Skip to main content

Private Rented Sector (Durham)

Volume 507: debated on Wednesday 17 March 2010

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr. Howarth.

I speak this afternoon about an issue that is extremely important to my constituency. When I was elected in 2005, many residents quickly came to me to say that they were very concerned about the lack of balance in our local community and the fact that more and more of the city was being taken over by private rented housing. That was a problem because the housing was empty for a huge part of the year and local residents felt it was destroying our sense of local community.

In response to residents’ concerns, I set up a local group called the balanced and sustainable communities forum, which had representatives from the local council, residents’ groups, the university and the police, to see whether we could find a way forward. We quickly started to lobby the local council to adopt policies to give us a greater mix of housing in the city centre. That included asking the council to have planning policies to promote family housing, to stop giving planning permission to so many apartment blocks, to use selective and/or additional licensing to control better the private rented sector and, overall, to have a strong policy in favour of affordability. Unfortunately, all those requests fell on deaf ears. The local Liberal Democrat council at the time simply did not want to hear us and certainly did not want to respond to the points that we were making.

In addition to setting up the local group, which was pressing for local solutions, I decided that we probably needed a change in legislation if we were really to tackle the issue facing us, so I set up in Parliament the all-party group on balanced and sustainable communities. We campaigned particularly on changing legislation with regard to planning permission for houses in multiple occupation and when the trigger for planning permission for an HMO comes into being, and with regard to further powers to register private landlords.

I emphasise that we were not anti the private rented sector. Indeed, it was always our view, and it remains my view, that responsible landlords have nothing to fear from additional regulation, because responsible landlords generally manage their properties very well. It is the landlords who do not manage their properties well and who need to improve the service they are offering their tenants who are concerned about greater regulation.

There was thus a lot of local and parliamentary activity designed to get the issue on the agenda. One of our early strategies was to hold an Adjournment debate in this very Chamber. My right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), who is now Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, was then arguing alongside me. He, my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) and I were arguing that a change was needed in the legislation. I am delighted that today I can stand here and congratulate and thank the Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government who is in the Chamber today. They all listened to what was being said by the all-party group, set up a review of the private rented sector and of HMO licensing and came back with a set of proposals that have been turned into new statutory instruments and other new legislation relating to HMO planning permission and the registration of the private rented sector.

That legislation is very important because it captures exactly what we wanted it to do. In cities such as Durham, most of the HMOs are not huge properties. The previous legislation that required only houses or homes with more than six people to apply for planning permission meant that most of the HMOs were not covered, because most of the houses in Durham are small terraces that do not accommodate six or more people, or they are ex-council or ex-social rented sector housing and also not very big. Therefore the change in legislation whereby it is up to six people suits us very well. I am also very pleased that the Government have decided to go ahead with registering all private sector landlords. That gives us two important tools to better manage private renting in our area.

That is an important step forward, but we still have a problem, which is how we deal with the fact that there are currently too many private rented houses in a particular area. We still require policies that will help us to bring back properties from the private rented sector to provide family houses in order to get a better mix in our communities. We still have the concentration problem. We hope that the local council can buy back some of the properties, and one of my questions for the Minister is whether consideration could be given to a fund that would enable registered social landlords or the council to start to buy back properties, especially now, when market rates are relatively low.

I also want better regulation of the private rented sector. That means that the local council will have to adopt and implement the statutory instruments that are now in place, but it will have to do more. It will have to clamp down on antisocial behaviour and put in place community development policies, because much of what has been lost with the spread of the private rented sector is community spirit and community cohesion.

In Durham, the problems of the private rented sector are exacerbated by some additional policies—or lack of policy. The first issue is a lack of proper conservation area policies in the city centre, which has been a long-standing problem with previous councils of a mixture of political cultures. What we need now is a strong set of conservation area policies from the new council that will help us to tackle some of the problems associated with private renting. The most obvious one is the predominance of “To Let” boards in the city centre. A number of people will know that Durham is a very beautiful city. It has a wonderful heritage, but that heritage is being blighted by the proliferation of “To Let” boards in the city centre. They go up in October or November and stay until February or March. It is unsightly and upsets the local population.

There is also too lax an attitude to the licensing of pubs and clubs locally, which leads to the concentration of a particular type of activity in the city centre. Accompanying that is lack of attention to the concerns raised by city centre residents, not only about their problems with private renting but about the wider society in which private renting operates.

As I said earlier, between 2003 and 2009 there was the council’s complete non-implementation of policies on getting affordable housing back in the city centre, and there were no policies whatever on family housing or mixed communities. If we are to take advantage of the new legislation, we need a whole set of additional policies, primarily put forward and implemented by the local council, to enable changes to the private rented sector to take effect.

We need the council to engage proactively with the local community in deciding what sort of mix it wants in its communities. I can report that that has already begun. Council and planning officers have started a series of meetings with local residents about how to change the city in a way that reflects their concerns. The council is also consulting on what more conservation area policies should achieve, and how they could better reflect Durham’s heritage, ensuring that future development, including any housing development in the city centre, is appropriate and adds to and enhances the city’s wonderful heritage.

Residents are asking for a city centre regeneration plan that has new housing at its core. Local residents are not against new housing or redevelopment, but they want it to be of good quality, and they want it to bring mix into the community. They want policies that, as far as possible, do not bring more luxury apartments into the city centre, especially as people have such trouble selling and renting them at the moment.

In addition to new affordable and family housing, people want better retail provision. That has suffered over the last few years, and people want a vibrant retail sector. They also want the council to make more of the skills that the university brings to the city centre, to bring about regeneration not only of the physical environment but of our economic environment, based on knowledge and a skills transfer between the university and the industrial sector. We absolutely need more of that. There is pressure on the university to build more student accommodation, using some of the available land for purpose-built student accommodation to relieve housing pressure on the city centre, and to free up accommodation so that it can be transferred back to the social rented sector or the council sector.

People want a set of cultural activities that go beyond drinking and that aspect of the night-time economy. That does not mean that they, or I, are against a night-time economy in Durham, but we are arguing for balance; local residents, who are often on the receiving end of the activities of those who have had too much to drink, should be able to go out for the night and enjoy themselves. The view of residents, which I share, is that those activities are out of balance at the moment, and that a wider range of activities should be on offer.

The Government have gone a long way to addressing the concerns of the all-party group on balanced and sustainable communities, and should be applauded for the legislation they have introduced. We now have significant tools to tackle the concentration and spread of private renting throughout the city centre. The legislation needs to be implemented by the county council, but it must done by implementing the policies in the wider framework of regenerating the city centre, not only economically and in its built environment but culturally. Everyone who lives in the city would thus have a much better quality of life.

It is a great pleasure, Mr. Howarth, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) on securing this debate. As she said, she led a similar debate in 2007.

My hon. Friend has made herself an expert on the subject of the private rented sector. She promised her constituents that she would work hard to make progress in tackling the problems associated with that sector when she was first elected, and she has been as good as her word. She has kept that promise and worked tirelessly to lobby Ministers on the need for a change in approach.

My hon. Friend established the all-party group on balanced and sustainable communities, which has become one of the most active and successful of such groups. Her work is a fantastic example of what Members of Parliament can do if they listen to local people, understand the concerns of the community, bring those concerns to the Government’s attention and fight and lobby for change. She should be congratulated on everything that she has done. As a result of her work, she can justifiably claim to have changed legislation on the private rented sector. She has achieved more for her constituency in one Parliament than many MPs manage in their careers.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to set out what the Government are doing to meet the concerns that she has expressed. As she said, private rented housing is essential to maintaining a mixed community. A strong and well functioning private rented sector is a vital component of any housing market, and the recent downturn has further highlighted its importance, both in supporting housing growth and in providing homes for young people just starting out on an independent life.

The sector also houses some of the 13,000-plus young people studying at the ancient and distinguished Durham university, which my hon. Friend represents. Students make a substantial contribution to communities. They help to keep communities alive by helping to sustain and regenerate them. However, some of the challenges of private rented housing are particularly acute in areas with high a concentration of students living in certain parts of university towns and cities.

Houses in multiple occupation also make an important contribution to the private rented sector. However, high concentrations of HMOs have raised local problems in some towns and cities, including those with large numbers of students. That is often characterised as the studentification of an area. The presence of a few unprofessional private landlords with badly managed properties in poor condition can increase the likelihood of tenants such as students experiencing health and safety risks.

We want to support the private rented sector in all the roles that it performs. The packages of measures that we announced on 27 January and 3 February 2010 will do precisely that. On 27 January, we announced that we had decided to change the planning rules by introducing a specific definition of a HMO. The rule changes will mean that, from 6 April 2010, any material change of use from a dwelling house to an HMO will require specific consent from the local planning authority.

As my hon. Friend knows, local authorities are already under a statutory duty to license HMOs. Some 321 licences have been issued in County Durham since the scheme came into being. Many of them are in the city and are the result of my hon. Friend’s work. Local authorities also have the discretion to extend licensing to those HMOs that do not meet the mandatory HMO licensing requirements. On 27 January, we published a short consultation, seeking views on possible changes to the procedures for establishing discretionary schemes under the Housing Act 2004 for licensing landlords. The options on which we have consulted include introducing a general consent that would enable local authorities to introduce discretionary licensing schemes without having to seek the Secretary of State’s specific approval.

I want to congratulate my hon. Friend on the leadership that she has shown in her community. We are keen to ensure that local authorities such as Durham county council see provisions such as the licensing of HMOs under the 2004 Act, as well as other voluntary initiatives, such as landlord accreditation schemes, as a way of developing a partnership with good landlords in their area, and I hope that the local authority will listen to her views and respond to the positive lead that she has taken in her community.

We encourage all local authorities to work closely with university student unions, local landlord organisations, residents’ groups and the police to address the issues that can arise. The measures that we announced on 3 February include a national register of landlords, the regulation of letting and managing agents, mandatory written tenancy agreements and extending the protections of assured shorthold tenancies to a wider range of tenants and local lettings agencies.

Does the Minister agree that the additional measures that the Government have introduced protect tenants as well as local residents and that they should be supported on those grounds as well? Such measures seek to strengthen our tenant legislation, too.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Ensuring that tenants get a better deal is a key part of building a stronger private rented sector, which we need in this country. That is in no small part due to the campaigning work that she has undertaken.

We consulted on all the measures that I listed in the summer. They received a positive response, and we intend to legislate on them at the earliest opportunity. The regulatory elements of that package will help, but we want to go further and embed more support into the system now. To that end, we have announced three areas for immediate work. There will be a private sector tenants’ helpline, new research to explore how to capture and disseminate consumer feedback and new scope and support for tenants’ voice.

I should like to deal with a couple of the points that my hon. Friend raised. She asked whether it was possible for us to consider greater support for local authorities to buy back homes. She will be aware that it is possible for registered social landlords to do that at the moment. We encourage local authorities to work closely with RSLs. Provisions are in place for local authorities to take over the management of poorly run properties. Empty dwelling management orders and other management orders can be used to ensure that those homes are not causing problems for the wider community.

My hon. Friend also asked about estate agents’ boards. Like other advertisements, they are subject to planning rules. Briefly, class 3A of the Town and Country Planning (Control of Advertisements) (England) Regulations 2007, which replaced the 1992 regulations, gives deemed consent for advertisement boards to be displayed by firms such as estate agents, chartered surveyors, auctioneers and valuers to advertise land or premises for sale or to let. Only one board for a dwelling may be displayed, and there are strict limits on its size. The board must be removed not later than 14 days after completion of the sale or grant of the tenancy. Local planning authorities have the normal planning powers to enforce the advertisement rules if they consider it necessary. Local authorities may also apply to the Secretary of State for a direction restricting deemed consent of estate agents’ boards in a particular area. Directions have recently been given in Hastings, Leeds and Charnwood.

I thank the Minister for giving way again; he is being very generous. Is he saying that local authorities have the power to stop boards being displayed in a particular area, especially a conservation area? I have been arguing with my local authority about that issue.

Such powers exist, but before a direction is made under regulation 7, the local planning authority would need to convince the Secretary of State that it would improve visual amenity and that there is no other way of effectively controlling the display of estate agents’ boards. If my hon. Friend wants to know more about that, I would be happy to arrange for her to meet officials in our Department, so that she can discuss exactly how the procedure works.

In conclusion, may I reiterate my thanks to my hon. Friend for initiating this debate and to the all-party parliamentary balanced and sustainable communities group for its helpful contribution to tackling private sector housing issues? I hope that the responses that I have outlined will go a long way towards addressing the issues that she has identified, and I look forward to working both with her and the all-party group again.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.