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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Ian Austin): It is a great pleasure, Mr. Howarth, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) on securing this debate. As she said, she led a similar debate in 2007.
My hon. Friend has made herself an expert on the subject of the private rented sector. She promised her constituents that she would work hard to make progress in tackling the problems associated with that sector when she was first elected, and she has been as good as her word. She has kept that promise and worked tirelessly to lobby Ministers on the need for a change in approach.
My hon. Friend established the all-party group on balanced and sustainable communities, which has become one of the most active and successful of such groups. Her work is a fantastic example of what Members of Parliament can do if they listen to local people, understand the concerns of the community, bring those concerns to the Government's attention and fight and lobby for change. She should be congratulated on everything that she has done. As a result of her work, she can justifiably claim to have changed legislation on the private rented sector. She has achieved more for her constituency in one Parliament than many MPs manage in their careers.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to set out what the Government are doing to meet the concerns that she has expressed. As she said, private rented housing is essential to maintaining a mixed community. A strong and well functioning private rented sector is a vital component of any housing market, and the recent downturn has further highlighted its importance, both in supporting housing growth and in providing homes for young people just starting out on an independent life.
The sector also houses some of the 13,000-plus young people studying at the ancient and distinguished Durham university, which my hon. Friend represents. Students make a substantial contribution to communities. They help to keep communities alive by helping to sustain and regenerate them. However, some of the challenges of private rented housing are particularly acute in areas with high a concentration of students living in certain parts of university towns and cities.
Houses in multiple occupation also make an important contribution to the private rented sector. However, high concentrations of HMOs have raised local problems in some towns and cities, including those with large numbers of students. That is often characterised as the studentification of an area. The presence of a few unprofessional private landlords with badly managed properties in poor condition can increase the likelihood of tenants such as students experiencing health and safety risks.
We want to support the private rented sector in all the roles that it performs. The packages of measures that we announced on 27 January and 3 February 2010 will do precisely that. On 27 January, we announced that we had decided to change the planning rules by introducing a specific definition of a HMO. The rule changes will mean that, from 6 April 2010, any material change of use from a dwelling house to an HMO will require specific consent from the local planning authority.
As my hon. Friend knows, local authorities are already under a statutory duty to license HMOs. Some 321 licences have been issued in County Durham since the scheme came into being. Many of them are in the city and are the result of my hon. Friend's work. Local authorities also have the discretion to extend licensing to those HMOs that do not meet the mandatory HMO licensing requirements. On 27 January, we published a short consultation, seeking views on possible changes to the procedures for establishing discretionary schemes under the Housing Act 2004 for licensing landlords. The options on which we have consulted include introducing a general consent that would enable local authorities to introduce discretionary licensing schemes without having to seek the Secretary of State's specific approval.
I want to congratulate my hon. Friend on the leadership that she has shown in her community. We are keen to ensure that local authorities such as Durham county council see provisions such as the licensing of HMOs under the 2004 Act, as well as other voluntary initiatives, such as landlord accreditation schemes, as a way of developing a partnership with good landlords in their area, and I hope that the local authority will listen to her views and respond to the positive lead that she has taken in her community.
We encourage all local authorities to work closely with university student unions, local landlord organisations, residents' groups and the police to address the issues that can arise. The measures that we announced on 3 February include a national register of landlords, the regulation of letting and managing agents, mandatory written tenancy agreements and extending the protections of assured shorthold tenancies to a wider range of tenants and local lettings agencies.
Dr. Blackman-Woods: Does the Minister agree that the additional measures that the Government have introduced protect tenants as well as local residents and that they should be supported on those grounds as well? Such measures seek to strengthen our tenant legislation, too.
Mr. Austin: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Ensuring that tenants get a better deal is a key part of building a stronger private rented sector, which we need in this country. That is in no small part due to the campaigning work that she has undertaken.
We consulted on all the measures that I listed in the summer. They received a positive response, and we intend to legislate on them at the earliest opportunity. The regulatory elements of that package will help, but we want to go further and embed more support into the system now. To that end, we have announced three areas for immediate work. There will be a private sector tenants' helpline, new research to explore how to capture and disseminate consumer feedback and new scope and support for tenants' voice.
I should like to deal with a couple of the points that my hon. Friend raised. She asked whether it was possible for us to consider greater support for local authorities to buy back homes. She will be aware that it is possible for registered social landlords to do that at the moment. We encourage local authorities to work closely with RSLs. Provisions are in place for local authorities to take over the management of poorly run properties. Empty dwelling management orders and other management orders can be used to ensure that those homes are not causing problems for the wider community.
My hon. Friend also asked about estate agents' boards. Like other advertisements, they are subject to planning rules. Briefly, class 3A of the Town and Country Planning (Control of Advertisements) (England) Regulations 2007, which replaced the 1992 regulations, gives deemed consent for advertisement boards to be displayed by firms such as estate agents, chartered surveyors, auctioneers and valuers to advertise land or premises for sale or to let. Only one board for a dwelling may be displayed, and there are strict limits on its size. The board must be removed not later than 14 days after completion of the sale or grant of the tenancy. Local planning authorities have the normal planning powers to enforce the advertisement rules if they consider it necessary. Local authorities may also apply to the Secretary of State for a direction restricting deemed consent of estate agents' boards in a particular area. Directions have recently been given in Hastings, Leeds and Charnwood.
I thank the Minister for giving way again; he is being very generous. Is he saying that local authorities have the power to stop boards being
displayed in a particular area, especially a conservation area? I have been arguing with my local authority about that issue.
Mr. Austin: Such powers exist, but before a direction is made under regulation 7, the local planning authority would need to convince the Secretary of State that it would improve visual amenity and that there is no other way of effectively controlling the display of estate agents' boards. If my hon. Friend wants to know more about that, I would be happy to arrange for her to meet officials in our Department, so that she can discuss exactly how the procedure works.
In conclusion, may I reiterate my thanks to my hon. Friend for initiating this debate and to the all-party parliamentary balanced and sustainable communities group for its helpful contribution to tackling private sector housing issues? I hope that the responses that I have outlined will go a long way towards addressing the issues that she has identified, and I look forward to working both with her and the all-party group again.