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Houses in Multiple Occupation

Volume 518: debated on Thursday 18 November 2010

It is a pleasure to open a debate that you are chairing, Mr Chope. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate on houses in multiple occupation after I pitched the idea to it “Dragons’ Den” style. A colleague told me that I am making history today by having been granted the first one-hour Backbench Business Committee debate in Westminster Hall. If that is the case, I am grateful to be blazing a trail on an issue that so directly affects my Loughborough constituency.

It is a pleasure to see the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) here today. Some of the substance of what we shall debate was discussed in the Delegated Legislation Committee debate on two relevant statutory instruments earlier this week. I see from Hansard that even though I was not present at that debate, I managed to get a mention in it because of this debate. The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) suggested that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government, who spoke then, would be speaking today. In fact, we have a different Minister today. I hope that that is because the Department realises that this is a topic of serious concern to quite a large number of hon. Members, so two Ministers need to take an interest in it.

I thank hon. Members for being here today. I realise that 4.30 on a Thursday afternoon is something of a graveyard slot, but several hon. Members have delayed leaving Westminster to be here and I am very grateful to them. I have received messages of support from hon. Members who cannot be here, including the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods), the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood), who all confirm what a huge problem the concentration of houses in multiple occupation is in their constituencies.

On 9 June, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was asked by the hon. Member for City of Durham to confirm that the Government would not seek to undermine the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) (Amendment) (England) Order 2010, which came into force on 6 April this year. He replied:

“We all know of the problems of houses that are kept badly, and of past problems involving HMOs. I will ask the Minister for Housing to get in touch with her about his plans, so that we can ensure that we get this right.”—[Official Report, 9 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 329.]

I suggest to the Minister that the fact that we are here today means that we have not yet got this area of policy quite right, but I hope that today’s debate will assist with that.

The primary reason for my asking the Backbench Business Committee for the debate was the changes that the Government decided to make to the April order. However, issues surrounding HMOs are not just about planning. I suspect that some hon. Members might want to talk about licensing and regulation of HMOs and safety concerns.

The change that I have mentioned was to introduce the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (Amendment) (No. 2) (England) Order 2010, which came into effect on 1 October and drove a coach and horses through the earlier order by allowing as permitted development the change of use from a dwelling house to a small-scale house in multiple occupation. The reasons for the April order and the reasons why the October change has been greeted with such disappointment by affected communities were discussed during the Delegated Legislation Committee and I do not want to repeat all of them here. That said, certain of the concerns are so great that I cannot avoid repeating some of what was said by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee. This debate also provides an opportunity to consider the wider issue of sustainable and balanced communities, and I will say more on that in a while. I should say now that I am a member of the all-party group on balanced and sustainable communities.

I shall concentrate on four issues. First, I shall talk about why any control on HMOs is needed at all, focusing on our experiences in Loughborough. The second issue is the April and October orders and the third is the practicalities of directions under article 4 of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995. The final issue is where we go from here.

Shortly after I became the candidate in Loughborough, I was contacted by a group of residents known as the Storer and Ashby Area residents group, or SARG for short. Many of them live in an area of Loughborough known as the golden triangle. The area consists of a concentration of terraced houses, which had previously been occupied by all age groups and were within easy reach of the town facilities. However, over the years and particularly between 1994 and 2004, as our extremely successful local university expanded, there was insufficient student accommodation on campus, so landlords, including parents of students, began to buy those terraced houses and rent them to our students. That led to various problems, such as late-night noise, pressure on parking and rubbish collections, poor maintenance of houses and so on. Furthermore, the problem is not confined to one area of our town, but has spread to other areas and types of housing.

I should stress that I and, I think, the residents, because many of them work there, are very proud of our excellent, world-class university. It is my pleasure to visit the campus regularly—even when that involves a live TV debate about student finance against the vice-president of the National Union of Students. However, a growing university in a relatively small town causes problems, and no one seemed to be hearing the problems. The crunch came when the members of the residents group opposed a planning application relating to the building of more student accommodation in their area of town because of the impact that that would have on the local area. The planning inspector agreed with them, and everyone else locally started to sit up and realise that there was an issue that had to be tackled.

I am pleased to say that, since then, we have all learned a lot and come a long way. On the whole, there are good relations between town and gown in Loughborough. We have an excellent community relations officer at the university, senior management who want to be helpful, committed local street wardens, a proactive student union, a supportive and engaged council in Charnwood borough council, and residents who are able to raise the alert about problems. However, the problems remain.

The fact is that the balance in the part of Loughborough to which I am referring has almost irrevocably changed. Each academic year, residents have to brace themselves for the arrival of the students. Will they be good neighbours, as many are, or will they bring trouble, late-night noise and too many cars, often inconsiderately parked? The Minister might well ask, “Hasn’t the damage been done? What would the April order have done to help with that situation?” Well, even now, there are people buying the remaining properties and trying to convert them. The April order would have given the local authority the power to know when those conversions were being proposed and to consider the impact on the local area.

In 2005, Charnwood borough council introduced a supplementary planning document on student housing provision in the town, which adopted a threshold approach that applied different responses to planning applications, depending on the percentage of student houses in any one area. The SPD is a material planning consideration when planning permission is sought—but that assumes that it has to be sought. If the property is being converted into a small-scale HMO, planning permission is not needed. That is why the April order was good news for Loughborough.

What are the consequences of losing a balanced community? The part of Loughborough to which I am referring has lost its primary school, church and post office due to lack of permanent residents. There is a rather ghostly atmosphere during university holidays, and as students are, by their very nature, transient, there is less of the sense of community and social interaction than is normally found in a stable and balanced community. There are also higher levels of crime. If a burglar breaks into a student house, he is likely to find several laptops, TVs and so on, which is bad news for the neighbours.

Turning to the April and October orders, I entirely understand the Government’s desire to empower local communities, where there is a problem with a proliferation of HMOs, to take action. I also understand that that problem does not affect the vast majority of local authorities. However, we must give communities real power to put effective controls in place if they want to do so. I will come on to article 4 directions, but first I want to examine the reasons given for the change as set out in the explanatory memorandum and impact assessment for the October orders.

The evidence base for the impact assessment sets out many of the problems associated with HMOs—for example, antisocial behaviour, increased litter, parking issues, reduced opportunities for low-cost home ownership, closure of under-used community facilities, pressure on over-used community facilities such as doctors, and loss of community balance. The evidence base goes on to say:

“It has also been argued by some that it”—

that is, all councils being caught by the April order—

“could result in a reduction in supply of this type of low cost housing in areas where it is needed because prospective landlords could…be deterred from entering the HMO market by the time, cost and uncertainty arising from the requirement to submit planning applications. However, there is no reliable evidence supporting this.”

Pages 8 to 10 of the evidence base set out the costs and benefits of the new orders for each affected group: landlords, local authorities, the planning inspectorate, HMO tenants and the local community. Those drafting the evidence base managed to think of both costs and benefits for each group, except for local residents, for whom no benefits are listed at all. That is at best highly unfortunate, given that they have to live in the affected areas.

On page 11, the document also says in relation to the costs of the new October orders that

“there may be some costs such as: local communities would have no opportunity to comment on new individual HMOs…local authorities would lose the ability to consider the impacts of new individual HMOs”


“there may be a slight increase in complaints from neighbours in relation to particular HMOs. These costs have not been monetised.”

I will say a word about the way in which the July 2010 consultation was conducted. A limited number of groups, including, I am pleased to say, the National HMO Lobby, were invited to take part. In response to a written question, the Minister for Housing and Local Government sent me a summary of the responses. Of those invited to respond, eight were against the proposed change and six in favour. Of those who responded on their own initiative, 31 were against and eight in favour. I ensured that all my local interest groups, the residents, Charnwood borough council, Loughborough university and Loughborough students’ union, responded. All supported the retention of the April order.

Loughborough university stated:

“The concept of community balance is important in our local setting and the University continues to invest significant time, energy and resources to community issues. The University continues to believe that the case for the new legislation is similarly unchanged.”

SARG stated:

“We fail to understand why you are overlooking the responses of 92% of more than 900 respondents to last year’s country wide HMO consultation, all of whom saw a change in the Use Classes Order as the preferred way forward for avoiding concentrations of HMOs. Participants did not make a blanket proposal to stop landlords converting family homes into HMOs. We envisaged a change in the Use Classes Order which councils could opt out of in situations where it was expedient to increase such accommodation. We breathed a sigh of relief that Charnwood Borough Council were at last being given the tools with which to control concentrations of HMOs and which could be tied into the existing Student Housing SPD.

Your decision to revert to the status quo, with some slight changes to Article 4 Directions is like a slap in the face to local communities. We have been told for years by our local authority that Article 4 is not a practical means of control, more so now, in view of cutbacks to budgets and workforce. This implies that you are happy to consign communities like ours to eventual extinction.”

The reason given for the limited consultation was that the detailed consultation that had taken place a year earlier had teased out the main points. I am sure that that is true. If those responses hold good, it is worth noting that only 1% of respondents supported the position that we find ourselves in of relying on article 4 directions.

I acknowledge the letter and attachments that the Department sent to me last night about article 4 directions and the process for making such directions. It would have made it easier if they had arrived at 7 pm when I started drafting my speech, rather than at 11 pm when I had just finished, but I was glad to have them.

My concern is whether the ability to put in place article 4 directions adequately fills the gap left by the April order. The evidence base for the impact assessment on the October orders shows that there are direct financial costs to local authorities of putting article 4 directions in place. First,

“they will bear the administrative cost of processing planning applications as the fee is waived where article 4 directions have been made”.


“there will be costs associated with publicising the intention to make article 4 directions.”


“where article 4 directions have been made with immediate effect or less than 12 months notice and where applications which were submitted within 12 months of the effective date are refused or granted subject to conditions, local authorities may be liable to pay compensation to applicants as set out in the Benefits section above.”


“there may also be costs associated with the need to investigate where intervention is necessary…and enforce against unauthorised HMOs.”

The evidence base concludes:

“It is difficult to determine the extent to which local authorities will use article 4 directions to deal with new HMO development.”

Local authorities have concerns about having to pay compensation to a party whose planning permission is refused when it would otherwise have been permitted development. Charnwood borough council’s response to the Department in July 2010 stated that the article 4 option

“was among those offered to stake holders by the previous government in its exploration of potential planning responses to the problem. It failed to attract support chiefly because of the provisions for compensation which would have discouraged local planning authorities from claiming that power.”

The Minister knows that local authorities will be calculating whether that is a financial risk worth taking at a time when money is so tight.

The submission of the Residential Landlords Association to the Department in July responded to the question whether planning authorities would choose to issue article 4 directions with immediate effect or with less than 12 months’ notice:

“No, from our experience where compensation is involved it is highly unlikely that local authorities would seek to do anything which could involve them having to pay compensation.”

In the light of the documents that were sent to me last night, will the Minister confirm what is the situation in relation to the conversion of a dwelling house to an HMO? Am I correct that if a council makes an article 4 direction with 12 months’ notice of that direction, compensation may be payable if permission is refused within that first 12 months, but that after that time, assuming that all the proper processes are followed and the article 4 direction remains in place, compensation would not be payable?

I note that the Secretary of State also has the power to make article 4 directions. Will the Minister confirm whether the Secretary of State might take action if a local authority unreasonably refuses to make an article 4 direction in an area that needs it? I appreciate that that is not the kind of top-down action from Whitehall in which this Government, and this Secretary of State in particular, want to indulge.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. A number of hon. Members present have a university in their constituency. Much as we value those universities and the economic benefits that they bring to our areas, there are significant problems relating to HMOs. Does she agree that in areas with large unitary authorities, such as Cornwall, the council that is best placed to make decisions about the use of article 4 directions is the parish or town council in the area that contains the HMOs?

I agree absolutely. If the Government want to empower local communities, they must do so at the right level and include those who are most aware of the problems. Local communities and councils that work together are fully aware of the problems. The Government rightly talk a lot about the localism agenda, and I am sure that the Minister has taken on board my hon. Friend’s point.

The counter-point to that and to the Government’s thinking on this matter is that if there is not a problem in an area, there will not be many applications to change to HMOs. The Government have therefore got this argument on its head.

I recognise that this is not an issue for a large number of local authorities. Submissions have been made to suggest that councils could opt out of the regulations if they do not apply to their area. The Government have decided to give local authorities the power to impose restrictions when planning permission is sought. If that is the case, my argument is that local authorities must have real power and not be open to undue financial risk. Even those of us who have not been councillors know that local planning authorities do not like to take risks. If there is any chance of a financial risk in the current financial climate, they will be reluctant to take the powers that the Government have said are on offer to plug the April order.

Finally, I will say a word about restoring balance to our local communities. It is generally accepted that when a concentration of about 20% or more of a particular group, such as students, is found in one community, the balance of that community starts to change. I have mentioned the damaging effect that that shift had on the local school, church and post office in one area of Loughborough. Long-established residents decide they want to move out and potential new permanent residents decide to stay away. I do not believe that any national or local authority wants to see that, and I certainly do not as Loughborough’s MP.

Where do we go from here? I hope that I can help the Minister by offering a few constructive thoughts. First, the explanatory memorandum for the October orders states that the policy changes are to be reviewed in October 2013 to consider their impact and the extent to which the objectives have been achieved. It states that arrangements are in place to allow a systematic collection of monitoring information for future policy reviews. In annexe 1, the post implementation review plan is helpfully set out in detail. I agree that it is important to check what impact the changes are having. Will the Minister confirm that the review will take place and say what arrangements are in place to allow for the collection of that monitoring information?

Secondly, I hope that the Minister will pass on to the Minister for Housing and Local Government that since July, I have received more requests for him to visit Loughborough. Indeed, more constituents have requested him than have requested the Prime Minister. Please will the Minister or his colleague agree to visit Loughborough to see for themselves why local residents and the council are so concerned about this issue?

Thirdly, anecdotal evidence in Loughborough suggests that, as a result of the university having built much more on-campus accommodation, demand for houses in certain streets might be beginning to fall. Is there a way that the Department could work with local councils and communities to restore balance to such areas and to create more sustainable communities?

The Department recently announced a consultation on the new homes bonus. One of the questions is whether the bonus should be extended if empty properties are brought back into use. Would the Government consider whether the scheme or some other incentive could be extended to properties that can be used by families or other long-term residents, rather than sitting empty because the demand for them as student lets is shrinking?

In particular, many of my residents are concerned that, because students do not pay council tax, no council tax is received in respect of HMOs occupied solely by students. I agree that that is a whole other debate, for another day, but some form of financial incentive for restoring balance to local communities might be welcomed by local authorities and, indeed, actively sought in difficult financial times.

The idea of empowering local residents and the council to take direct action in specifically affected areas is right, but the powers must be real and capable of being exercised without opening local authorities to undue financial risk that would stop them taking those powers. This is also an opportunity to empower communities to put right some of the damage done—the imbalance caused by the rapid proliferation of HMOs in towns such as Loughborough. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments.

Before calling the next speaker, may I say that there is a lot of interest in the debate? If I call the first Front-Bench speaker at 5.10 pm, that leaves only half an hour to fit everyone else in, so I hope that people will keep their remarks appropriately brief.

I am speaking in the debate because the issue is of extreme importance to my constituents, in particular those living in areas such as Dunkirk, Lenton and Wollaton Park who feel that their local neighbourhoods face irretrievable damage as a result of the uncontrolled spread of houses in multiple occupation.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) on securing the debate—her contribution was extremely thorough and asked many good questions on behalf of all of us.

Local people in Nottingham, supported by their local elected representatives, campaigned for years to secure the planning changes that Labour introduced on 6 April. They would agree that we should have acted earlier, but the change was none the less very welcome when it came. It was exactly what local people had been asking for and would have protected their communities for the future.

I do not need to go into a great deal of detail here, because hon. Members present understand the problems that high concentrations of HMOs create in local communities, but I want to set out briefly why the issues matter to my constituents in Nottingham South.

In Nottingham, we are fortunate to have two excellent universities that attract thousands of young people to our city. We value greatly the contribution that the universities make to our city and we welcome students into our communities. However, the impact of large numbers of family homes being converted into student lets has been considerable, and many long-term residents feel that their local neighbourhoods are changing beyond recognition.

For example, in Lenton, we have seen many of the local shops disappear, to be replaced by takeaways. Local residents have seen their local primary school shut down for lack of children. During term time, they experience daily problems with parking and, unfortunately, on occasion, with noise, litter and increased crime. Outside term time, they sometimes feel that they live in a ghost town.

The universities, Nottingham city council and local voluntary and church groups are working hard to restore a sense of community, but they need the support of the Government too. The ability to control the development of HMOs gave local people real hope—the opportunity to maintain balanced and sustainable communities, rather than have their neighbourhoods left to the market.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, because I am conscious of time. Obviously, the problems do not stop at the boundaries of Nottingham South. In Nottingham East, we share a similar set of problems. She is completely correct to say that the permanent residents, in particular those who are not students, feel strongly about the issues. It is a planning matter, and it seems such a shame that we are now not in a position to have the local authority properly empowered, in particular for this next year, to exercise those rights on behalf of local residents.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right—it is about the opportunity to maintain those balanced and sustainable communities, not about being anti-student. Students are very welcome, but it is important that communities are balanced. That is why local residents feel so badly let down by the Government.

I have three questions in particular that I want to ask. Hopefully the Minister will respond to them. First, why was the consultation this summer so narrow and selective? The previous Government undertook extensive consultation on all the options and the planning changes they made reflected the view expressed by the vast majority of respondents. The current Government seem to have ignored all that and, after a hasty consultation over the summer, have chosen the option virtually no one—just 1%—wanted.

Secondly, why was the change rushed through without proper time for debate and discussion of the consequences or any time to see the implications and effects of the new planning changes that had just been brought in? It is very welcome that we are having today’s debate, but the truth is that it is too late. The protection that local people had worked so hard to secure was removed at the beginning of October—yet the guidance on article 4 directions was not published until last week.

Finally, do the changes not present landlords in those areas most affected with a perverse incentive to convert family homes into HMOs before article 4 directions are in place? Local authorities cannot risk compensation claims, especially in the current climate, and therefore we will have a gap of at least 12 months when we will be back to uncontrolled development.

Local communities such as mine are desperate for local planning authorities to be able to protect their interests. Why are the Government simply ignoring them?

It is a pleasure to participate in the debate and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) on securing it. She articulated well many of the concerns of local authorities up and down the country, in particular on article 4 directions and the potential for compensation—certainly something my own local authority in Milton Keynes is concerned about. I will not dwell on those points, since she spoke so well, I simply ask the Minister one question on behalf of Milton Keynes council, which, he is aware, is seeking a legal review at the moment. The council is keen to continue negotiations with the Government, but I understand that the Government would rather wait until the legal challenge has finished before they communicate again. It would be helpful to me, and to the council, if the Minister could confirm that.

I am sorry to say that the debate is particularly relevant to my constituency. I have long pushed for tougher measures on HMOs, given the various problems that they have caused in Milton Keynes. I even secured an Adjournment debate on the matter back in 2007. However, two months ago, two people died in an HMO fire—deaths that might have been prevented—which brought into sharp focus why fire safety is paramount in such properties, of which we have many in Milton Keynes. I want to summarise the chain of events that led to the tragedy and propose how lessons might be learnt.

In the early hours of Sunday 5 September, the emergency services were called to 200 Fishermead boulevard, where a fire had broken out on the first floor. It was clear to crews on arrival that this was an HMO: a three-storey, three-bedroom terrace property converted into five bedsits. Firefighters rescued one woman, and a firefighter was injured when the floor collapsed beneath him.

In the morning, friends were still searching for 29-year-old Bola Ejifunmilayo and her three-year-old daughter Fiyin. It was not until the next day, when the friends reported the two missing, that the property was searched again. Their bodies were discovered in a top-floor bedsit, 30 hours after the blaze. Why the search was discontinued and why it took so long to discover the bodies are the subjects of separate police and fire investigations. I would not want to pre-empt the outcome of either investigation. My focus is simply that this was an undeclared, unlicensed HMO.

Since the incident, I have met the Buckinghamshire fire and rescue service. It is clear that the outcome of the tragedy could have been very different with only a few simple fire precautions. The crucial point is that, because the landlord declared that the house was not an HMO, there was no local authority inspection, which would have ensured fire precautions, such as fire alarms, being put in place. As a result, the fire was burning for approximately 45 minutes before 999 was called. There were no self-closing doors but, for example, the door to the room where the blaze started was open, and fire doors could have contained the blaze for at least 30 minutes.

On Monday, I joined officers during an HMO inspection. Their checks included ensuring that the landlord provided means of escape, as well as fire extinguishers, blankets and doors with in-built keys to unlock them. The unregulated conversion of some HMOs—such as the addition of extra rooms or the removal of wall and floor linings—can also pose structural risks, and creating ducting or openings between floors can assist the spread of fire and cause a chimney-like effect for the flames.

It is widely accepted that HMOs are more susceptible to fire than other types of properties. That is borne out by the figures. In 2007, around 2% of houses in the UK were HMOs, but around 33% of fire deaths happened in multiple-occupancy properties. In Milton Keynes, HMOs suffer a disproportionate number of house fires.

Apart from overcrowding, HMOs put five times as much demand on the electrical supply. In these properties, kitchen appliances such as fridges are common in bedrooms; electric extension cables abound; and several people often cook meals at the same time. There is also an element of anonymity among the people who live in HMOs. That can heighten the risk of fire. The population in some HMO communities can be very transient, and it unlikely that residents will know who is living in the next room, let alone the next house.

On the tragic morning of 5 September, it appears that there was confusion in Fishermead about who lived in which bedsit. Firefighters find it harder to evacuate places if there is no awareness among those who live there and no interdependency. Given the nature of HMOs and their tenants, will the Minister acknowledge that they are more hazardous and that they therefore warrant more stringent fire regulations? Despite fire safety being paramount in HMOs, 200 Fishermead boulevard was not licensed or identified as an HMO, and was therefore not subject to safety checks. As far as the council was concerned, it was a single family dwelling. The authority had been assured of that through an e-mail from the landlord in January 2009.

I emphasise how important it is for the authorities to know when a house is an HMO. Not only can the information help prevent fires, as I have explained, but when the fire service takes a 999 call the crew is able to prepare for such an incident en route. Given that fire safety can be assured only when an HMO is declared as such, registering these properties should be made a priority.

Even for registered HMOs, risks surround inspection. Dual legislation means that although local authorities are responsible for inspecting bedrooms and private areas, the fire service inspects communal areas such as kitchens, landings and stairways. The fire authority acts under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, but the council has to adhere to the provisions of the Housing Act 2004. However, Milton Keynes operates a Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services or LACORS agreement. The council enforces it on behalf of both authorities, and it is supported by the fire service out of hours when required.

Apparently the LACORS method works better than when responsibilities remain divided. Even then, however, fire safety is not as rigorous as it could be. Councils have to give 24 hours’ notice before inspections, but fire authorities can enter immediately. As a result, the deputy chief fire officer has written to the leader of Milton Keynes council, offering the authority the fire service’s more dynamic powers.

It is no wonder that the fire service is so keen to help. It is the fire service that has to deal with the consequences. Officers would rather visit homes and install fire safety precautions than tackle a fire. They even have the power to prosecute. Meanwhile, the council is overstretched. Milton Keynes has five council staff responsible for overseeing the city’s 90,000 properties. Will the Minister consider streamlining this dual legislation? Though the LACORS agreement works well in Milton Keynes, will he consider allowing the fire service to take the lead in HMO fire safety?

I acknowledge that HMOs fulfil a necessary role, and that they are here to stay. However, our current legislative approach underestimates the magnitude of risk that they pose to residents—as proved at Fishermead. I would like to see a more robust approach to fire safety for HMOs. To that end, will the Minister acknowledge the risk, prioritise their registration and perhaps put the fire services back in the driving seat?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) on securing this debate, and on the way in which she put her case to the House. I do not disagree with one word of what she said. The hon. Lady has campaigned and been active in the House on the issue of HMOs, as have I. If the Minister here today—and the Minister who was present at what might be called part 1 of this discussion, which took place on the prayer against the orders that were debated in Committee Room 12 on Tuesday—will not listen to me, I hope that they will listen to her.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that, in Loughborough and in many other communities, the advent of new rules that enabled local authorities to take planning action as far as permission for HMOs was concerned represented a manifest step forward. Local authorities in many towns and cities had long wanted a change to be made so that such action could be taken.

As has been said, the debate is not about students or studentification. It is about balanced and sustainable communities in those parts of the country where students—but not exclusively students—occupy HMOs. It is not the students’ fault, and not their concern, but such homes are often used in that way without conversion—and, as the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) said, without any thought of safety. They are placed in the HMO market and are instantly occupied by four, five, six or even seven people, where previously a family may have lived, with the attendant changes and stresses on the community that that represents.

Such change was for a long time out of sync with planning and housing legislation, and the idea that it could be subject to planning regulation and planning permission was a great step forward, not only in theory but in practice. The balanced and sustainable communities all-party group visited Belfast last year to see how the changes had been implemented there. It was a precise parallel, with the use class orders for housing separated into two, and the changes have worked well. Not only that, but the landlords in Belfast thoroughly supported the changes. They accepted that the new regime brought a number of benefits for them, as well as for the communities affected. I agree with the hon. Member for Loughborough that when the changes came into effect in the spring they made a difference. It was a difference too long in coming, but it was nevertheless real.

We then come to the October changes. Frankly—I shall not mince my words—they were an act of legislative vandalism. They purported to change the planning regulations so that planning permission could be required, under article 4 direction, in the communities with a concentration of such properties. As the hon. Lady said, it is extremely unlikely, particularly in the present circumstances, that many local authorities will take that route.

I have a letter announcing that the local authority in Southampton is cutting 250 jobs; among them are five environmental health officer jobs. That is the result of a £62 million deficit in the council’s budget heading. The idea is fanciful that, at the same time as such cuts are being made, local authorities could easily take on board the risk of the compensation payments that might loom. It is also fanciful to suggest that local authorities would undertake a process outside the planning system, when if the planning permissions requirement had remained, the application fees would have paid for most of the changes so they would have been, effectively, self-funded.

We are back to the status quo ante. Like the hon. Member for Loughborough, I received a cyber missive late last night from the Minister for Housing and Local Government, setting out his reasons for the change. After a page of discussion on article 4, which is not quite the weapon that he thinks it is, he said that the problem affected only a small number of communities. That is not right. Indeed, in our debate on the orders on Tuesday, he said that the Rugg report on the consultations on the legislative changes made in April stated that only 0.5% of wards were affected. However, that was based on the idea that 10% or more of homes in that particular ward had already turned into HMOs. He then conceded that that was a substantial underestimate, and that 5% or 6% of communities were affected. That is out, I think, by some 15%, and I put the figure at 20% or 30%.

Most of the main freestanding towns and cities in this country have this issue at the heart of their communities. It is not a tiny minority issue. It may be the case that in substantial parts of the country it is not a particular issue but, as the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) pointed out, those are the places in which very few applications are made, so it is not a particular imposition—in theory at least—for those communities to have to look at planning permission as far as such homes are concerned. Even if it were an imposition, the original suggestions made during the discussions before the April measures provided for the idea of an opt-out.

In the letter that appeared on my computer last night, the Minister said that the change is all about localism. However, what has happened with these changes—which are frankly unbelievable amendments to the April changes—is that local people have been denied the opportunity to take back control of how their communities are balanced and planned by their local authorities. A far better version of localism would have been to enable communities and local authorities to opt out of measures if they thought that they were not appropriate for their areas. That would have been a genuine local choice. Before the recent changes, if communities had had serious concerns, the use class changes, the planning permissions, the funding and the ability of those communities to make decisions based on local need would be firmly in place. I therefore reject the idea that the measure is all about localism; it is not. It is about taking us back to the position we were in before any changes were made. I regret to say that those people who have been campaigning hard for change will have to do so all over again.

I hope that the Government will think again about the changes, review them early and conclude that they have got them wrong. I hope rather than believe that that will be the case. It may be that the representations that were made by the hon. Member for Loughborough will have to be repeated by many others to enable us to make progress to the balanced and sustainable communities that could have been achieved by these changes.

In view of the time, I shall be as brief as I can. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) on securing this debate on a matter that affects a large number of constituencies the length and breadth of the United Kingdom.

When I arrived in Southampton in 1991 to go to university in what is now the constituency of the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), only one in seven of the population went on to higher education. That figure is now almost one in two. My constituency of Bournemouth West is probably at the stage now where Southampton was in the early 1990s. Figures from the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health show that between 2000 and 2007, studentification increased in Bournemouth by 47.1%. That dramatic increase is having a huge impact on the communities that I serve.

On 17 June, the Minister for Housing and Local Government stated:

“I understand the concerns of local people who see their neighbourhoods being damaged by undue concentrations of HMOs and the significant impact this is having on their quality of life.”

That is profoundly true in Bournemouth West.

In two areas of my constituency, the problem is particularly acute. The Branksome East ward is in the Poole area and is adjacent to the university campus. Large Barratt-style houses that would go for between £350,000 and £400,000 are being purchased by landlords and used for student accommodation.

Does my hon. Friend support my idea that any expansion in higher education should be matched by an expansion in student hall facilities, thereby reducing the impact on existing housing stock?

My hon. Friend makes a valid point on behalf of his constituents in Swindon, and one that is worthy of further consideration by the Minister.

In the area to which I referred there is a fantastic residents association, led by Victor Shears, that is trying to get Ministers to understand the impact of the problem and the ways in which it is changing the character of our communities. The Winton area, the most significant area in my Bournemouth West constituency, has seen a dramatic increase in the numbers of students in recent years. The Winton Forum, which is chaired by Pat Oakley and the former Liberal Democrat councillor Anson Westbrook, is working hard to engage in a dialogue with Ministers. It wants places where the problem is particularly serious to be better supported by Government regulation.

Let me give one small example of the problem’s impact on the quality of life in the area. Bournemouth university, the Arts university college and Bournemouth council got together to joint fund a duty officer to monitor noise. In 2008-09, complaints were upheld against more than 90 student properties. Some 63 abatement notices were served on 16 properties. In the past year alone, the number of complaints has risen by more than 25%. In part, those increases were down to the fact that the local community and the university published out-of-hours numbers so that residents could make their complaints known.

Other hon. Members have talked about the increase in the number of fast food outlets and the diminished trade during university holidays that makes businesses unviable. I am not anti-student. I would not change a second of my experience in Southampton in the early 1990s. This is about universities being a vital part of the local economy and responsible players.

Let me put three important points to the Minister. First, my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough made the point about compensation. That is a very serious issue that local authorities are having to deal with under article 4 directions. Secondly, there is the matter of the private rented sector handing over its properties to the university letting service, thereby exempting itself from some of the regulations. My hon. Friend was absolutely right about that, and tempts us to an Adjournment debate. Thirdly, there is the fact that student properties do not contribute to the council tax, but still require the services of the local authority.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her efforts in this debate and I hope that we can have some reassurances from the Minister. I hope that I have been brief enough to let in one of my other colleagues.

The Front Benchers have said that they will delay speaking until 5.15 to allow Back Benchers more time. I hope that the two hon. Members will be able to share that time between them.

I thank the Front Benchers for that concession.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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