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If the Minister had accepted our suggestion of an ombudsman, perhaps some of the arguments for bringing all student accommodation into the net would have evaporated. The Minister said that
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there were some problems, although they were not general. Why not have an ombudsman to whom people could appeal in those exceptional cases?
Keith Hill: I hope to respond to the remarks made by the hon. Gentleman on the issue of a student ombudsman and, if he will permit me, I shall complete my line of thinking in an attempt to persuade the Liberal Democrats not to divide the House.
If, in individual cases, there are grounds for complaint about poor management, any complaints should be made to the university authorities, and the Government anticipate that they will be dealt with promptly and effectively. However, as there is little hard evidence of widespread poor management of university halls of residence, the Government are not persuaded that there is a sufficiently strong case for bringing university-managed accommodation in England and Wales within the definition of HMOs, other than for the purpose of part 1 of the Bill.
I come now to amendments Nos. 3 and 87 and the debate on studentification, which was less defensive than concerned. A divergence of opinion was evident between hon. Members about when the requirement for mandatory licensing should apply. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) will know that we debated extensively in Committee the Government's proposed scope for mandatory licensing of HMOsthose of three storeys or more and occupied by five or more personsand the reasons for that formulation. Amendment No. 3, tabled by my hon. Friend, would require a local authority to licence all HMOs of three storeys or more, or any HMO occupied by five persons or more. By contrast, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) tabled amendment No. 87, which seeks mandatory licensing of HMOs of three storeys or more and occupied by four or more persons.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe raised many highly detailed questions, and I know that he will forgive me if I say that this is not the time or place to respond in similar detail. However, I undertake to write to him in response to the issues that he raised. His starting question was whether the current mandatory regime was a starting point for a mandatory licensing regime. As I have said before, that is not the Government's intention. We have accepted the principle of mandatory licensing, but we have done so on the basis of a clear and pragmatic justificationthe issue of vulnerability to fire risk.
I shall give way to my hon. Friend in a second when I have completed this thought. The Government have borne in mind two considerations on the issue of mandatory licensingthe burden on local authorities, which any licensing regime would impose, and our wish to protect and encourage the private rented sector, which I also mentioned in Committee. Of course, we shall bear down on abusive landlords, but we recognise that on the whole the sector plays an extremely important role in the housing industry, both by giving people a first step on the housing ladder and in relation to labour mobility. The sector is also rather
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vulnerablethe average landlord owns only three properties. It has been characterised as a cottage industry, so we are reluctant to impose excessive burdens on it. We want to encourage it rather than burden it.
Dr. Turner: I want to refer to amendments Nos. 1 and 2, which are grouped with amendment No. 127. They would restore a principle that the Government had previously agreed in respect of my private Member's Bill, and would deal with licensing, energy efficiency and energy conservation requirements for HMOs, given that such properties are subject to some of the worst energy conservation conditions and the greatest fuel poverty, and house some of the poorest and most vulnerable tenants. That principle was agreed by the Government two years ago, so can my right hon. Friend explain why it is no longer part of the HMO licensing requirements? Will he consider reinstating it?
Keith Hill: We have already discussed the new housing health and safety rating system, which, as my hon. Friend knows, would allow cold and damp to be taken into consideration in the orders and requirements that environmental health officers might make. We shall by no means exclude issues such as warmth and thermal energy from our approach to the condition of housing stock and the need for action. My hon. Friend has considerable expertise in such matters, so he, better than most, knows that we are committed, through the warm front programme, to extensive improvement in providing warm housing stock in the private sector. However, we are certainly not in a position at this stage to make as a requirement the sort of measures that he recommended in his earlier proposals.
I want to return to some of the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe and I shall then respond to the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South. I listened very carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe to ascertain the justification for his proposal to extend the mandatory licensing regime, and it was on the basis of nuisance. As he knows, the Government are clear about their criterion for mandatory licensing: it is based on a clear assessment of fire risk. However, I remain to be convinced that the properties that would be included in my hon. Friend's extended definition of mandatory licensing for HMOs would intrinsically be sources of nuisance or would have the potential to create nuisance.
In response both to my hon. Friend and to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South, who raised a different concernthe studentification phenomenonI point out that the Government are providing for an additional licensing regime, as all colleagues are aware, and where there is evidence of proven wrongdoing and proven risk there is the possibility of extending the licensing regime beyond what is caught by the current mandatory proposals. I hope to speak about that shortly.
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Mr. Reed: Does my right hon. Friend understand the frustration in places such as Loughborough, where 98 per cent. of properties would not fall within the Government's current definition? As he knows from his many visits to the wonderful town of Loughborough, the town centre, especially the Storer road area, has changed dramatically, so a much narrower definition is required. There is nuisance, and if he would like me to join him in a walk around the Storer road area to see the consequences of not having a licensing scheme I should be more than willing to do so.
Keith Hill: I have not had the opportunity to discuss these matters with my hon. Friend, but I have certainly had ample opportunities, both in formal and informal contexts, to discuss them with my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best) and for Nottingham, South. I have told them repeatedly that the Government cannot, in the Bill, legislate for where people live. We are legislating on the physical condition and management of housing stock. It is not invariably the case that students live in housing of poor physical condition. Indeed, it is frequently asserted that the studentification of abandoned city centre areas can actually lift the quality of the stock. Similarly, it is not the case that properties in student areas are, without exception, badly managed.
I do not for one moment deny the consequences of the concentration of student populations in terms of local services. There are certainly pressures on local schools and there may even be pressures on services such as post office facilities, but those issues do not relate directly either to the quality of the housing stock or the prevailing management conditions of that stock. I repeat that where a case can be made that there is systemic poor management of properties in localities, the additional licensing regime for which the Bill provides will respond to those situations.
Lynne Jones: I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way, but he somewhat misleads the House by giving the impression that studentification, as he calls it, can lead to an increase in the amenities or the quality of the housing stock in an area. Certainly, most of my hon. Friends who have experience of the problem in their constituencies would say that the houses converted to student accommodation are, by and large, former owner-occupied properties in good condition and that studentification leads to a great deterioration in the area and in the quality of life there.
Keith Hill: I do not for a moment challenge my hon. Friend's observation about the quality of life, but I simply say that the argument goes both ways on whether the acquisition of properties for the purpose of accommodating students leads automatically to a decline in the quality of the physical condition of those properties. The argument goes both ways, and there are persuasive arguments on both sides.
I need rapidly to move on to explain and offer some reassurance, I very much hope, to the House about the possibilities for interventions in the licensing domain under this legislation. As I explained in Committee, the Government have adopted three-storey HMOs as the starting point for mandatory licensing because those
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properties pose the greatest risk of causing injury or death from fire. People living in a two-storey HMO are about four times less likely to die as a result of a fire than those living in a three-storey building.
As I also said, the number of occupants is a factor to be considered. Clearly, the greater the numbers of storeys in an HMO, the more people are likely to live in the property, so the risk of fire increases. Of course, many HMOs are less than three storeys and house five people or more, but those people are far less vulnerable to injury from fire than those in three-storey houses. I also appreciate that some three-storey HMOs are occupied by four people, but it is far more likely that three-storey buildings will house more people than that number, and I reiterate that the greater the number of persons, the higher the risk of fire.
We have estimated that mandatory licensing will apply to about 120,000 properties in England, housing five or more people. A line must be drawn somewhere on where HMO mandatory licensing applies. The Government believe that we have got this right at properties with three storeys and above that are occupied by five or more people, forming at least two households. However, local authorities must have, and we are giving them, powers to license problematic categories of HMOs in their areas. If a local authority establishes that there are management problems with all HMOs of, for example, three storeys or more occupied by four people or all HMOs occupied by five people that justify licensing, we are giving the local authority the tools to do so with the additional licensing regime.
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