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House of Commons Hansard
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Housing Ombudsman (Power to Settle Disputes between Neighbours and Tenants)
03 March 2015
Volume 593

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for a discretionary power to enable the Housing Ombudsman to attempt to resolve disputes between occupants of neighbouring properties in cases where nuisance is caused by tenants; and for connected purposes.

Members will know that houses in multiple occupation —so-called HMOs—are a growing feature of our towns and cities. Last year there were almost 200,000 in London alone, which was a growth of over 10,000 on the previous 12 months. There are now more than 1,000 HMOs in my borough of Enfield. Why have we seen this growth? Often HMOs offer cheaper and flexible accommodation. They are already a key component of our housing tapestry. HMOs are also an attractive prospect for private landlords. As the website of one property management firm puts it:

“If you have a large property and are renting it out to just one tenant, consider transforming it into a HMO or hostel. This gives you the ability to take on more tenants and thus increase your potential for profit.”

However, as the website also says:

“If you want to turn your property into a hostel or HMO, there are certain responsibilities you need to consider”,

most of which relate to the condition and safety of the premises. My Bill seeks to add to those responsibilities, particularly in the field of antisocial behaviour, without the heavy hand of regulation imposing greater burdens.

Some weeks ago a constituent came to me who lives next to one of the HMOs managed by the property management firm to which I have referred. Some of the tenants, who admitted that they smoked too much marijuana which made them behave erratically, made my constituent’s life a nightmare: scratching their car; constantly playing loud music; knocking on the doors well beyond midnight; and on one occasion smashing up their property. The police and the council batted the problem between them. My constituent could not, of course, over a period of time even build any relationships with the HMO residents, as they are often transient. The constituent, who prefers to remain anonymous for reasons the House will understand, has attempted to resolve the matter themselves. My constituent and their family are responsible, decent and hard-working, and do not immediately look to others, including the state, to solve their problems, but after weeks of discussion with the occupants and the landlord agent, they saw no progress. The state failed to solve the behavioural issues, and the agent simply recycled the tenants.

In a final attempt to resolve the problem, my constituent tried to contact the landlord. The agent would not disclose the landlord’s details. As far as we can tell, they made no effort to arrange a meeting between the neighbours and the landlords. In desperation, my constituent turned to their local MP, and I turned to this Bill. Clearly, the standard rules surrounding antisocial behaviour in private rented accommodation are simply not enough when dealing with packed HMOs. For example, the lengthy process for a neighbour to get a noise abatement notice against a single tenant is often too little, too late. Indeed, Mr Deputy Speaker, you will appreciate better than anyone the difficulty of controlling antisocial behaviour in a crowded House with many unruly occupants, but at least the boundaries here are clear.

Selective licensing of houses in multiple occupation acknowledges the unique issues and allows local authorities to crack down on antisocial areas, but as we have heard, many have failed to do so. However, authority-wide licence zones mean more costs for all landlords, not just the rogues. We need to give neighbours themselves the tools to hold landlords responsible, when appropriate. Put simply, when other steps fail to deal with the problem, or when landlord agents simply remove tenants and replace them with other challenging occupants, there is at present no recourse to the landlord. Landlords do not answer to neighbours for the consequences of contracts they have entered into with agents and tenants.

As we know only too well, antisocial behaviour is often treated as a problem for the victim, and there is no workable process to deal with the negative externalities that result from contracts being formed. However, the mediation that I propose, initiated by the ombudsman, would offer another solution. The Bill sets out a means of giving neighbours the right to seek mediation with the landlord, if the housing ombudsman agrees. At present, the ombudsman can instruct mediation only between a landlord and a tenant. Indeed, the advice from the ombudsman states:

“The first person to tell about a problem with housing is the landlord. They might be able to put things right.”

I could not agree more. I think that the same applies to antisocial behaviour next door, but at the moment, it is extremely difficult to locate and identify a landlord. Indeed, it is almost impossible when a landlord wishes to protect their identity.

The Bill would provide a means of dealing with the disturbing practice of recycling antisocial behaviour, which frankly takes too long for local authorities to sort out. I want to put a stop to the practice by giving neighbours who are the victims of antisocial behaviour the right to deal with the landlord of the property in question. I believe that that will help to resolve the problem in a timely fashion. The vast majority of landlords are good landlords, and they will want to stop bad behaviour when they are made aware of it. If there are landlords who do not care, the Bill will force them to take action. In many cases, the neighbours believe that the landlord is not even aware of the problems in the property that they have let out.

This change must be made, however, without getting the ombudsman involved in more generic neighbourhood disputes. This is not about disputes over high hedges, parking or planning. The Bill is not about interfering with the growth in HMOs. It does not confer rights on neighbours to object to the use of premises as HMOs. Rather, it is about easing the path of reconciliation by setting out clearly the right to take concerns directly to landlords when other reasonable steps taken by the victims have failed. The Bill would hold absentee landlords responsible for antisocial behaviour without having to introduce a special licence or blocking the HMO.

Who has not had constituents in their surgeries telling them that they are facing intolerable quality-of-life issues because of neighbours from hell? The House should seek to remedy that situation and make it easier for our constituents who do the right thing, the decent thing, and who wish to try to solve the problem for themselves. If we can facilitate that for them, we will be taking a great step forward. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Nick de Bois, Mr David Burrowes, Jim Fitzpatrick, Sarah Newton, Bob Blackman, Sir Bob Russell, Mike Freer, Mr Lee Scott, Mrs Mary Glindon, Sir Roger Gale, Graham Stringer and Ms Gisela Stuart present the Bill.

Nick de Bois accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 March, and to be printed (Bill 179).