Skip to main content

Protection of Family Homes (Enforcement and Permitted Development) Bill

Volume 616: debated on Friday 28 October 2016

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

May I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for—[Interruption.]

Order. It is unfair on the hon. Gentleman that people are making a noise while leaving the Chamber. His Bill is also important and deserves a hearing.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). I am very pleased that his Homelessness Reduction Bill has made progress.

Let me be blunt: I have been here a long time, and I know how Fridays work. In fact, in a previous life I was the Government Whip on Fridays, so I have a fair idea of what to expect. I intend to be very brief because I would really like to give this straightforward proposal a chance to make it on to the statute book. If it is not the Government’s intention to give my Bill a chance, I ask the Minister to consider the injustice and wrongs that it seeks to address, and at least to think about how the Government might tackle the issue. I am quite willing to meet him and his colleagues to consider other options. My ego is not such that I need to have a Bill with my name on it; what I want is something to address the problem. The Neighbourhood Planning Bill is currently before the House, and we could amend that. I think there is also a White Paper imminent.

The purpose of the Bill is to offer occupants of family homes some relief and protection against rogue developers and landlords who are exploiting permitted development rules where the shortage of local authority resources and the complexity of existing enforcement arrangements means that there is little prospect of redress. Selly Oak Village and Bournbrook were once particularly attractive parts of my constituency. They consisted of a series of interlocking tree-lined streets full of small terraced and other family homes. Today they consist of “To Let” boards, with streets, pavements and front gardens littered with skips, builders’ rubble, sand and cement. All day and at the weekends, there is the noise of building works as developers knock up extensions of various shapes and sizes in an effort to convert family homes into five, six, eight, 10 and 12-bedroom houses in multiple occupation.

Birmingham City Council seems powerless to address this activity, even where it is clearly in breach of planning guidance, permitted development rules, and building regulations. It says that enforcement action is far too costly for local authorities, that Government guidance is not clear enough, and that it cannot risk a court case against well-heeled developers who are often much better resourced. The problem is not confined to Selly Oak or to Birmingham; it affects towns and cities across the country. The Minister may even have come across it in Nuneaton. Anywhere with a student population, a transient workforce or a high demand for temporary accommodation is being affected in the same way.

One example is the case of my constituents Mr and Mrs White, a retired couple who have lived for many years, and brought up their children, in the family home. A developer bought the house next door and promptly commenced an extension that has, in effect, changed their detached home into a semi-detached property, as the roof was expanded to sit on top of the roof and guttering of their home. The council failed to take enforcement action, despite the work commencing without any approval, because the developer had claimed the work was within permitted development rights. In reality, he went well beyond any rights he had. A surveyor’s report indicated severe damage to the Whites’ external wall. It has cost them thousands of pounds in court fees, and despite winning their case and being awarded costs, they have not yet received a penny, and the illegal extension is still in place.

Another constituent, Mrs O’Sullivan, complained that work on an extension included digging up the foundations in a shared alleyway. The council concluded that the requirement to take into account whether any breach unacceptably affects public amenity or involves the use of land and buildings that should be protected in the public interest meant that a court case was too costly and too risky.

On Gristhorpe Road, the Britannia Group continues to build extensions designed to convert existing homes into eight-bedroom properties, without planning permission and under the guise of permitted development. Given that it gets away with that, it is not surprising that other developers are doing the same thing in the same street and on adjacent roads. In one development, cowboy builders demolished the chimneys and gas flues of the home of the elderly couple next door, exposing them to the risk of serious carbon monoxide poisoning.

I could go on, but many Members will be familiar with the accounts that I have given. All those cases involve ordinary people who have worked and saved for their family homes, only to find rogue developers and landlords turning their properties and streets into a series of mini-hostels.

In the hon. Gentleman’s experience, are breaches reported by neighbours to the local authority, which then fails to act, or do the neighbours fail to report them to the local authority?

The point is that they are reported, but local authorities will not act because of the cost and complexity of the enforcement apparatus. That is what the Bill seeks to address. As the value of the properties affected plummets, the developers move in to snap them up and the cycle begins again.

I am not arguing against permitted development where someone wants to add a conservatory, extra bedroom, kitchen extension or another modification to their property. Nor am I arguing that conversion to flats of previous commercial properties, such as office blocks, is wrong. I am arguing that the systematic abuse of permitted development by rogue developers converting family homes into five, six, eight and 12-bedroom HMOs is destroying the character of whole neighbourhoods, reducing the number of family homes and damaging existing properties. I also wonder about the safety of those extensions, given the cowboy builders who are so often employed.

We need cheaper, effective enforcement powers, so that cash-strapped local authority planning departments can counter the unintended consequences of permitted development. Birmingham City Council claims that the current guidance is not clear and that many agents and individual owners are not sure about what they can and cannot build. Not surprisingly, however, those who advise them always err on the side of ever-greater expansion.

The Bill calls for four things. First, it calls for monitoring and inspection arrangements to be put in place by local authorities to ensure that developers are complying with the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015, and for an opportunity for those affected by such developments to request an inspection.

Secondly, the Bill calls for a simple complaints procedure to adjudicate on breaches of permitted development rights and an enforcement plan for tackling such abuse. Thirdly, it would allow local authorities to impose a financial penalty on a developer whose alterations are found to have exceeded entitlements under permitted development rights and/or created a structure or conditions with an adverse impact on the property or enjoyment of the property belonging to another person. Those penalties are modelled on those that the Government have already introduced in their recent Housing and Planning Act 2016 to deal with rogue landlords.

Finally, the Bill calls on the Secretary of State to lay a report before each House on compliance of developers with the 2015 order and to comment on the monitoring investigations and complaints process. It also offers the prospect of the Secretary of State issuing clarifying guidance. Given that the current guidance on permitted development runs to about 200 pages, I think that that measure must be coming down the tracks. For the sake of Mr and Mrs White, and the thousands of other innocent homeowners like them, I urge the Minister and Members of the House to support the Bill.

It is a pleasure to be called to speak in this debate, and not least to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe). I believe that he secured this Bill by joining us for the sleep-out a few months ago. We had a slightly uncomfortable but very successful evening, in which we spent about eight hours on the floor upstairs outside the Public Bill Office.

I welcome the fact that we are debating what we should do about family homes. In Torbay, Victorian villas that were once fairly substantial properties are now being converted, with mixed success, either into homes explicitly in multiple occupation or, as the hon. Gentleman alluded to, into homes in which a suspiciously large number of people live, which were designed to avoid the HMO regulations. That is especially common in places where the local authority is trying to restrict the number of HMOs.

In Morgan Avenue in my constituency, residents are concerned about one property—it would be unfair to name it on the Floor of the House—which may be being used as an HMO even though permission to convert it into one has been turned down. Even if that property is not being used as such, a large number of properties in the area have undergone conversions, which have not necessarily been sympathetic. That has put pressure on local services and removed desperately needed three and four-bedroom family accommodation, particularly in areas where the local services nearby are very useful for those who do not have a car.

I am glad that we are having this debate. When I think back to my time as deputy leader of Coventry City Council, when the Minister and I knew each other rather well, we faced a dilemma over how to enforce the rules and how to justify tying up a planning officer for a significant period. That would be fine if we were dealing with a very large enforcement case, but we had to decide which ones came first and how to reach the required evidential standards. I hope that the Bill will give the Government an opportunity to look at the rules. I suspect that the Bill will not make a huge amount of progress beyond today, but it provides a useful chance to look again at how we deal with developers who seek to turn family homes into HMOs.

I was interested to read in the Bill the suggestions around sanctions and creating codes of practice in the next six months. Even though the Bill may not reach the statute book, perhaps the Minister could reflect on those things in his response—[Interruption.] I hear heckling from the shadow Front-Bench team. I am happy to keep going, because I presume that they would like to hear more of my comments. I will not be cruel, however; I will make sure that the Front Benchers have time to respond to the Bill. I can see the clock.

I am keen that future development in Torbay should be appropriate and provide family homes, and that those homes should be protected. In our debate on the previous Bill, we talked about getting people off the streets, and the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) pointed out that we have to ensure that there is good accommodation for those people to go into. If their housing offer is a room at the back end of a Victorian villa with perhaps a bathroom or a very small bedroom off it, they will end up doing their washing, cooking and sleeping all in the same room, and it will be only one step up from a hostel. I find it particularly difficult when families approach me, as so many do, because they are struggling to find accommodation that meets their needs, especially if they have a child or a family member with disabilities. They need a particular type of house—probably a family home with a garden—but if such houses can easily be converted to different uses, the situation is made much harder.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill has evident merits but should be seen within the context of other action by local authorities to regenerate city centres using permitted development rights and the appropriate use of selective licensing schemes, particularly in urban areas?

My hon. Friend makes a useful and interesting observation. I agree with him on selective licensing schemes in areas where there have been issues with rogue landlords. The active residents group in Melville Hill, Torbay has been campaigning for a selective licensing scheme for some time, and my view has always been that people renting higher-value properties on the edge of town are able to advocate for themselves, but licensing schemes are welcome in areas where there have been problems. The merit of the Bill has to be seen against the whole range of powers available to local authorities, but I accept that its main thrust is to try to make some of those powers more usable on a practical, day-to-day basis. I welcome what is being done.

Finally, permitted development rights make particular sense where a building has been out of action for some time. I ask the Minister to ponder how we ensure that office blocks in significant locations, such as Roebuck House on Abbey Road in Torquay, that are converted from commercial to residential use do not end up being converted into one-bedroom studio flats with few facilities around them, essentially becoming a large house in multiple occupation, rather than being converted into two or three-bedroom properties that might be more needed in the local housing market?

I am conscious of the time, so I will now conclude my speech. I welcome that this issue has been brought to the Floor of the House. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

I too begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on the progress of his Bill.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) for introducing this excellent Protection of Family Homes (Enforcement and Permitted Development) Bill. His constituents have clearly been having problems with permitted development so I applaud him for shining a light on the issue, which he rightly says is not only confined to Birmingham but affects all our constituencies across the UK.

The Opposition fully support my hon. Friend’s Bill. Nothing better characterises the difference between the Government’s approach and Labour’s approach to planning than permitted development. I am sure the Housing Minister and his predecessors can testify to our ongoing objections to the Government’s extension and relaxation of permitted development rights and the system that underpins them. The system takes away the ability of local people and their elected representatives to have a say on development in their area.

I hear what the hon. Lady is saying. Does she not accept that if a local area has such concerns about permitted development rights and their use, the local authority in question can invoke an article 4 direction and take away those permitted development rights?

I do indeed know that a local authority can apply for an article 4 direction, but I also know that the Government have made it extremely difficult for local authorities to get one. Applying for an article 4 direction is a cumbersome process.

To be clear, we are not against change of use, per se. Labour is arguing for a proper system of planning approval that considers all the issues that are likely to arise from a development so that any necessary mitigation may be put in place if it is approved. We fully recognise the need for many more homes, but we want additional housing of all tenures to be built as part of good-quality and properly planned developments in a sustainable and appropriate way and in consultation with local people.

We believe the measures in the Bill will provide protection for residents against those who seek to exploit permitted development rules, as well as introducing a clear complaints procedure and enforcement rules. The Bill makes provisions for local authorities to check that changes made through permitted development are in compliance with the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015, and empowers local people to request that neighbouring properties can be inspected for their compliance. It also puts in place mechanisms for dealing with complaints relating to non-compliance. The measures in the Bill are perfectly reasonable and will help to ensure that the 2015 order is complied with.

We know that some developments being brought forward through permitted development rights result in poor housing and poorly planned neighbourhoods. We have heard from architects, one of whom said of the Housing and Planning Act 2016:

“This new bill only addresses speed of delivery: short-sighted political gain at the cost of long-term quality.”

That loss of long-term quality comes with some of the changes under permitted development. So extensive are permitted development rights now that the 2015 order is 162 pages long, with a further 12 pages of extension this year. That undermines the Government’s claim that they are interested in placemaking. In placemaking, one needs some emphasis on infrastructure, access to services, availability of local jobs and everything else that goes into making a local community. That emphasis is exactly what cannot happen with the wide use of permitted development.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak does his constituents, and all of ours, a real favour by bringing forward a Bill that seeks to address some of the abuses of the permitted development system. I hope that the Government take the Bill seriously and support it.

I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) for introducing the Bill. Housing is a key priority for my Department and for the Government. As the Prime Minister has made absolutely clear, ensuring that the housing market works for everyone is necessary if we are going to make Britain work for everyone.

We are making good progress, delivering more than 700,000 additional homes since 2010. We have doubled the housing budget to more than £20 billion over the next five years, but there is still significant work to be done. The Neighbourhood Planning Bill currently before Parliament supports house building while providing more say for communities over developments in their area. We need a range of homes for individuals and households at different stages of their lives, with different needs and incomes.

The private rented sector, including houses in multiple occupation, plays an important role in the housing market. Around 4.3 million households in England live in private rented homes. Single people, students and those embarking on their first job in a new town often want to rent a room. They may only be staying in the area for a fixed period, such as a university term; they may want to get familiar with an area before they find a more permanent home of their own; or it may simply be that they are not in a position where they can afford to live alone. Houses in multiple occupation, including smaller shared houses, can provide flexibility. Where they offer good quality, safe accommodation, managed by responsible landlords, they can provide a much needed service.

Many households live in decent, well-maintained homes in the private rented sector. However, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak is all too aware, that is not always the case.

The Minister is making a very good case. Does he believe, as I do, that, given that about a third of local planning authorities do not have robust local plans in place, it is incumbent on those authorities to do their bit in defending the integrity of residential areas as much as it is on the passing of specific legislation such as this Bill?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. It is incumbent on all local authorities to put local plans in place. My hon. Friend and I spent many happy hours on the Housing and Planning Bill Committee. The Bill, which became an Act earlier this year, includes provision to compel local authorities to put local plans in place. He is absolutely right that any local authority that does not do so has an obligation to its residents to protect its area. If it cannot do so because it does not have a substantive local plan, then unless there are any practical reasons why it has not been able to do so, it is failing its local population.

Returning to landlords prepared to exploit their tenants, who are sometimes the most vulnerable members of our society with very little choice of housing, unfortunately a number of rogue landlords do not manage their properties properly. They have no regard for planning legislation or building regulations. They are prepared to rent out substandard accommodation: homes that are dangerous and overcrowded.

The Bill draws attention to the need for measures to tackle the problem of illegal or substandard housing. However, I do not accept that the hon. Gentleman’s proposals are necessary in this context. There is already a range of regulations to tackle the various breaches to which he draws attention. In particular, the private rented sector provisions in the Housing and Planning Act 2016—at least three of us in the Chamber sat on the Bill Committee—show a real determination from the Government to tackle rogue landlords by disrupting their business models and putting them out of business.

The central point is the cost and effectiveness of the enforcement measures. If the Minister thinks there are alternative ways of dealing with this, will he accept my earlier offer to meet for talks about how the Government might be able to do that? I am concerned to address the injustice. I am not that desperate to have an extra bit of legislation. I want legislation that will tackle the problem.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I will come on to talk about some of the things the Government have done to make the enforcement process easier for local authorities. I hear what he says about the spirit in which he introduced the Bill. He will know that the Housing and Planning Minister will consider carefully what is said in this debate and that the Government will publish a housing White Paper in due course. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be able to bring these issues to the fore.

On next steps, will the Minister look at how we communicate with local authorities about the powers they already have; for example, talking to Torbay Council about whether a selective licence scheme would help to deal with some of the specific issues around Melville Hill, even if, rightly, it did not want introduce one across its whole borough area?

My hon. Friend is a great champion for the Torbay area and I hear what he says about Melville Hill. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of his constituency. If he is saying that that is the type of area where his constituents need to be protected by the selective licensing regime, I am sure his local authority should heed his advice. Before introducing new legislation, we should always consider current legislation and ensure it is being enforced effectively.

Certainly in respect of rogue landlords, which I am talking about and my hon. Friend has mentioned, the 2016 Act is relevant. I take on board the comments made by the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods). The Government have put in place significant powers to protect local authorities. There is now a regime under which local authorities can levy civil penalties against the worst examples of rogue landlords, and they range up to £30,000. As with many other penalties and fines, the local authority gets to keep the money and is able to use it to do more work around enforcement.

I would like to take the Minister back to the comments he made a few minutes ago. Was he confirming that the housing White Paper, which we expect in a few weeks’ time, will contain measures to deal with abuses of permitted development?

The hon. Lady tempts me to move away from the Bill, but it would be unfair for me to tell her exactly what is in the White Paper. I know that she always likes a surprise, so I implore her to be patient, and to wait and see what is in the White Paper when it is published.

The identification of rogue landlords and letting agents has been notoriously difficult to achieve. The new database will help enforcement agencies to identify rogue operators. By their very nature, rogue landlords and letting agents do not wish to reveal their activities, which would put their flawed business model at risk. This situation has been made worse by rogue landlords and agents seeking to evade attention by moving their operations into a new area.

Rossendale Borough Council’s “Operation CARL”—co-ordination against rogue landlords—noted that when a rogue operator’s business is at risk, they are likely to move across local authority borders and slip into relative obscurity, until they commit a breach of legislation. The database will enable local authorities quickly to identify landlords convicted of housing offences who are operating within their locality.

Landlords and letting agents will be entered on to the database if they have been convicted or sentenced in a Crown court for an offence that involves fraud, violence, drugs or sexual assault, particularly if the offence was committed at a residential premises that the offender had let out; for an offence that was committed against or in conjunction with any person residing at the let by the offender; or if someone is found guilty on two or more occasions of a relevant housing offence, whether it be in the magistrates court or a Crown court. A company may also be included on the database if its director, secretary or officer commits such an offence. In very serious cases, a banning order for rogue landlords, letting agents or property managers would prevent them from letting out or receiving rental income from a property. During the time that the ban is in effect, it will be an offence for them or any one associated with them to be involved in the letting or managing of a property.

As I have said, the 2016 Act also provides a better enforcement regime based on the “polluter pays” principle. The cost of this enforcement will fall primarily on rogue landlords.

Let me move on to the issue of permitted development rights, about which I know the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak is extremely concerned. As he knows, some home extensions may be carried out under permitted development rights. A householder who wants to improve his home can build a modest extension such as a loft extension without planning permission, but must meet the limits and conditions set out in the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015. That allows limited development to take place more easily, and frees up local authority resources, but it does not mean that a householder or a developer—

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 25 November.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Earlier today, members of some organisations that have been working on the ground in Calais came to Parliament to express their deep concern about the chaos that is unfolding in the camp at this moment and the complete lack of safeguarding, which is leaving children in a dangerous situation. At least 40 children spent last night under a bridge, and their only security was provided by some volunteers from those grassroots organisations, who were prepared to spend the night alongside them. We were also told that the process of bringing children in under the Dubs amendment had apparently been “paused”.

I wonder whether you, Madam Deputy Speaker, could use your best offices to call on the Home Secretary to come to the Chamber and make a statement now. She could then reassure us that she is doing all that she can to hold the French authorities to the commitments that they made earlier today to remove children safely, and to ensure that British officials who are able to work alongside the volunteers and French authorities in the camps are actually in those camps and making sure that the children are safe.

I understand why the hon. Lady has brought that information to the House immediately. The situation in Calais is, of course, tragic, and we are all concerned for the welfare of the children who are there, especially those who are on their own.

The hon. Lady asked me whether I could use my good offices—the offices of the Chair—to bring the Home Secretary to the House now. She would have had to submit a request for an urgent question earlier this morning to allow Mr Speaker to require the Home Secretary to come to the Chamber today. Clearly, now that the House is on the point of adjourning, I have no offices that I can use to require the Home Secretary to come to the House.

However, I will say two things of importance to the hon. Lady. First, I am sure that the Home Secretary and her Ministers will be aware of the situation that she has described. I expect that they will take action in the way in which they have taken action over several weeks, and I expect that the Home Secretary will take action on these issues regardless of whether the House is sitting. Secondly, when the House next sits, at 2.30 pm on Monday—three days from now—the Home Secretary will be here to answer questions. I am sure that the hon. Lady and other Members will be able to raise this matter with her then, and that she will be fully able to respond.