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5 Jun 2007 : Column 33WH—continued

We need to reform the planning use class C3, which covers all domestic properties, to allow for stratification within that class, so that we can distinguish between different types of housing. When I was a councillor, the biggest issue of social change that I had to cope with was the proliferation in the area of bars and nightclubs to serve the new, younger, transient population. At that time, planning use class A3 encompassed everything from a café to a nightclub, so once somebody had planning permission for a café, they could convert it
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over time to a pub that was entirely different from the kind of place for which they had received the original permission. Owing to a long campaign by residents in Bristol and other cities throughout the country, there is now a class A4, to separate cafés, restaurants and bars. That is an interesting precedent.

It would be better if the Government were to trust local authorities to stratify the use classes themselves. The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen said that central Government might not trust local government to do the right thing. We should devolve such issues to local authorities. Stratification might not be appropriate in many parts of the country, but it certainly would be in urban areas, and local government should have the power to stratify within the broad parameters of the use classes set by Parliament. Bristol city council, which was under Liberal Democrat leadership until a week ago, has set up a working group to consider town and gown issues and to appoint a dedicated officer. We have taken the initiative locally and have been working with the university on that front.

The hon. Member for City of Durham made the point, which we need to emphasise, that this is in no way an anti-student discussion. Like the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen, I am a Bristol university graduate, and I lived in a shared flat in my third year. My constituency is full of similar people who originally came to the university but decided to settle in their adopted city. They have made it their home, and made it the vibrant place that it is. It is hard to imagine Bristol without either of its universities. The students make an enormously positive contribution to city life, through their charitable work, for instance. Through student community action, thousands of hours of community work are done in the city, which is probably largely unnoticed by the permanent population.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen that we should not delay too much further: it is time for Parliament to change the law to give local councils and universities the powers that they need to work together in harmony.

11.47 am

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) on securing this Adjournment debate on this timely issue. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) said, consideration of this matter is long overdue. As we are declaring such things this morning, I had better add that I was that student: I went to Southampton university and lived in a house of multiple occupation. Indeed, I visited my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen in his house of multiple occupation. I can confirm not only that he was a model student, like the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), but that the HMO in which he lived was a model HMO.

As hon. Members have said this morning, the issue is not about driving students out of cities, closing down HMOs or trying to develop some version of happyville-on-sea as an alternative to the reality of life in cities and towns. It is about how the necessary
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housing types and arrangements can co-exist and contribute positively, rather than negatively as is often the case at present, to the working of cities and towns. HMOs are a necessary part of the landscape not only for students, but for young single people and people in transient occupations.

The irony is that we have an enormous amount of planning guidance about how towns and cities should arrange their domestic and commercial properties and links, and a number of desiderata about how that should be done when various things in those towns and cities are built, but after they have been built, the guidance effectively stops in terms of the traction of those towns and cities to do anything about maintaining balanced and sustainable ways of deploying land use and housing. As hon. Members have mentioned, that is because planning law in no way recognises different uses within the general class of a domestic dwelling. The plain fact is that over time the different uses make an enormous difference to how cities and towns work. I heartily endorse the plea that has been entered this morning. It is important for the future of balanced and sustainable communities that that reality is recognised in the planning system.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen mentioned a paragraph in a document that he had received in 1992. I cannot offer paragraphs from quite such a long time ago, but I wonder whether the Minister has the following paragraph in his folder. It comes from a letter that was sent by the then Minister for Housing and Planning, my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson). It stated:

The curious truth about that statement is that it sets out how things are as far as planning is concerned, but it is diametrically opposed to what happens on the ground. As the test in planning law relates to whether a single household lives in an HMO—indeed, courts have made decisions on that matter—where a house is purchased, without any change having taken place, and it is then inhabited by up to seven people, the local authority cannot go anywhere near that house in terms of any sort of regulation. There are some exceptions to that, and I shall come to them in a moment.

Local authorities cannot go anywhere near such houses in planning terms, so the idea that a local authority can, as the letter suggests,

is incongruent to the reality of how local authorities are able to work. That is because the definition of an HMO in planning terms, such as it is, is a property that is converted into a number of separate flatlets, whereas the vast majority of HMOs fall under the single
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household definition. Most HMOs simply escape any planning regulation. The desiderata in the planning guidance are simply useless as far as those changes of use are concerned.

The Housing Act 2004 changed the definition of a household as far as the licensing of HMOs was concerned. The definition included people who are living under one roof but are not related to each other. A series of well drafted and well worked out definitions were placed into that housing legislation, which now enables local authorities to undertake a registration and licensing scheme for houses that are already in such a position. The scheme can include those people who are living in an unconverted house apparently, according to planning law, as one household.

What is interesting is that even the 2005 letter that I mentioned accepts that, if numbers go above a certain level, that would be a material factor as far as a change of use is concerned. Again, as hon. Members have mentioned, that is a long way from the reality of the effect that HMOs have on any district or area. Saying that situations where seven or more people are involved should come to the notice of the planning authority, whereas those involving fewer than seven people should not, means that 10 per cent. or less of HMOs are subject to the planning regime.

What is important is that planning law recognises that as a principle. In respect of my recent ten-minute Bill, I have suggested that if the argument is sound for seven people, it ought to be sound for numbers below that in situations where a demonstrable change of planning use has occurred. It may not be arguable in planning law that every single change of use makes a difference, but it is probably clear to all right hon. and hon. Members present that when a small number of people move into an HMO, which could happen for all the reasons that have been outlined, there is a considerable difference in how that HMO affects other houses in the street, the neighbourhood and the community generally.

That is particularly the case where there is an accumulation of HMOs. I have recently mentioned that, in one Southampton street, 49 out of 56 family houses are now HMOs. That accumulation clearly makes a great difference in planning terms, even if the number of individuals in each of those houses is fewer than seven. A distinction can clearly be made, without even changing the nature of the use class orders, simply by reducing the number of people who are defined as making a change in land use terms as far as an HMO is concerned.

It would be ideal to change the housing use class orders. That has been done in Northern Ireland, although it was done on the basis of previous legislation that defined an HMO. It might be difficult to introduce such an approach into legislation in England and Wales, in which case perhaps the far simpler route of introducing a reduction in respect of numbers and a definition of a family—an accurate definition is contained in the 2004 Act—into how an existing use class order works would be an appropriate way forward.

We must recognise one way or another—either by changing the use class order or by redefining it so that it bites as far as planning is concerned—that there are different kinds of domestic dwellings and that who
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occupies them is a matter not of indifference for the planning system but of important concern for it. It is important to make changes that recognise that and give local authorities the ability to appraise those changes of use when they come up. The system that we have put in place of registering and licensing HMOs is potentially important, but in a sense, it is systematically registering stables after the horses have bolted. It is important for the quality of the stables and for the horses—a bad metaphor that I should not go any further with.

Nevertheless, the system does not gain any traction on the process by which those houses have become HMOs in the first place. The numbers that the housing legislation sets out are five and three storeys. In Committee, assurances were given that those numbers of storeys would be reviewed on the basis of the way in which the licensing worked. Obviously, the legislation is in its early stages, but I hope that it will be kept under review. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham said that a more comprehensive licensing system that did not put a distinction on storeys, whereby local authorities would not have to apply to the Secretary of State for permission to make a more general licensing system over and above the statutory system, might be an appropriate development in parallel with the legislation.

The important point is to try to ensure that those two areas of legislation are compatible, so that local authorities can regulate the way in which the environment develops and the changes are made. I hope that the changes will be considered. They are long overdue, and they could be considered on the basis of an hour’s discussion in a room on an upstairs corridor in the House. Neither primary nor extensive legislation would be required. Relatively few words on a piece of paper, regulating the way in which HMOs might work differently over a period, would have an enormous effect on the way in which our communities might develop on a balanced, sustainable and harmonious basis.

12.1 pm

Mr. Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) on securing the debate. The issue affects many areas throughout the country, and I am sure that many Members who have not been able to join us today could provide their own stories and evidence about the way in which it affects them.

The hon. Lady opened the debate by talking about studentification. We must acknowledge that, in society, there is a process of studentification, because all the time the number of students is increasing, which we all welcome and support. She made it clear that the issue is about not just HMOs and students, but HMOs and other users, and we must establish the fact that on this issue, we are not uniting against students, because as other Members have said, we welcome the skills that they bring to communities and the investment that universities bring.

In my constituency in Cornwall, we have fought for a long time to get a university, and universities from elsewhere now co-operate to provide higher education in Cornwall, which we welcome. Many areas want to
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encourage students to stay on once they have finished their studies, and we heard how Members did so themselves. If we want universities to come to our area, we must address the issues; we cannot stand against them.

We heard the hon. Lady discuss the tools that are available. When we write to Ministers and their colleagues, we are all familiar with the reply that the tools already exist, that local authorities should consider their powers and use them more effectively and that there are better ways of dealing with the problems.

We must focus on use classes, which are at the heart of the debate and the restoration of local people’s confidence in the planning system’s ability to plan for a sustainable and balanced community. We heard about the different definitions in planning law and housing law, and my party welcomes the tightening of HMO regulation on the housing side to ensure both that we provide decent accommodation for people and that unscrupulous landlords cannot get away with providing inadequate accommodation.

Drawing the two areas together would help to simplify the process. During the introduction of greater HMO regulation, we heard complaints from landlords organisations, and a unification of planning and housing guidelines would help to simplify the situation. It would send out a clear message about the way in which we as a society would like to deal with the issues.

We also heard a good point about tracking changes and looking at where they occur, so that we can anticipate them instead of locking the stable door after the horse has bolted. I shall not go too far into the metaphor that the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) created.

The hon. Member for City of Durham was also keen to stress the positive role that the National Union of Students can play in acknowledging and dealing with the issues. It is in the interests of its members—the students—that the services they need are in the community. The services cannot exist if the area’s population falls dramatically during recess. We cannot develop any infrastructure there.

The hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) moved bravely into the area of parking, and we could have had a lengthy debate about the issue, but I am glad that consideration is being given to it in Uxbridge. The hon. Gentleman and other Members, including the hon. Member for City of Durham, stressed the need for strong relations and open communication between the local community and the representative bodies—local government, residents organisations and so on—and the academic institutions.

The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) discussed the importance of balance in sustaining the social infrastructure, and he is absolutely right. Later, I shall turn to an example of the way in which things can move out of kilter in society—albeit in a rural rather than urban context, but there are parallels. The right hon. Gentleman raised the issue of migrant workers, whom we increasingly see. I am undertaking a fellowship with the Industry and Parliament Trust, and spending a great deal of time with Waste Recycling Group, one of the larger waste companies in the country. I saw its recycling facility in
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Luton and worked for only about 10 minutes—fortunately, from my point of view—on the conveyor belt separating the materials that come through the facility. It was wonderful to see the contribution that its workers make to the community in Luton, and to hear from the company what model employees they are. I could not help but wonder about their housing issues, but I did not have time to explore them. I am sure that I would have heard some positive stories, and some negative stories.

The right hon. Gentleman also referred to school closures. We should consider health facilities, shops and community facilities, too. In any area where the balance is tilted in favour of one group in the population, all such facilities are going to be under threat.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) outlined his work over several years as a councillor and as a Member of Parliament. He has been assiduous in that work, and I pay tribute to him. He discussed the suitability of housing, and the model estate of High Kingsdown, where family housing has been designed. Owing to studentification, the most appropriate housing for families had been taken away from that sector of the community. Equally, however, the issue is about whether such housing is appropriate for the needs of students. Do students get the best deal on housing? If we do not want them all crammed into HMOs in particular areas, we must look at what we offer them as an alternative. It is another key question, to which I am sure the Minister will want to return when we consider planning.

My hon. Friend also raised the pertinent example of the way in which a change in use class orders has led to progress on a particular issue: the difference with licensed premises. It is a good example for the Government to pick up on. The hon. Member for Southampton, Test again highlighted the gap between HMO planning theory and community reality, and there was consensus in the Chamber about the need to consider the way in which use class orders can be changed.

As a constituency Member, I am affected by the second homes issue, and I am delighted that the hon. Member for City of Durham and her colleagues have set up a group to consider balanced and sustainable communities, because there is a chance for those of us who have been working on the second homes issue to contribute to the debate. My hon. Friends and I have been arguing for many years that a change in use class orders would allow second homes to be classified differently, and we could consider the issue of ghost towns in our coastal communities, too.

I should also like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), who is a member of the all-party group, too. He has drawn to my attention the fact that there have been good student relationships in Bath and that, just as in Bristol, the local authority has established a body to deal with that. However, my hon. Friend has been saddened by the fact that the minority Conservative administration has decided to end that and to stop the progress being made, which is obviously a retrograde step.

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To sum up, one final point to mention is the progress made on the Sustainable Communities Bill, which is dear to the Minister’s heart. He and I have both served on the Committee on that Bill. One issue that he raised in replying to a point that I had made about second homes is that there is real scope for looking at what tools local authorities and local communities need to meet local problems. I hope that, through the progress of the Bill, we will start to get some of those tools and to empower local authorities and local communities to take decisions—in this case on planning orders, in others on spending commitments—to address the specific problems that they face in their local areas.

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