John Healey: Local powers for councils to protect communities and improve standards in the private rented sector

Housing and Planning Minister John Healey today (27/1/10) announced new local powers to control the spread of high concentrations of shared rented homes and to tackle pockets of unsafe and substandard accommodation run by bad landlords.

Mr Healey confirmed new powers for local councils to manage the unplanned spread of Houses in Multiple Occupation (or an HMO) in towns and cities. The cluster of too many shared houses can sometimes cause problems, especially if too many properties in one area are let to short term residents with little stake in the local community. Tenants can also suffer from poor conditions and management of the properties by landlords.

A Government consultation on how to tackle this long-standing issue closed last year. It attracted around 900 responses, published today, from local authorities, residents associations, universities, individuals, MPs, councillors, and campaign groups. The large majority of those who responded supported a change to the so-called Use Classes Order, which defines how a property can be legally used, and the introduction of a definition of what constitutes a HMO.

Mr Healey responded to the consultation by confirming changes to the planning rules, giving local authorities the powers to manage the development of HMOs in their area, in turn helping stem the growth of large pockets of shared homes – which can change the balance and nature of communities. The Minister said that he would legislate so the new rules would come into force by April this year. The changes mean that landlords will need to apply for planning permission in order to establish a new HMO with a change of use, for example when the use of a property is altered from a family home to a shared house, with three or more tenants who are not related. (highlights inserted by author)

The Minister also published plans for councils, giving them extra flexibility to license landlords, requiring safe and quality rented accommodation in neighbourhoods where large numbers of substandard properties can be a magnet for community problems.

In a consultation published today, John Healey proposes to give a general consent for councils to introduce licensing schemes, without seeking permission from central Government, in hotspot areas where landlords do not maintain or manage their properties properly. A general consent would ensure that decisions on the quality of rented homes are made by those who are aware of the local issues and needs of the community. In the future, tenants will see improved standards and councils will be better able to deal with the worst landlords that drag down the neighbourhood.

Mr Healey also confirmed that detailed work is now underway for a new National Landlords Register, to help raise standards of private rented accommodation further. For the first time it will give landlords and tenants easy access to clear advice and support. It will also be the way in which landlords and tenants can be kept informed of basic rights and responsibilities.

John Healey, said:

“Today I am giving councils more local powers to crack down on the worst landlords and stop the spread of high concentrations of shared homes where it causes problems for other residents or changes the character of a neighbourhood.

“Private landlords play a big part in meeting the housing needs of millions so I want to raise the standards and stamp out the worst landlords that drag down the reputation of the rest. Councils know their communities and are best placed to help tenants facing landlords who rent unsafe or substandard accommodation and take little responsibility for the problems caused for neighbours.

“It’s also right that tenants have the information they need about potential landlords, and know what to do when things go wrong. The new National Landlords Register I will set up will give them access to this important advice.

“Everyone deserves a decent and safe place to live and these measures aim to improve standards of the private rented sector at a time when more people look to rent as their first option in the housing market.”

Many towns and cities across the country have suffered the effects of a concentration of HMOs. Market, coastal and university towns have reported problems due to large student populations and HMOs, meaning shops, businesses and pubs simply close down creating ‘ghost neighbourhoods’.

The consultation identified the problems linked with high concentrations of HMOs and looked at ways of dealing with the difficulties.  John Healey today confirmed that new local powers will be in place by April this year. The changes will include a specific definition of an HMO and a general consent for councils to set up local landlord licensing schemes.


Comment on HMO Planning

A summary of responses (to the HMO issue) is available here. Taken from this response, at the end there are suggestions as to what is going to happen next. It is stated:

Government response and next steps

The Government recognises the important contribution HMOs make to the private rented sector by providing housing to meet the needs of specific groups and households and by making a contribution to the overall provision of affordable housing stock.

However, both the research work undertaken by ECOTEC and the results of this consultation have highlighted the problems that are very often associated with high concentrations of HMOs.

In light of the responses to this consultation we have decided to amend the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) order 1987 as amended to provide for a specific definition of an HMO. Planning permission will then be required, where a material change of use has occurred, for properties changing use from C3 (dwelling house) to the new use class.

We have also decided that at the same time as making this change we will amend the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995 to provide that movement between the new HMO Use Class back to the C3 class (dwelling house) will not require planning permission.

The consultation indicated that any definition introduced would be based on that contained in the Housing Act 2004 and in the interests of clarity and consistency we have decided to align the definition in planning legislation and housing legislation as closely as is appropriate.

We recognise that this change will lead to an inevitable rise in planning applications but we believe there is a real need to intervene in this specific problem. The consultation responses and research work have indicated that good practice alone cannot solve the problems encountered in a number of communities. We believe this measure will enable local planning authorities to identify new HMOs with more certainty and target specific areas where there is a need to restore community balance.

The legislation will not apply retrospectively, but landlords who seek to establish a HMO within the terms of the new definition will need to seek advice from the Local Planning Authority on whether a material change of use will occur and thus whether a planning application will therefore be required.

Once the legislation is in place it will be for local planning authorities to ensure that they appropriate planning policies in place to help them manage HMO development in their area.

Next steps

The Government intends to bring forward the necessary secondary legislation to come into effect on the Common commencement date of 6 April 2010.