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18 Nov 2010 : Column 363WH—continued

5.8 pm

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): I thank the Front Benchers for that concession.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) on not only securing the debate but making an excellent and knowledgeable speech. I say that as someone who has been both a councillor and an MP for Headingley. I have worked with many campaigners not only from Leeds but from all over the country. Let me put it on record that I think that it is a disgrace that I have only two or three minutes to give the views of the people of Headingley, who have been campaigning on this issue for 10 years. We should have had a debate on this subject before 1 October and before last Tuesday. It is an insult to each and every Member of this House and to Parliament that we have not had the chance to do so. As a big supporter of Parliament, I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will agree with me, even though he will probably not say anything.

This is a cross-party issue. I pay tribute to Andy Reed, the predecessor of my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough, who assiduously worked on this matter; my own predecessor, Harold Best; and all the MPs, councillors and council groups who have taken the subject seriously. It is interesting that the Government say this is all about giving councils more power. In that case, why were councils not consulted about the reversal of the changes in April? Some have taken to legal action to get their views across, which seems a very perverse perspective.

I am proud to be the vice-chair of the all-party group on balanced and sustainable communities, and I work with colleagues with similar problems in similar areas. I always make it clear that what is important is balance and that balance is in everybody's interest. Areas that are 90%, 95% or 100% HMO, as some are, are not in the interests of students. During the summer, those areas become ghost towns; they do not have neighbours to look after the properties and keep an eye on them. The only ones who benefit from that imbalance are the businesses that rely and thrive on it.

There is frustration after 10 years of campaigning all around the country and, let's face it, not being listened to. When we were finally listened to, there was a consultation and a decision, but it has been quickly reversed without consultation with councillors, Members or the all-party group. My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough pointed out that 92% of respondents to the consultation wanted change.

In the limited time that I have, I want to make a few points to the Minister. First, HMOs are an important part of the housing stock, as we all recognise, and in their appropriate place they are to be welcomed, but they do not represent additions to the housing stock because HMOs are nearly always conversions from existing family homes, hence the problem. In nearly all cases, and certainly in virtually every case in my constituency, one more HMO means one less family home.

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The additional burdens on local planning authorities have perhaps been exaggerated. Indeed, I ask the Government to justify the numbers further. The figure of 8,500 additional planning applications per year is cited, but I have not seen grounds for that estimate. Will the Minister write to the all-party group providing that information? There is no real financial burden on local planning authorities from the changes that were announced in April, because the fees for planning applications are intended to cover the costs, and all planning applications for HMO change-of-use should, therefore, be cost neutral.

I must bring the Minister's attention to the letter that the Minister for Housing and Local Government received from Leeds city council, which referred to the costs of article 4 directions. We are all aware of the problem and are trying to resolve it. Only this week, Leeds city council in its entirety-all parties-supported a motion to, first, lobby the Government to say that they think that the Government have made a mistake, and, secondly, to ask for clarification about whether they can use those article 4 directions, because the costs that the chief planning officer in Leeds set out are worrying, as other hon. Members have mentioned. The cost of surveying the housing mix in some areas would be £320,000, and, as the hon. Member for Southampton, Test said, we are in a difficult financial situation. I know that Ministers have addressed the costs of compensation, but concerns remain.

I shall sit down to give my colleague, the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), the chance to speak in this debate, but I regret that we have not had a chance to debate HMOs and the changes properly-a debate that I have twice asked for in business questions. Can that finally happen, so that we have hours to all put our constituents' views across?

5.13 pm

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): Thank you, Mr Chope, for the opportunity to support this excellent debate that my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) secured. I am conscious that I need to be brief, and, as I intervened earlier to get one of my points across, I will be.

I speak as both the North Swindon MP and as a former councillor of 10 years in my constituency. I have seen at first hand what a big problem this is. I have a quick list of reasons why I am so keen to support my hon. Friend. Those reasons include the connected problems of antisocial behaviour and crime; inadequate parking provision-I know from experience that that does not mean that people give up their cars but that they create parking spaces, which is dangerous, particularly for emergency service vehicles; the pressure on rubbish and recycling services; additional strains on local facilities, which was mentioned earlier; and the fundamental change to the nature of an area. Hon. Members have spoken about the impact of HMOs on the quality of life, as I have in earlier contributions, and my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) brought up safety.

I am conscious of time, so I will simply reiterate the point that I made earlier: my constituency is desperate to secure a university. As a councillor, for a number of years I kept making the point that we should link an increase in higher education provision with additional
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halls of residence provision, to ensure that there is not a knock-on impact on to the existing housing stock. I would like the Minister to look at ways to explore whether that is practical.

5.14 pm

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): Like other hon. Members, I congratulate the hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) on securing the debate on an important issue, which I know is close to her constituents' hearts. She will know that, sadly, in many respects the debate is overshadowed by the fact that on Tuesday delegated legislation passed that took away local people's right to object to new HMOs in their areas. We have heard excellent speeches and interventions this afternoon, all of which have reinforced the points that the hon. Lady expressed so well in her speech.

We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), who rightly expressed concern about the nature of the consultation, which I shall touch on shortly. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) gave us the benefit of his wide experience. The hon. Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) argued forcefully for his community, and was matched only by the anger of the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) and the constructive comments from the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson). I shall talk about the constituency of the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) later.

We all know many problems caused by the unchecked spread of HMOs. They include poor-quality conversions; cramped living conditions; loss of mixed and balanced communities; higher, wasteful energy consumption; and a greater risk of fires, and, therefore, concerns over health and safety. In conversations that I have had with the fire service, one thing is clear: the greater the number of bedsits, the greater the risk of fires. That is exacerbated by the lack of hard-wired smoke alarms in those properties. I hope that hon. Members on both sides will attend tomorrow to support the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders), which will help to tackle that serious problem. I hope also that the Government will not oppose it on the basis of the one-in, one-out rule for regulation, particularly when we hear of the tragic case that the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North raised of a death that might have been prevented.

Stripping away the ability of planners to review applications for bedsits as a matter of course does not fill me with confidence that standards and safety for tenants will rise. In our debate on Tuesday, I raised with the Minister the fact that Labour's regulations were introduced after a substantive consultation with stakeholders across the sector. There was no such consultation when the present Government decided to do away with those rights for local people. That is not localism. However, representations were received from a number of interested parties-let me run through a few of them from papers deposited in the Commons Library. The National HMO Lobby was against, the National Organisation of Residents Associations was against, the Planning Officers Society was against, and the Royal Town Planning Institute was against. They commented that the blanket removal of a council's
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ability to manage controversial developments in their area will, in practice, have the opposite effect to the one that the Government want. Torbay, Southampton, Milton Keynes, Exeter, Charnwood, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Haringey, Blackpool, Great Yarmouth, Oxford Nottingham, Southend-on-Sea and Thanet councils were all against the change. Only one authority was in favour: Canterbury.

Right hon. and hon. Members wrote to the Minister opposing his plans to take the rights away, including the hon. Members for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) and for Bath (Mr Foster), from the Liberal Democrats, and the hon. Member for Loughborough, who rightly pointed out that when the Labour Government held a consultation, 92% of respondents were in favour of the rules that we brought in and only 1% were in favour of the article 4 directions that the Minister has introduced.

I am sorry that the Government are not listening to the hon. Lady's utterly reasonable concerns, but that is not surprising. Are the Government really seeking to devolve power to local communities, as they claim? Are they merely trying to smooth the path for developers and landlords at the expense of local residents' rights? We heard on Tuesday and today that the change is about avoiding blanket legislation to protect a few people. All equality legislation is predicated on that premise. Would the coalition do away with that as well? Why are these measures being brought forward in haste? Is it because the changes to housing benefit will increase the number of people seeking single rooms and bedsits? According to the Department for Work and Pensions, something like 88,000 people will seek to move into bedsit-type accommodation.

I am amazed, however, that the Government would pursue a policy that strips away local people's rights. They preach the virtues of localism, but sacrifice those virtuous words when it suits their political aims. Localism is not a creed for this Government; it is a convenience. Local people and local communities deserve better than that.

We have heard a lot from Ministers about the wonders of article 4 powers. We have heard from hon. Members speaking for their local authorities that the powers will not do the job. Plymouth city council expressed the view to me that because the directions will cause the number of HMO applications to rise, while planning fees are not payable for such applications, the change will create additional work load with a net cost loss. I would welcome the Minister's comments on that.

I have not seen any evidence to support the Government's case for the change in regulations. Colleagues here today have argued the case well. I hope that the Minister will respond in detail to the specific questions posed, particularly by the hon. Member for Loughborough.

5.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Andrew Stunell): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond to this debate, which has included well informed and occasionally passionate contributions from Members. I do not want to minimise the underlying point that it is important to ensure that houses in multiple occupation
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are appropriately placed, safe and secure and that they do not have a destructive impact on their neighbourhood. It is certainly not the Government's intention to give a charter of immunity to unscrupulous landlords. On the contrary, we have introduced a targeted process of control that is available to local planning authorities. As quickly as I can due to limited time, I will explain to the House exactly what is proposed, state what progress has been made and, as far as I am able, answer the questions raised.

One point at issue is how widespread the problem is. The Minister for Housing and Local Government gave in the debate on Tuesday and brought to the Committee the estimate made in the Rugg report. He said, "Let's assume for the sake of argument that it's actually 10 times worse than that, and that it's 5%." Members have said today that 20% of the country is affected. In that case, I must say gently to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) that he cannot claim at the same time that 8,500 planning applications is an overestimate. If the size of the problem is anything like what some people have described, the number of applications made will be hugely greater. In fact, if it is a 5% problem, that means that out of the 8,500 applications that the impact assessment anticipates, only 450 would be in problematic areas. That would impose on landlords a £12 million application cost that would be completely unnecessary for 8,000 out of those 8,500. I say to hon. Friends who perhaps believe even more strongly in deregulation than I do that surely there cannot be anything very wrong with that.

Dr Whitehead: Will the Minister give way?

Andrew Stunell: Certainly, but my time is limited.

Dr Whitehead: I understand that, so I will make my intervention brief. The Minister's mathematics simply do not add up. If the problem is as concentrated as he suggests, most of the applications will be made in certain areas and not others. He cannot divide the number arithmetically across the country, conclude what the number of planning applications will be and still stand by the view that it represents only a small number of wards in the whole country.

Andrew Stunell: I can, and I shall debate it with the hon. Gentleman later over a cup of coffee. I point out that that is not at the heart of the Government's case. Our case is quite clear: effective legislation should be in place where there is a genuine problem. We are saying that that will be determined by local planning authorities, not by national legislation.

I understand that the hon. Gentleman has a letter from Southampton city council. I know that Southampton and Portsmouth do not get on well, but Portsmouth has already started the process of imposing an article 4 direction on the whole city. It takes 28 days to do it, and then its 12-month period will run. Perhaps Southampton should learn from Portsmouth. It is dangerous for me to say so, but I will say it.

I commend the Minister for Housing and Local Government on pointing out in the debate on Tuesday that in his constituency of Welwyn Hatfield, Welwyn
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was fine while Hatfield had a problem due to the university of Hertfordshire students and their HMOs. He supposed, and I understand that he told the Committee, that Welwyn Hatfield council would take action on article 4 in relation to part of its area. Several Members who have spoken in this debate mentioned specific areas in their constituencies that were a problem. The hon. Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) mentioned Branksome East and Winton in particular, and the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) discussed three wards in her constituency.

That is exactly the Government's point: the problems are comparatively localised, although serious where they arise. We believe that there is a better way to address them. We believe that the article 4 system will deliver. There is already evidence from Manchester, Portsmouth and Exeter that local authorities are responding and are not finding it unduly burdensome to go down that route. The guidance issued by the Minister for Housing and Local Government on 4 November will, I hope, give them some additional reassurance on that point.

I welcomed and enjoyed the contribution made by the hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan). Yes, we will be undertaking a review, as she requested. Yes, monitoring will take place. I am absolutely sure, given all the eyes turned on us, that if we did not, the House would be quick to remind us of it.

Alison Seabeck: Will the Minister confirm exactly how the monitoring will be done and who will do it?

Andrew Stunell: I will have to write to the hon. Lady on that point, but I am very willing to do so. There are a number of questions to which I might not have the opportunity to respond fully and properly, and I will attempt to catch up with them by correspondence.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) that we absolutely should not trivialise the issue of safety in HMOs. As a type of housing, they have a poor reputation for safety and fire. That is why a licensing system exists and fire brigades pay special attention to them. However, that is not controlled by the planning system. The planning system responds only to applications, or possibly to reports from neighbours that an application should be made. It does not prevent a rogue landlord from turning his house into something else, which might lead to horrific incidents like the one that my hon. Friend reported. The issue is not part of the planning application process, nor is it specifically relevant to the legislation that we are discussing, but fire protection matters are a responsibility of my Department, and I will take his concerns back to the relevant Minister, so that he is fully aware of the situation.

Another point made was that a local planning authority may be too big a body to take a sensitive and informed decision about where an article 4 order is needed. The example given was Cornwall. If Cornwall is too big an area to take a sensitive and informed decision about where HMOs need to be controlled, how much more true is it that central Government is not in the right place or on the right scale to decide? The driver for the change is giving that responsibility back to the locally elected democratic level in this country, which has been disempowered over the years by successive Governments.
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We are turning that process around, which means that we are strongly committed to helping councils and local planning authorities take such decisions and respond to pressure from the ballot boxes in their areas rather than to the dictates of Whitehall. That is what localism-turning the whole top-down control system into a bottom-up one-is all about. I do not apologise for what the
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Minister for Housing and Local Government has said. It is right that the House recognises the importance of localism in this context.

5.30 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).

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