Communities and Local Government - Planning, housing and growthWritten evidence from Nottingham Action Group on HMOs

We hope you can accept this submission from the Nottingham Action Group on Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs) in relation to your forthcoming evidence session with the Ministers for Planning and Housing.

The Nottingham Action Group on HMOs is an alliance of residents groups and individuals that came together to try to address the variety of problems associated with high concentrations of HMOs in parts of the city and surrounding boroughs. Members of the NAG live in a variety of types of housing and neighbourhood, including flats and houses, older terraced properties in the inner city, interwar suburban housing, council housing estates and new “city living” style apartments. Some neighbourhoods are designated as Conservation Areas. Members are drawn together because of the disproportionate levels of problems that arose across our neighbourhoods through the unplanned conversions of a large proportion of homes into houses in multiple occupation, partly, caused by the recent expansion in private rented sector investment. As you will appreciate, HMOs represent a highly profitable part of the housing market since they rely on a model that packs ever more numbers of people into houses that were typically built for single “family style” accommodation.

The problems associated with HMOs are dealt with elsewhere, including in reports published by CLG. There are also further details on the website of the National HMO Lobby, an organisation that brings together local HMO lobby groups from around the country to campaign on this issue. With that in mind this submission reminds Committee members that HMOs are typically associated with environmental blight (noise nuisance, waste management problems etc), disproportionately high levels of crime (where occupants of the HMOs are typically the victims), high levels of residential instability caused by short term tenancies, leading to difficulties in building sustainable, balanced communities, because HMOs typically are aimed at a narrow section of the housing market. When found in concentration these problems are magnified disproportionately, resulting in the need for significant levels of intervention by agencies like the local authority and the police to tackle the problems associated with the housing type. In more balanced neighbourhoods we observe that these problems are usually reduced through “natural balance”, with the intervention of public bodies being the exception rather than the norm.

When residents started to campaign on this issue it quickly became apparent that the planning powers of English local authorities were deficient when it came to dealing with HMO conversions. HMOs were a different type of property, but had no use class until recently. This meant that conversions could not be subject to proper scrutiny by neighbours or by the planning authority. Along with others we lobbied long and hard, with the support of our own MPs, to get this issue addressed. Just before the last General election the government put in place arrangements that would at long last allow local people the chance to at least comment on conversions of properties to HMOs as local planners considered them. Whilst this was set aside by the Coalition Government, the last Minister was sympathetic to the problems caused by HMOs, but only wanted local councils with problems to take on the responsibility of putting in place the requirement for planning applications. We supported our local authority Nottingham City Council to introduce an Article 4 Direction that requires proposed HMO conversions to apply for permission. This commenced earlier this year.

As HMO letting is highly profitable, landlords regularly seek to increase occupancy rates of properties. This manifests itself in conversions of garages to bedrooms, loft and basement conversions, extensions to properties on whatever elevations are possible, large dormer extension to roofs and significant internal alterations. The cumulative impact of all these changes is often to destroy the visual character of an area, as well as to increase occupancy density to levels way over that which the houses and neighbourhood were originally designed to cope with. Much of this is carried out under permitted development rights.

We are very concerned that the proposed relaxation of permitted development rights will increase the problems of unregulated development across our neighbourhoods. The current regulations, are, when used in the way we have seen, already too relaxed. We could show plenty of inappropriately designed developments that use the maximum allowances under permitted development with disastrous result to local amenity. In addition there is no evidence whatsoever that the existence of planning regulations, that try to bring some sort of order to this situation, have ever created a block on investment. Property prices in our neighbourhoods remain high, and have become unaffordable for owner occupiers, and rents set by HMO prices are at levels too high for people seeking family accommodation to afford.

Increasing the ability for owners to carry our further property extensions without recourse to planning permission will simply serve to increase the scale of the problems already faced in our neighbourhoods. It will be used by landlords to increase household occupancy even further, exacerbating the problems caused by high levels of occupancy in small areas, and reducing the already limited powers of the local authority to do anything about this. The consequences will be disastrous for our neighbourhoods, and what is left of the communities within them.

Moreover, the proposals completely undermine any concept that local people, along with their local council, should decide what is best for the areas they live in. Taken together with proposals to remove the ability of council’s to decide applications if they are deemed to be “too slow” (and hand the power to a centralised Planning Inspectorate with no level of local accountability whatsoever), makes a mockery of the rhetoric about “localism”.

Our own local authority seems to be extremely keen to promote building and development. It also has the knowledge (or believes it does) about which sites would be best developed. If there is a feeling that detailed planning permission is some sort of block on getting those sites developed, then perhaps there would be an argument for a slimmed down procedure. We are not aware of anyone locally arguing for that, but if it was the case then the Government could give powers to local planning authorities to relax planning regulations in such areas, following consultation with local people. Then the council could decide if this was the right approach. Instead Ministers seem to want to impose their analysis of the problem on to local people, without any thought to the consequences in areas where if successful neighbourhoods are to be rebuilt we would argue that more planning powers are required, not less.

These proposals will do nothing to stimulate development in areas that need it, but could create further problems in areas that certainly don’t need any more problems to deal with.

We hope you can consider these points before your hearing.

September 2012

Prepared 20th December 2012