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Private Rented Sector

Volume 478: debated on Tuesday 24 June 2008

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Watts.]

It is a pleasure to open the debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. When I go door to door, talking with local residents, as I do every week, few issues are raised with me as often as the pressures and problems caused throughout my constituency by houses in multiple occupation and flat conversions in residential areas. The problems are all too often noise, poor refuse disposal, unkempt gardens and parking nuisance, and sometimes poor living conditions, too. If one house in a street is like that, it is a problem for neighbours. If there are half a dozen, that corrodes people’s quality of life to the point at which they start thinking about selling, and if they do sell, the chances are that it will be to another landlord seeking to let HMOs. As the problems compound, areas can be locked into a vicious circle, with a downward spiral in local amenity.

The private rented sector accounts for 26 per cent. of dwellings in Oxford—about twice the national average—and the pressures and problems of multiple occupation are having a major impact on residential amenity and even on the sense of community in parts of the city. Multiple occupation, which used to be concentrated in one or two areas, is spreading throughout the city, with an unacceptable impact on the quality of life not only for neighbours but for many of those who reside in HMOs.

One of the first things that I did in the House 20 years ago was to introduce a private Member’s Bill on fire safety standards in multiply occupied houses—the Fire Safety Information Bill—which was killed off by the Conservative Government. It is scandalous that council inspectors still find that as many as 17 per cent. of properties lack smoke alarms or basic fire safety precautions.

The immediate catalyst for my seeking today’s debate was the fact that the Department for Communities and Local Government is considering an application from Oxford city council for the extension of HMO licensing across the city. I should like to concentrate on the case for such licensing, some thoughts that I have on enforcement and how it should be paid for, and the need for much tighter planning control over HMOs—a matter pressed last year by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) in his excellent ten-minute Bill.

I do not suggest that all the problems in my area can be solved by tougher control and regulation. They arise partly from what I often describe as the pressure cooker effect in Oxford of an artificially tight green belt constraining the supply of housing, alongside a very successful economy, two universities stimulating huge demand for single-person housing, and large-scale inward commuting. We need urgently to release more land for housing on the edge of Oxford to meet the need for that accommodation as well as for family housing.

I stress that I do recognise the positive contribution of good landlords as well as the problems caused by bad ones. Most of what I suggest would, I think, be supported by responsible landlords. Indeed, one letting agent in my constituency has written in support of the Oxford city bid, pointing out that a robust licensing scheme, along with the accreditation of letting agents—which I also support—would prevent the good landlords being undercut by the bad.

Let me focus on licensing. I welcome the Government’s introduction of licensing through the Housing Act 2004. I welcome the current review of the private rented sector, looking generally at standards of accommodation and the rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants, and I welcome the more recently announced specific review of HMOs, which will feed into the wider private sector review. I also welcome the progress being made with the scheme to protect tenancy deposits. Important and positive steps have been taken, but we still, certainly in Oxford, need to go further.

The Oxford experience is that where licence applications are required and have been made, that is making a difference. Mandatory licensing has resulted in improvements to more than 70 per cent. of the houses for which applications have been received. However, the mandatory scheme applies only to houses of three or more storeys and with five or more occupants. The city council has applied to the DCLG for general city-wide licensing of HMOs, and I strongly support that proposal. It is the only way in which we will have a scheme that is readily understood by the public, tenants and landlords alike. If approved, it will provide valuable experience of a model that will certainly be applicable elsewhere.

There is already evidence—we always have to be alert to perverse consequences—of some landlords adjusting the number of tenants in their HMOs to avoid mandatory licensing. If additional licensing were introduced only in specific areas of the city, there would be a real risk of that displacing unlicensed HMOs to the other parts of the city. That happened under an earlier registration scheme.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I wonder whether he has seen in Oxford a situation similar to the one that I have seen in Hove and Portslade, which has the highest number of HMOs outside London. Tenants can move into an area, but the issue is not specifically the number of tenants in a house; it is the number of occupants. If there is a large number of such HMOs in an area that was made up of family streets, that can drive families out of the area.

I agree. I am sure that my hon. Friend’s experience in her constituency is similar to what we are encountering in Oxford. She is right. I referred to the vicious circle effect as the growth of multiple occupation compounds itself, often greatly to the detriment of community life and general and residential amenity.

There is a further advantage to a general licensing scheme in Oxford. Although councils do currently have responsive powers, tenants in HMOs are often vulnerable, unable to complain, or concerned that doing so will prompt an eviction. There is a wider issue in that respect, which I will come back to, but for HMOs proactive licensing by the council would be an enormous help. I have heard that Ministers are cautious about designations that cover whole local authority areas. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to take a close look at that—

That sedentary intervention might have come from the direction of the Parliamentary Private Secretary. I greatly welcome his support in this matter. Care and effectiveness, rather than caution, is what we need. Residents are understandably looking to us as Members of Parliament and to the Government to get a grip on the issue. I put it to the Minister that that will not be done on a piecemeal basis in areas such as mine, where all parts of the city are to some extent affected.

A related issue that I would urge the Minister and those undertaking the current reviews to take a close look at is the operation of planning law with regard both to those HMOs that do not currently require planning consent, and to the guidance on what is acceptable in terms of planning approvals where those are required. The present position is unacceptable, both because many conversions of family houses to HMOs do not require planning permission and because, even where they do, local authorities are often apprehensive about decisions being overturned on appeal.

In a ten-minute Bill last year, my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test proposed that the Housing Act 2004 definition of a family be brought into planning law so that all relevant conversions to non-family housing involving more than four tenants would require planning consent. I urge the Minister to revisit that proposal, or indeed to look at any other practical means of bringing such conversions within the scope of planning control if he is not convinced that my hon. Friend’s proposal is the way forward.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the problem that he has outlined relates to the fact not only that there are different definitions of a household in planning and housing law but that the numbers of households covered by planning and housing law are very different? What most people would regard as HMOs will therefore escape any regulation unless the two definitions are aligned. Indeed, about 11,500 of the 12,000 HMOs in Southampton effectively escape the registration system because of the difference in the definitions.

Indeed. My hon. Friend makes a good point. We all acknowledge his expertise, the attention that he has given to this issue and the good ideas that he has come up with. As he says, it cannot be good for people’s understanding of the rules or their compliance with them if they do not know where they stand in relation to the housing legislation on the one hand or the planning legislation on the other. That is bound to be a recipe for confusion and deep frustration among local communities and their elected representatives. People see that there is a problem and that the change sweeping through their communities is producing enormous pressure, but they can regulate, and they have the power to shape, only a small number of developments, while the rest just carry on. That makes people feel powerless and, in some cases, angry that the system is not more responsive to their needs.

If family houses were being converted for some other business purpose, planning consent would be required. I could take the Minister to streets in my constituency—I am sure that my hon. Friends the Members for Southampton, Test and for Hove (Ms Barlow) could too—where one house after another is being converted from family to multiply occupied use. That totally changes the area’s character, but there is next to no planning control.

The right hon. Gentleman might be aware that the aspect and character of large parts of Manchester were completely changed in the early part of the 20th century, when houses went from being owned by fairly wealthy families to multiple occupancy. It looks as if that is a one-way street and that those houses and areas will now never be anything other than multiple occupancy.

Indeed, and it is that apparently irrevocable change in the character of areas that leaves people so concerned. Hon. Members should not, however, get me wrong on this, because I of course accept that those who live in multiple occupation need somewhere to live. In university cities, we certainly want to keep up the pressure on the universities to provide as much purpose-built accommodation for students as they can on their own land. However, changing demographic patterns in society, such as smaller households, mean that a whole variety of people need accommodation, and they are also entitled to the decent standards that a properly licensed and regulated system can provide.

I welcome the responsible manner in which the right hon. Gentleman is approaching this real problem, but we must take great care to avoid regulation that removes low-cost housing, because the tenants who need it are often very vulnerable. However, the root cause of the problem has been the massive demand for low-cost housing over recent years, and the biggest factor driving that is not demographic change but uncontrolled immigration from certain countries in the European Union. I do not wish to be provocative, but we must address that because it is a valid area of public concern and public policy.

The hon. Gentleman advances a familiar argument. Of course, migration is part of this. In Oxford, it certainly plays a small part, alongside pressure from students and changes in the nature of households. The hon. Gentleman will perhaps call a debate on immigration, but I should point out that the Government are introducing the points-based immigration system. Furthermore, when he speaks of migrants—certainly in the context of Oxford—he should look at who does much of the essential caring work in our hospitals and care homes. If he does, he will see the benefits that migrants bring to our community. I celebrated Filipino independence day the other Saturday at a huge event at the John Radcliffe hospital. That hospital would not be able to function to the high standard that it does if it were not for the contribution of members of the Filipino and other communities, and those people are entitled to somewhere decent to live.

A bone of contention in areas of multiple occupation where the houses are occupied by students is that no council tax is paid. The Minister can point to the adjustments in revenue support grant, which are supposed to compensate for that, but I am sceptical about whether those adjustments fully reimburse local communities for the direct and indirect costs of concentrations of multiple occupation by students. I proposed to the Lyons review of local government finance that owners of multiply occupied properties should pay a supplementary council tax or charge, which would be dedicated to meeting the costs of a fully enforceable licensing scheme, including the knock-on effects on parking and the nature of the streets and the additional cost of refuse collection. I urge the Minister and his colleagues to look again at that.

One argument that is sometimes made against such proposals, and indeed against licensing in general, is that the cost would be passed on to tenants. In a competitive rental market, however, the cost might not be passed on—at least not in total. In any event, the extra safety and security and the improvement to the living environment that such a scheme would provide would be excellent value for tenants.

I also press the Minister to look at the problem of retaliatory eviction, which is of wider relevance in the private rented sector. Fast-track eviction is used against tenants who try to secure their statutory rights to repairs or improvements on health and safety grounds. It cannot be right that people go in fear of eviction just for raising repair and safety issues, but evidence from the English housing survey shows that although 21 per cent. of private tenants were dissatisfied with their landlords’ repairs and maintenance of the property, only a quarter tried to enforce their rights. The fear of eviction was a significant factor in explaining why people did not raise such issues with their landlords.

As the Minister will be aware, Citizens Advice, together with the Child Poverty Action Group, Shelter, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and others, are campaigning against this abuse of section 21 of the Housing Act 1988. It is important to note that they are saying not that section 21 should be abolished but that its use should be restricted where a reasonable request for repairs has been made by a tenant but has not been addressed by the landlord. Other mandatory and discretionary grounds for eviction would continue to apply. I very much hope that the Minister can give an assurance that the matter is being looked at and that he will add it to the list of issues that I am asking him to ensure that the Rugg and Rhodes review covers. As I am sure he is aware, it is important to deal with the issue if we are to guarantee the reasonable rights of tenants and ensure that standards in private rented accommodation are raised, as we all want them to be.

Given the growth in student numbers, changing demographic patterns—for example, the increase in single households—the crisis of affordability in the south-east and particularly in Oxford, and the acute shortage of social housing, it is clear that the regulation of private rented housing is a challenge of growing importance. Our legal framework and our planning and enforcement procedures must be urgently updated to meet that challenge.

In closing, I want to underline the fact that the matters I have raised are pressing. They demand a response from the Government that will assure residents in areas under stress—tenants and their neighbours alike—that their concerns are not only understood but being acted on. If the Minister would like to visit my constituency to see at first hand the problems and the need for action, I should be pleased to welcome him.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) on his good fortune in securing the debate, on his choice of subject, and on the reasoned and persuasive way in which he presented his case. A long time ago I spent three years in the city that he has the privilege of representing. Whether the college that I occupied was a house in multiple occupation I am not quite sure; however, the issues that he has mentioned, of poor-quality accommodation outside the colleges, are as live now as they were then.

Housing is nearing the top of the political agenda at the moment, having spent quite a long time in the relegation zone. The Government’s ambitious target of 3 million homes by 2020 is looking increasingly ambitious. One could argue that of the three main housing sectors—owner-occupation, social renting and private renting—the one that we are debating is the only one operating effectively at the moment. Supply is way behind demand for social renting—below the levels of the 1990s. In the owner-occupation sector, builders have stopped buying land and are closing building sites, and mortgage finance is scarce and expensive. One could argue that the sector that is broadly in balance is private renting, with some 2.6 million homes being rented from more than 500,000 private landlords. Of course we need more good-quality rented accommodation, and since the market for private renting was liberalised in the 1980s there has been a continuing and steady expansion in supply. Indeed, I see from The Independent of 9 June:

“Demand for rental properties is at record levels”.

In a debate about the private rented sector, of course one needs to consider the issues of regulation that the right hon. Gentleman has touched on, but one should also look at the broader issues of the role of the private rented sector, to see what more might be done to encourage responsible supply.

I confess that when I saw that there was to be a debate about the regulation of the private rented sector a frisson ran through me, because we must not go back to the bad old days of statutory rent control and lifetime security of tenure, often lasting through two generations. There may be some who want to turn back the clock to regulation of that kind. I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman did not make that case. With the housing market in the fragile state that it is now in, and with the need to reinforce measures to increase the supply of housing, we should not deter potential investors with unnecessary bureaucratic controls and regulations. Let us indeed have a sharp look at the abuses, some of which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned; but I need to be persuaded that the universal and rather bureaucratic registration scheme advocated by some is the right way forward, not least because I suspect that the costs would filter through to the tenants. In parallel with the issue of regulation that the right hon. Gentleman has raised, we should debate measures to promote the continued healthy growth and expansion of the private rented sector. It provides flexibility and choice and helps people in housing need. Indeed, with rents underpinned by housing benefit, the private rented sector has a key role to play in helping local authorities to meet their statutory obligations on homelessness.

The report of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, “The Supply of Rented Housing”, provides a helpful background to the debate. I found it a good and balanced report. I should have liked a little more on pages 96 to 98 about what more could be done to encourage the private rented sector, to balance the slightly longer section on how we might regulate it. However, in paragraph 308 the Committee says:

“We recommend that CLG investigate, in cooperation with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Treasury, reforming the taxation system and introducing other measures:

to promote greater institutional investment in the private rented sector”.

I want to spend a moment examining that proposition. Ever since the sector was liberalised in the 1980s there has been an imperative to get serious, respectable, long-term institutional funds invested in property for rent. If quoted companies and pension funds would invest in that sector of the market, that would provide responsible and stable institutional funding, underpinning or replacing the rather fragile investment to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. Of course they would employ good agents to manage the property—possibly registered social landlords. That would generate additional investment in housing.

The right hon. Gentleman focused on HMOs in Oxford, but I hope that he will forgive me if I consider the slightly broader aspect of his debate—the regulation of the private rented sector—rather than wandering around Headington, Cowley, Blackbird Leys and other attractive areas in his constituency. When the Conservatives left office 11 years ago most of the spadework for the new framework for the private rented sector had been done. We had consulted the Council of Mortgage Lenders, the British Property Federation and the City, and the response was very positive. There was all-party support for a new fiscal regime for what were called real estate investment trusts. There were models for the approach in other parts of the world, and this country pioneered investment trusts for shares. A REIT is in effect an investment trust for property.

After some delay the Government took the debate forward, and I give them credit for that. We had the Kate Barker report, and then in March 2004 the Treasury produced a consultation paper, which stated at paragraph 1.14 that a real estate investment trust

“structure in the UK would therefore set a challenge for the industry to encourage development of new housing, which managed within”

a REIT structure. It continued:

“Improvements and expansion to this sector could enhance efficiency and flexibility in the housing market”

and added:

“The Government is keen to encourage greater renewal in the property sector, and the development of new...residential buildings”.

Finally, it said that the Government wanted

“to stimulate greater development activity in the residential market providing a vehicle into which new properties can be converted and managed more efficiently.”

It is a matter of deep regret that some two years after the Finance Bill 2006 changed the regime for REITs, there has not, to my knowledge, been a single REIT investing in residential property. There have been several REITs, but they have been for commercial property, where there is not the same demand for fresh investment. If one wants to invest in commercial property there are many vehicles for that, and there is no shortage of institutional capital for commercial property as there is for accommodation for rent. Why has the Kate Barker vision not been achieved? Why have the Government’s ambitions, as described in the passages I quoted, not been secured? Will the Minister now kick-start the debate to get respectable institutional funders engaged in the market, to the benefit of those who need good-quality accommodation for rent?

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the review of the private rented sector that the Government have announced. I am not absolutely convinced that the issue of increasing investment and supply is at the top of its agenda. The fourth in a series of bullet points asks:

“Given the recent regulatory changes, what more should or could be done to ensure a professionally managed and quality sector to meet demand pressures?”

I do not think that that quite takes the trick as to the urgency of reviewing the fiscal regime and restarting the dialogue with potential investors to get things going.

I have a brief final point to make. We need to harness the resources of the private rented sector much more effectively than we have so far, to help those in desperate housing need. Many local authorities have developed a dialogue with their private landlords, who have rent deposit schemes, rent guarantee schemes and the like. All too often, however, local landlords are still reluctant to take nominees. I hope that the Minister will do all that he can to promote a wider and deeper partnership between local authorities and responsible private landlords, to make sure that good-quality accommodation is made available to those who are confronted with homelessness, and that there is not exclusive reliance on the social rented sector. I wonder whether it is time to dust down a scheme called HAMA—housing associations as managing agents—by which the local authority or housing association takes a lease on a property owned by a private landlord and guarantees the private landlord the income stream from the rent, vacant possession when he wants the property back, and the return of the property in the same good condition as when it was leased.

The scheme has much to commend it. The landlord gets a reliable tenant with a guaranteed income stream, namely the local authority, and, crucially, the tenant, who may well be vulnerable, gets a responsible managing agent, namely the housing association or local authority. It seems to me that there is merit in driving forward that scheme, or re-activating it if it is not being used as extensively as it might. Given the amount of property overhanging the market, some of it might be acquired using back-to-back finance from the local authority.

I welcome this debate. There is a case for reconsidering the regulatory regime; it is somewhat ramshackle. I have no objection to the sort of review proposed by the right hon. Gentleman, but given the state of the housing market, a review of regulation needs to be accompanied by radical measures to increase supply.

I was anxious to be present at this debate, although I apologise to you, Mr. Benton, and to hon. Members that owing to Committee commitments, I cannot be present for its entirety. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) on securing this debate. I shall add a few thoughts to his excellent contribution.

The problems in my right hon. Friend’s constituency are problems that I share in mine. Communities and streets in his city and mine change in character over time as a result of how homes change in use. Often, landlords purchase properties, undertake no work on them whatever and change their character completely by placing six or seven people in them, where perhaps a family or two or three people had lived there before. That has an effect on the property not only in terms of the change in management, the exterior view and how it fits into the community around it but in terms of the planning aspect, how many cars are outside and how the health and safety arrangements and environmental health are managed. It has a variety of effects in areas that, if not for that change of use, would be the proper province of our planning laws.

I am prompted to intervene by my hon. Friend’s reference to parking. I do not know whether this is the case in Southampton—I imagine that it is—but parking is another problem in what are often dense residential areas. The solution is often the introduction of a residents parking scheme. Under such schemes in Oxford, each of the residents of multiply occupied houses is entitled to apply for a permit, and then we wonder why there is not enough space on the road to park all the cars. It is because they are crowding out other residents.

My right hon. Friend makes a strong point. If half the residents who move into such a property have cars, the number of cars on that property doubles, as does the number of spaces required to park them if there is no off-road parking, with the effects that he described.

I should say immediately that it is not that steps have not been taken in recent years to recognise how rented accommodation affects communities and how tenants in rented accommodation, and indeed good landlords, can be protected properly. I take on board the suggestions made by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who emphasised that a good and viable rental sector must operate in order to fill the needs of a section of the population, and that the landlords of those properties need reasonable circumstances in which to rent them. I suggest that the Housing Act 2004, among other things, created circumstances that benefit good landlords and disbenefit the occasional bad landlords who, unfortunately, purchase properties with no thought for how they might be managed and then simply let them run down, with the consequences that I have described.

The tenant deposit scheme has benefited good landlords and tenants alike, and has worked well. Under the registration system introduced in the Housing Act 2004, good landlords can be licensed and participate in arrangements to ensure that properties are well maintained as far as health and safety and environmental features are concerned. I suggest, however, that those schemes do not take into account a good proportion of what any member of the public realises to be homes in multiple occupation. That is a central feature of this debate. A house occupied by six or seven people is, by anybody’s reckoning, a house in multiple occupation, yet in law it may not be, depending on what kind of law is applied.

The Housing Act 2004 introduced a new definition, for registration purposes, of a house in multiple occupation: it is a house in which a number of people live who are unrelated to each other, whether or not they live as one household. Under planning law, a house in multiple occupation must be divided into separate flats, and each person in that house must have separate services. Otherwise, in most circumstances, the house is regarded under planning law as a house in shared occupation and not a house in multiple occupation.

That means that virtually all student houses in cities such as Oxford, Southampton and Brighton are not regarded as houses in multiple occupation for planning purposes, when everybody can see that they are. A landlord who wishes to purchase a property and move in six or seven people—they may well be students, although I do not wish to make any anti-student comments, because it is extremely important that students have somewhere to live in the cities where they study—can do so without making any changes to the house or being subject to any planning regulation whatever.

A full registration under the Housing Act 2004 makes it possible to register smaller HMOs under the definition in the Act. As my right hon. Friend said, there is still some concern about whether the registration of a whole city is what was envisaged under the Act’s special registration arrangements, or whether particular red-lined areas of HMO stress might instead be the concentration.

The effect on Southampton can be seen in terms of those two possibilities. It is certainly true that Southampton has areas of high HMO stress. On one street, for example, some 55 out of 75 homes are now HMOs. In one small estate, built relatively recently in my constituency, out of 25 houses, 19 have now been purchased as HMOs, and as a result the whole nature of the estate has changed rapidly within just a few years. In Southampton, out of an estimated 12,000 HMOs, only 500 are registered under the Housing Act with its current definition.

If we were to align the definitions in the Housing Act with those in planning, and recognise that in reality there is a change of use when a house is purchased and placed under the sort of management that I have described, matters could be very different, and local authorities could regulate to a much greater extent how that change takes place. Of course, that would place an onus on local authorities to institute a sensible planning framework in which those changes could be reflected. They would also have to address questions about, for example, the number of HMOs in a particular area relative to properties in other kinds of use and about planning arrangements.

The simple fact that planning and housing legislation were aligned would not mean, of course, that all local authorities would have to put in place those arrangements. Many local authority areas have a low HMO density, so it would not make much sense, and would serve no great purpose, to have an excessive regulatory regime in such areas. However, to provide local authorities with the ability to say to a landlord, “You need planning agreement for your proposed changes; we will not necessarily withhold it, but we will consider their wider effect on the community first,” would represent a modest but important change to the regulation of this market.

Would it not be useful to consider housing needs as well as the HMO density? I come from a city with more than 10,000 people on the waiting list, and a large number of families in my area are living six to a two-bedroom flat, for example, and need larger properties. The size of properties on offer is also important.

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and we ought to consider the economics of many such arrangements: seven people paying fairly substantial sums per room in a property where they live and share facilities will always effectively outbid a family under the same sort of circumstances. I do not blame landlords for choosing that route—that is the economics of their housing arrangement—but nevertheless it changes the complexion of neighbourhoods. Furthermore, families who might otherwise reasonably expect a house to be available on the rented market find themselves excluded. Although it is important that the rented market overall is kept healthy, surely it is not right ultimately that such distortion should be endemic, as it appears to be, in the rented market.

Modest changes in the way that local authorities can consider the operation of HMOs would be widely welcomed in many towns and cities across the country. I welcome the Government’s recent announcement of a review of the presence and effect of HMOs, and I hope that consultation papers will follow. If that ameliorates the situation, I will welcome it greatly. None of the suggestions heard today are panaceas that will return communities to an imagined past in which people skipped down the street happy and contented, with their front walls beautifully kept up and hedges trimmed. However, they might change the circumstances under which people view their communities, so that everyone—be it those living in student houses, rented properties, either as families or individuals, or owner-occupiers—can live in greater harmony, understanding the circumstances applying to each of their forms of tenure. If we can make that change, we will have taken a very welcome step forward for housing and communities.

Once again, I welcome the Minister to our weekly Westminster Hall housing debate. Life would not be the same without it—indeed, I propose that even during recesses we set aside one and a half hours a week to have these conversations. I also congratulate the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) on raising this debate, which we have had before under other circumstances, but which has been brought into sharp focus today. I wish to challenge the Minister on matters that we discussed during proceedings on the Housing and Regeneration Bill, when the Government made it quite clear that they were resistant to further regulation of the private rented sector. That sets the context for this debate.

HMOs are obviously an important element of the overall housing stock, and without them the pressure on that stock would be even greater. However, HMOs are also home to some of the most vulnerable tenants, including those with mental health problems, drug or alcohol dependency and learning difficulties. Furthermore, occupants of houses comprising bedsits are six times more likely to die as a result of fire than adults in an ordinary house. Some 35 per cent. of all fire deaths, and 39 per cent. of all fire injuries, occur in HMOs. In 2001 alone, more than 22,500 fires broke out in HMOs resulting in 116 deaths and more than 4,700 injuries. A risk assessment on fire safety in HMOs carried out by Entec for the then Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions concluded that in houses converted into bedsits the risk of death is one in 50,000—six times higher than in comparable single-occupancy houses. However, in bedsits comprising three or more stories, the risk is one in 18,600—16 times higher than in single-occupancy houses. Those figures are really quite shocking.

I have worked extensively with Sussex fire brigade on the problem of fires in HMOs and had experience of a terrible fire in an HMO in Hove before becoming an MP. Does the hon. Gentleman think that the statutory introduction of fire sprinklers in HMO conversions and new builds would solve some of the problems?

The hon. Lady speaks from personal and tragic experience in her constituency and makes a very sensible point. Her strategic suggestion is that regulation is required to reduce the risk of death and injury resulting from fires in HMOs. I am sympathetic to such an idea.

Why are the Government willing to preside over such a differential in relative risk between single-occupancy houses and those under state regulation, and the private rented HMO sector? Are the Government really not willing to legislate? In the Minister’s defence, Britain is in the grip of a housing crisis. We need to be more imaginative in finding solutions to that problem, and that means increasing housing density and making the most of brownfield development and the maximum use of the UK’s 850,000 empty homes. However, we must recognise that the Government are under pressure, because although the Minister is unlikely to admit it, if they were to regulate HMOs and deal with overcrowding, it would add to the housing crisis. If accommodation density were reduced to improve its quality, the people displaced from such overcrowding would necessarily have to join the homeless list. I am sympathetic to the unspoken argument that the Government have to address, but we must recognise that they have a choice: either they can tacitly accept that the absence of regulation is, in some ways, necessary if the housing crisis is not to be exacerbated; or, more courageously, they can admit that because the private rented sector plays such a vital role by providing homes for more than 2 million families, it is difficult to see how one can square the circle.

My second question is therefore whether the Minister is willing to be candid and to acknowledge that one consideration, limitation and resisting factor to such regulations is the Government’s private acceptance that to introduce them would make the homelessness problem even worse. There is no shame in admitting that. If the Minister were to say so, I do not see how it could be harmful, because after all, successive Governments have done exactly the same. If the Government do, and the Minister can, admit it, however, we can start talking about what we can realistically do to use the private rented sector—regulated, as it could be—as part of the solution, while handling the difficulty of causing more displaced individuals and homeless people. If we can improve the image of the rented sector by encouraging best practice and making the most of new legislation, the benefits for Britain’s housing market could be significant. The benefits for the residents would be unquestionable, but more than anything, we could seriously start to close the differential between houses and homes under state regulation and those in the private rented sector, which as right hon. and hon. Members have pointed out, remain largely unregulated.

I want to think about some specifics and to ask the Minister three further questions. The tenancy deposit scheme that was introduced in the Housing Act 2004 offers real opportunities for landlords and tenants—the issue has been touched on indirectly already—because it will protect both the reputations of good landlords and those tenants who might have had bad experiences. It will also encourage landlords and tenants into the sector. The scheme should be not an encumbrance but a promoter of good practice and a safeguard for tenants and landlords if problems arise. As far as I can see, however, it has not had a very wide take-up. Does the Minister have a view on that? If so, does he agree that we should more assertively drive that very useful element of the 2004 Act, which the Government introduced, in order to improve the relationship between landlords and tenants and to give landlords more confidence to rent out their property, even if they have previously had bad experiences? That could release accommodation and improve the situation.

The Minister may know that with one quarter of the energy that we use in this country being consumed in our homes, the Liberal Democrats believe that energy efficiency in the home is fundamental to tackling climate change. As part of the drive to create homes that are more energy-efficient, we would introduce a scheme to reassure householders that standardised packages will improve energy efficiency. We propose an energy mortgage: a long-term loan, secured on the property and repaid through the household’s energy bill. Such a “warm home” package would normally ensure that the householder’s energy bill falls by at least as much from the reduced energy use as it rises to pay for the energy saving package. Does the Minister have a view on that? It would take away the large up-front cost when the money was invested and ensure that it was paid back in a sensible and measured long-term way. It sounds like common sense to me, and I cannot see how the Government can achieve their environmental targets unless they take on a similar scheme. I hope that the Minister will say whether he has any sympathy with that Liberal Democrat proposal.

The Government have done good work in improving standards in social housing, but they have almost entirely disregarded the private sector. Once again, we return to the difficulty of a two-tier scheme. The difficulty could have been resolved during proceedings on the Housing and Regeneration Bill, but it was not. The issue is writ large in the energy efficiency situation, because private tenants are now least likely to have double glazing, central heating, insulation or draught-proofing. It is also difficult for private landlords to invest in improving their properties in that way, because although most landlords would prefer to provide a decent home to their tenants, the necessary repairs can be uneconomic.

In order to help the private sector to deal with that situation, will the Government consider cutting the VAT that is paid on repairs to homes, potentially making the improvements needed affordable for landlords? We would also encourage elderly or disabled tenants to invest their winter fuel payments in energy efficiency products. Will the Government do anything to support the same kind of thing?

The wider social repercussions of encouraging good landlording can be significant. In dealing with antisocial behaviour, for instance, the Government have tended to focus on monitoring the behaviour of the tenant. I have argued that the promotion of good standards of housing would also lead to a reduction in antisocial behaviour by helping to create a climate of responsibility that encouraged responsible tenants and owners. My final question to the Minister therefore is whether he would be willing to enter a serious dialogue about the opportunities for creating sustainable communities.

I am very sceptical about whether antisocial behaviour orders are doing much good. Indeed, they are a badge of honour in many places. Considerate construction—bearing in mind the human need for association—and natural flow lines have created successful local communities and done much more to reduce antisocial behaviour than any investment in policing and in suppressing the opportunity to be a bad tenant or neighbour. Is the Minister willing to enter a sensible and, I hope, cross-party dialogue to see whether we can establish what, in terms of the built environment, differentiates successful from unsuccessful communities? That would be very important for the private sector, because, assuming we hit upon some general guidelines, we could require such good practice to be built into it. We do need to build more social housing, of course, but we do not have to depend on the majority of it being built in the public sector. Similarly, we do not have to run away from the benefits of the HMO sector simply because, currently, it is difficult for some people to achieve the standards that they wish.

I am glad that we are having the debate and very pleased to have had the opportunity to ask the Minister those half-dozen or so questions. I hope that he will engage in dialogue rather than sidestep them or say that we cannot reopen the issue and that he is fundamentally opposed to regulating the private rented sector. If he must take that line, he will need to explain why. Conversely, if he sees some merit in ensuring that the same standards apply to the private rented sector as they do to the public rented sector, notwithstanding the fact that we have missed the opportunity with the Housing and Regeneration Bill, I hope that we can find another way to ensure that those standards are improved. No one can doubt that multiple occupancy will continue and that we will continue to depend on the private rented sector for a significant proportion of housing, but no one can doubt either that unless there is some regulation, there will still be the lamentable differential between the private and public sectors in terms of the risk of fire and in terms of quality of life. I do not believe that a Labour Government can, with any conscience, allow such a differential to persist.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Benton. I concur with the remarks of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) about his pleasure in taking part in a debate headed up by the Minister. Such debates are a regular occurrence, but I fear that the hon. Gentleman might be on his own if he hosts a debate in the dog days of August. I sometimes think that the Government would collapse without the Minister’s Herculean efforts. He seems to be here representing the Government more or less every day of the week.

And the hon. Gentleman, indeed.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) on his well-presented, well-researched and passionate contribution, which was based on his unique experiences representing a seat in the city of Oxford that faces the problems that he mentioned. He focused substantially on houses in multiple occupation, which resonated with me. I shall focus more on the wider sector, but I shall speak about HMOs later.

The private rented sector accounts for about 10 per cent. of all homes in the UK and has the potential to play a much fuller and more effective part in meeting future housing needs. Private landlords could play an important role in bringing under-utilised or empty properties into occupation. The sector is diverse and based on flexibility, and it offers tenants choice.

There is some consensus between the parties about the Housing Act 2004, and we concede that we agree with a lot of things in it. Current legislation empowers local authorities through health and safety rating systems, HMO regulation, licensing and voluntary accreditation schemes, and there is broad support for that from organisations such as the National Landlords Association and the Association of Residential Letting Agents.

We welcome the current review of both HMOs and the private rented sector, under the auspices of the university of York—the Rugg and Rhodes review. It is important that we restrict any moves towards regulations or legislation until we have the full results of that review. Its first two terms of reference are important, stating that it must consider:

“What is the composition of the private rented sector and the regional characteristics? Who lives in the sector and who are the providers?

Given demographic and social change, what impact might this have on future demand and supply pressures in the sector and how should key players respond to this?”

The right hon. Gentleman rather body-swerved the important point made by my erstwhile hon. Friend, the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). It is important that there are significant pressures on the delivery of public services, including housing, in a number of hotspots. There has been a particular impact on the private rented sector. The review might assist in informing the Government much more coherently of where those pressures are, without there necessarily being a need for further regulation and legislation.

It seems to be a characteristic of these housing debates that I must always point out my intimate knowledge of some immigrants in this country. [Laughter.] I am grateful to the Minister for his response to that. I may wish to have a look at how it is reported in Hansard.

Surely the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) accepts that there are two different matters: the country’s immigration policy, and the regulation of the private sector. I understand his point, but who lives in the houses is secondary to the extent to which we regulate them to ensure a level playing field between the private and public rented sectors.

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I cannot compete with his in-depth knowledge of eastern European migrants, and I shall be interested to see what comments are picked up in the official record. Local authorities have finite resources to deal with specific demographic and social changes of an unprecedented level and time scale—in this case, since May 2004. If the review can inform the use of those resources with empirical rather than anecdotal evidence, that will help to deal with the problems associated with some houses in multiple occupation.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) mentioned the Communities and Local Government Committee’s report, published on 21 May, “The Supply of Rented Housing”, and it would serve us well to consider the issues that it touched on. I agree that it was fair and balanced. It stated:

“A good basis exists in existing regulation, local authority accreditation schemes and the activity of trade bodies to introduce a system of accreditation similar to that which exists for estate agents,”

to be overseen by Oftenant. It stated that the York university study should consider

“the establishment of a new regulatory system based on a carrot-and-stick approach which rewards responsible landlords with fewer repetitive regulatory hurdles and greater financial incentives”,

for instance for investment in and the maintenance of property, and for energy efficiency. I shall return to that matter.

The hon. Gentleman mentions investment incentives and encouraging good landlords. We all want to do that, but does he understand, as residents in the areas most affected certainly do, that there must be some reciprocity? There will be huge resentment if people are seen to benefit from tax breaks and incentives. People can do the sums—how many tenants they have jammed in the house, how much they are paying every week, what a mortgage costs, how much profit they are making—but must there not be some reciprocity whereby they also have responsibilities for the upkeep of the property, for keeping it tidy and for ensuring behaviour that is reasonable in its impact on neighbours?

Far be it from me to dispute fiscal policy with a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, but we must use the regulatory system and fiscal policy to drive up standards and deliver what we all want—better homes for people who have made their own choice that they do not want to be housed in social housing or become owner-occupiers. We cannot pursue solely a stick policy, although, as I shall argue later, it is important to concentrate in regulations and legislation on clamping down on rogue landlords.

The recent position paper by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors urged the Government to consider capacity, quality and choice in the private rented sector as part of the role in creating sustainable communities, a point that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire mentioned. It also pointed out that the sector’s benefits to tenants, such as the

“freedom and flexibility to move around and the opportunity to leave the family nest without the burden of home ownership”,

are an important factor in its viability. In that respect, it offers

“benefits in terms of mobility of labour”.

The RICS cautioned against radical moves to regulate the sector further, which may reduce profits and choke off investment in it. It is as well to mention that the buy-to-let sector has so far sustained relatively little damage from the credit crunch and associated economic problems.

This issue is not just about propping up profits; it is about recognising the fact that if profits are hit and investment dries up, that will have an impact on housing supply and rents for some of the most vulnerable people in the private sector, as we have conceded. The focus needs to be on the lower end of the private rented sector to improve standards.

Returning to the issue of energy efficiency—a point raised by the hon. Gentleman—I suspect that the Minister will not fully concur with the typically well thought out Liberal Democrat policy on energy efficiency.

However, I think that there is a broad consensus across the House that there needs to be further incentives. We welcome the landlords energy saving allowance, which dates from 2004, but perhaps it has not been as well-publicised as it needs to be, and we need to expand the publicity for it.

Overall, we need to get the balance of rights and responsibilities between landlords and tenants right; the same is true of the balance between enforced self-regulation and further legislation. We must be careful not to target good landlords with burdensome regulation while letting unscrupulous landlords operate with impunity. Further regulation will pile on time and cost pressures in a market that is already potentially precarious.

I agree with hon. Members who have referred to the tenancy deposit scheme. Again, the Conservative party believes that that scheme is a sensible way forward and should be expanded. The fact is that the worst case scenarios envisaged in and informing the Housing Act 2004 have not come to fruition, and self-regulation and self-accreditation have been successful.

An important point raised by all hon. Members—I mentioned it earlier myself—is the resources for local authorities. It is extremely important and pertinent to understand that often local authorities do not have the resources to deal with the commensurate pressure on the private rented sector by means of houses in multiple occupation; that includes my own local authority in Peterborough, for instance, where we have had 15,000 to 20,000 new EU migrants coming into the Greater Peterborough area in the last four years. Local authorities do not have the staff and they certainly do not have the money to deal with these huge pressures.

Again, the hon. Gentleman, who is the Liberal Democrat spokesman, is quite right on this question: it is about not just absolute numbers but cultural issues. The hon. Member for Hove (Ms Barlow) also touched on it in her brief intervention earlier. It is something that the Government need to look at, following on from their review of houses in multiple occupation and the university of York review.

If the housing market was stronger, I do not think there would be such an imperative to examine this area, but there is such an imperative. The Residential Landlords Association has made the point that we need to develop more comprehensive self-regulation, so that local authorities can then focus more time and energy, through environmental health officers, selective licensing schemes and so on, on those rogue landlords who are mistreating and abusing tenants, often illegally.

It is also as well to concede the very important point that my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire made: it seems unbelievable that, after 11 years of a Labour Government, we have not moved on in developing more innovative schemes to free up the market, using market mechanisms. In particular, he referred to real estate investment trusts and institutional investment, which have gone nowhere since the Barker report was published two years ago. He also referred, quite rightly, to the dialogue between local authorities and local landlords and the potential development of the housing association management scheme.

I would also like to mention the importance of leaving in place, at least until the review, and in my opinion beyond that, section 21 of the Housing Act 1988, because that measure is the centre of the legislative framework for the private rented sector. I believe that we do not need to amend the 1988 Act, because if we did it would send a significantly negative message and have a negative impact on the market, particularly on investment in the private rented sector.

In conclusion, we await the university of York review and hope that it will properly inform a debate on the future of the private rented sector. Until then, we should reserve judgment on further legislation and regulation.

Unlike the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson), this is not the first time that I have served under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. Given that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) are also here today, this debate very much feels like a reunion of the Housing and Regeneration Public Bill Committee, which was so excellently chaired by your good self.

I would like to begin by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) on securing this very important debate. His excellent contribution this morning set the tone for the rest of the debate, given that it was considered, measured and reasoned. All the contributions this morning have demonstrated those traits.

As a Government, we want to ensure that people have access to the right sort of homes, and the private rented sector makes a real contribution to that aim. The sector is by no means a homogenous market: nearly two thirds of households in the private rented sector are categorised as economically active; and more than three quarters of tenants in the sector are under the age of 35. For these people, who are often in the first stages of their career, the attraction of private renting is its flexibility. However, as has already been mentioned, the sector also provides housing for vulnerable people; just under a fifth of all tenants in the private rented sector are on housing benefit.

The introduction of the new local housing allowance is giving those tenants greater choice about where they live, as it will allow them to see in advance the properties that they can afford. It was particularly apt that my right hon. Friend secured this debate, because I cannot really think of anywhere else that has as diverse a range of housing supply as Oxford, particularly within the private rented sector. In Oxford, there are the universities, there are affluent professionals, who may be working in the City or commuting to work elsewhere in London, and there is also a range of vulnerable people. So it is incredibly appropriate that he was able to secure this debate.

One point that has been mentioned is the importance of landlords being able to secure a return on their investment. It is important to stress that we recognise that private landlords are running a business and therefore expect to secure that return. However, what I am clear about, and it is a point that has been touched on already in this debate, is that that should not be at the expense of adopting a professional approach to letting, and offering a quality product to the tenant.

In an important part of his contribution to the debate, my right hon. Friend mentioned the issue of retaliatory eviction. I am very aware of the possibility of landlords evicting tenants who seek to enforce their rights, and also that some tenants may be reluctant to complain about poor conditions for fear that their landlord may then seek to end the tenancy. That situation seems to be an unintended consequence of section 21 of the 1988 Act. I have such a situation in my own constituency, with constituents coming to me in my surgeries and telling me about such problems.

The practice of retaliatory eviction should be stopped. However, I think that all hon. Members will also be aware of the fine balance between landlord and tenant rights. I am very keen to see an end to the practice of retaliatory eviction. Equally, however, I want to ensure that landlords do not face problems with tenants failing to pay the rent and committing antisocial behaviour.

To help us achieve that vision, we need not only regulation but regulation that is targeted and focused, recognising, as we should, the balance between encouraging good landlords—to ensure that we raise the standards—and trying to get rid of rogue landlords. We must protect the interests of both good landlords and good tenants, while moving away from unprofessional landlords and bad tenants. That targeted balance is vital.

We had a commitment to bring appropriate levels of regulation to the private rented sector and we fulfilled that commitment in the Housing Act 2004, an Act that has been mentioned a number of times this morning. In introducing that legislation, we took a measured view of the costs, benefits and deliverability of statutory regulation of the private rented sector. We were very keen not to stunt the growth that had been seen in the sector over the last decade or so. However, we were equally keen to send out a signal that poor management and unsafe property conditions were absolutely unacceptable.

The changes are based on an assessment of how risks can best be identified and addressed. They empower local authorities to act to secure good standards on both a statutory and a voluntary basis. Targeted regulation can be used to underpin the development of sustainable partnerships between landlords and the local authority. I shall mention several measures in the 2004 Act that demonstrate our commitment to those principles.

Mandatory licensing of houses in multiple occupation has been a major theme of the debate. The Act defines HMOs as buildings of three storeys or more that are occupied by five or more people in two or more households. Real progress is being made by local authorities using their powers to tackle potentially the most problematic parts of the sector, but I recognise that there is much more to do, as has been said this morning. Local authorities cannot rest on their laurels. They have to get out and enforce against landlords who have not come forward to be licensed. We should not forget that the Act also puts in place legislation about the management of HMOs more generally which all local authorities can use if they find problems in particular properties.

We are now starting to get applications from some councils to establish discretionary licensing regimes to cover smaller HMOs and ordinary private rented property. We have made it clear that any schemes should be for small, discrete parts of an authority, be targeted at specific problems, and have agreed outcomes. For such schemes to be successful, they have to be a tool within a wider package of intervention and regeneration initiatives in the area.

So far, we have approved seven selective licensing schemes. Several more selective and additional licensing schemes are being developed by local authorities including my own—Hartlepool—and Oxford. I took on board what my right hon. Friend said in support of the application in his area. The knowledge that local authorities can and will take targeted steps to deal with problem areas will give people confidence when they make their decision about where to live.

Does the Minister agree that the smaller schemes that he envisages, while they are good news and obviously appropriate for particular areas, will be ongoing and resource-intensive, and that without the requisite financial assistance being reflected in block grants to the local authority, their effectiveness will be lessened over time?

I understand the challenges that local authorities face. That is one reason why I think such schemes will be more effective if they are small and discrete, and considered as part of the wider strategic housing role. I take the point made by my right hon. Friend, but city-wide schemes could be problematic because local authorities could find them difficult to enforce. On that point, I give way to him.

The Minister says that a wider scheme could be problematic but implies that in some circumstances it might not be problematic. Can I press him on the case that I made in respect of Oxford and ask him for assurance that he will look constructively at the proposal, noting in particular the points that I made about the perverse consequences of delineating small areas? The unregulated HMOs could be pressed into adjacent areas. Will he consider that carefully when assessing the Oxford application?

Yes, I pledge to do that. My right hon. Friend makes a good point about displacement. Taking into account the experience in my constituency and others, I understand the strong argument that he makes about difficulties being pushed into adjacent areas.

I am grateful to the Minister. Actually, I feel quite intimate towards him as well. In response to all the interventions, he implies that the Government would sort of like to regulate the private sector and so on, which is great. He said that they would like to regulate on the basis of considerations of costs, benefits and deliverability. Further to what the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said, surely it is obvious that the Government are loth to regulate the private sector to the same standard as the public sector, primarily because they are frightened that, if they take away or harm the profit motive, there will not be enough private sector accommodation to help alleviate the housing crisis. It is a simple matter for the Government to admit that. If the Minister will not admit it, can he tell us what the motive is for the differential between the private and state sectors?

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s line of questioning, to be honest. I thought that I had made it clear that I would like bad landlords moved away from the sector altogether. That might reduce the amount of stock, but I would be more than happy to see it. I know that it would cause housing supply pressures, but bad landlords are not good for the sector or for housing policy, full stop.

I would like targeted regulation that builds on the good work in the 2004 Act, to ensure that we incentivise good landlords and penalise bad ones, and to ensure that the private rented sector is a good housing choice for some people, even if it is not appropriate for others. I want to encourage the private sector. It is a good offer in the 21st century, and we would like more of it, but not at the expense of good, professional standards. I hope that I have answered the hon. Gentleman’s question.

The third element, which was touched on by the hon. Gentleman, is the protection of tenants’ deposits. That is a good example of regulation, and I sense from the debate that it has the general approval of the House. We introduced schemes to safeguard tenancy deposits just over a year ago. They target another potential abuse of tenants. Since the launch, more than 1 million deposits have been protected, and almost £1 billion of cash has been safeguarded.

The hon. Gentleman said that it seems the scheme is not working very well. I take issue with that: I think that the figures speak for themselves, and that the scheme has been a big success.

A major part of today’s debate has been about the so-called “studentification” problem and issues relating to HMOs. I believe we can all agree that students can make a substantial contribution to sustaining and regenerating communities. However, I appreciate, as I imagine all hon. Members do, that high concentrations of students living together in certain parts of university towns can lead to problems such as antisocial behaviour, the possible closure of under-used community facilities such as schools and churches—I saw that vividly during my recent visit to Loughborough—and reduced opportunities for first-time buyers to enter home ownership.

I stress that my Department and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills are working closely together on the matter. I had a meeting last week with the Under-Secretary with responsibility for it. We have a cross-governmental approach to ensuring that this Government’s policy of university expansion and the expansion of student numbers, which is right, goes hand in hand with considerations about housing policy.

I was taken by some of the points made by my right hon. Friend and by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) about HMOs and possible changes to planning designations. I am considering at present how the problems associated with high concentrations of HMOs, particularly in areas of student housing, can be addressed. I am focusing on possible changes to planning legislation as well as exploring existing measures. I propose to consult later this year on proposals to amend the use class orders in respect of HMOs, which I think will be a welcome step. It will allow us to have a full and frank debate on the matter.

Several hon. Members mentioned the independent review of the private rented sector. Again, I detected cross-party consensus and approval. The review has a wide remit to consider how the sector meets current needs and expectations, and whether and how the experiences of landlords and tenants might be improved. In the context of future demand and supply pressures in the private rented sector, the review will investigate what needs to be done to ensure that private renting offers people the right type of homes of good quality, both now and in the future, and what more should or could be done to raise professionalism among private landlords—a point that I addressed to the hon. Gentleman.

The review will also consider the important matter of security of tenure when exploring whether more needs to be done to improve the experiences of private sector landlords and tenants in respect of their rights and responsibilities. I get from my constituency surgeries, as I imagine other hon. Members do, the idea that people would like some sort of security of tenure. I think that that means increasing the supply of social rented homes, because people like the idea of security of tenure but it might not be on offer in the private rented sector. Providing a wide spectrum of choice is important.

I very much look forward to receiving the findings of the report in October. I want a strong private rented sector that encourages and assists the majority of well-intentioned landlords to stay in the sector but shows less professional landlords the door. That means striking a balance between the rights and obligations of landlords and tenants, and between regulation and voluntary initiatives. Whether we have struck that balance or need to do more is something that I imagine will come back in our weekly sojourns to this place—