices range from £103 in Aberdeen to £1,700 in Glasgow[16]NUS recognises the need for flexibility, but is concerned that councils in financial difficulty may abuse a system that is too flexible.

    —  We also think that institutional halls of residence should not be charged the full price of the licence, in order to ease the financial burden on universities. NUS proposes to follow the Scottish example, where institutional halls of residence pay a discounted licence fee.

  NUS agrees that a "one size fits all" licence fee is not appropriate. NUS recommends a sliding scale licence fee, which takes into account the nature of the owner, eg private or public, and the number of bed spaces offered.


  NUS deeply regrets that the government did not reiterate its view in this draft of the Housing Bill that the current arrangements in the UK for tenancy and other tenancy fees are not working, as it previously acknowledged in the Tenancy Money Consultation Paper. This will impact on financial circumstances and welfare of a significant proportion of students living in privately rented accommodation, either with their own family or in houses of multiple occupation (HMOs).

Legislation on deposits

  NUS is concerned that some students have difficulty in getting back their deposits at all. There is also a problem with deposits being returned late to students and this has a direct effect on their debt levels and ability to budget. Students who go to college or university a long way from home are particularly vulnerable, as unscrupulous landlords can take advantage of the fact that any complaint has to be dealt with from a distance. This is especially true for international students.

    —  According to the Survey of English Housing (SHE) 2001-02, 20% of households who had a private tenancy ending in the previous three years, said that part or all of the deposit from their most recent tenancy was unreasonably withheld. This represents a considerable amount of money, considering that in England around £790 million is currently being held in deposits. NUS, alongside Shelter, is calling for provisions to regulate and safeguard tenants' deposits to be added to the Bill.

    —  Statutory schemes to safeguard tenants' deposits and landlords' property are common in many parts of the world. It is known that there is provision in place—ranging from basic legislation to mandatory protection schemes—in Germany, France, Belgium, parts of Spain, in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

  NUS calls for:

    —  Legislation to regulate and protect tenants deposits. Around 100 MPs have already signed Early Day Motion 843 calling for this.

    —  NUS favour the idea of same day deposit return, as successfully implemented by UNITE. Under current arrangements, tenants have no cheap or speedy redress through current legal procedures. Statistics on small claims relating to unjustifiably withheld deposits are not kept, but it is known that in 2001 the average length of time taken to hear a small claim was 28 weeks[17] Issuing a claim for the average deposit of £510 would cost the claimant £380, with a possible further £45 payable to issue a warrant of execution (to enforce the claim). Apart from these issues of time and expense claimants may fall on procedural issues, or be unable to enforce judgement[18]

    —  NUS believes the results of the Tenancy Deposit Scheme should be used for drawing up mandatory legislation. The two-year plot Tenancy Deposit Scheme (TDS) was set up in March 2000. Funding for a further two years was agreed in February 2002. The pilot TDS offers two types of schemes. Firstly, a custodial scheme, whereby a third party holds the deposit. Secondly, an insured scheme in which the landlord or letting agent pays an insurance premium to ensure that the deposit will be repaid to the tenant should the Independent Housing Ombudsman (IHO) find in their favour if there is a dispute. It can be claimed that the custodial scheme works in terms of presenting a transparent process that is satisfactory to tenants[19]

  NUS calls for:

    —  Results of the Tenancy Deposit Scheme to be taken into account for the setting up of a mandatory national deposit scheme, to ensure the speedy and fair recovery of deposits by the tenants.

Disputes over deposits

  Loss of part or totality of the deposit through lack of clarity over issues such as cleaning is a common scenario for students. Also, landlords do not always make clear what is to be retained from the deposit in case of deterioration.

    —  As shown during the pilot TDS, landlords and agents showed considerable interest in the dispute resolution function of the scheme and published decisions were likely to help shape of good practice in the long run.

    —  Tenants strongly supported the principles of an independent adjudicator being available to resolve disputes.

  NUS calls for:

    —  Disputes over deposits to be handled by a national independent adjudication scheme, such as the currently piloted independent Housing Ombudsman.

    —  Each tenant in HMOs to be dealt with separately in terms of deposits and disputes over returns.

Statutory clarification of reasonable terms

  NUS supports shelter's recommendations that legislation should clarify the circumstances under which a landlord can or can not make a claim on a deposit. NUS calls for costs arising from the landlord's standard re-letting procedure, not to be claimable, eg refreshing the decor or professional cleaning.


  NUS calls for:

    —  Legislation to require landlords to supply and check inventories on properties before the contract is signed, and legislation to assist negotiations in circumstances when a landlord wishes to make a claim on the deposit.

Other tenancy-related fees

  NUS calls for:

    —  Legislation to prohibit the charging of other tenancy fees, eg for the provision of inventories, renewal of a fixed-term contract or for work carried out as part of the letting service.


  Landlords unfit to rent properties should be prevented by legislation from doing so. With the introduction of new criminal records bureau, a system exists whereby relevant convictions are easily established. NUS suggests that the government considers whether or not perpetrators of violent and/or sexual crimes are appropriate individuals to be renting property to vulnerable groups such as students. This is a cautionary note based on our members' evidence, and made with recognition to the Rehabilitation of Offenders' Act.

  Alongside Shelter, NUS calls for:

    —  A nationwide system at regulation to ensure that all landlords are fit and proper.

  Landlords should be compelled to comply with licensing requirements through extra incentives such as tax breaks for home-improvements. Such tax-breaks will win the support of landlords for a licensing scheme and favour environment friendly repairs, such as insulation.


  NUS urges the government:

    —  to define HMOs as properties of two storeys or more and which are occupied by four or more adults and to enshrine this in secondary legislation;

    —  to include buildings or part buildings occupied only by persons who occupy them for the purpose of undertaking a full-time course of further or higher education in the definition of HMOs;

    —  to introduce a sliding scale fee, which takes into account the nature of the owner and property;

    —  to legislate to regulate and protect tenants' deposits; and

    —  to introduce a nationwide system of regulation to ensure all landlords are fit and proper.


May 2003

16   Social Inclusion, Housing and Voluntary Sector Committee Report 29 November 2000 Back

17   The Court Service Judicial Statistics 2001. Back

18   Tenancy Money: Probity and Protection A Consultation Paper November 2002 Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Back

19   Housing Research Summary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Number 175, 2002. Back

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