Skip to main content

Supported Accommodation: HMOs

Volume 683: debated on Wednesday 11 November 2020

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the conversion of family homes to houses in multiple occupation for supported accommodation.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Efford.

I want to make it clear that I have no problem with permitted development when it comes to individual homeowners adding a conservatory, a granny flat or an extra bedroom for an unexpected addition to their family, but I cannot believe that it was ever intended to allow developers to destroy existing family homes and create unregulated hostels, solely for profit.

I represent an area that is already plagued by developers adding extra rooms to family homes left, right and centre. Their actions have lowered the number of homes available for young families in the Selly Oak area and created properties that—once the student population for whom they were originally conceived makes greater use of the rapidly expanding supply of customised accommodation—will have a value only as unregulated hostels, which are more commonly described as supported or exempt accommodation. That is a real problem in my part of Birmingham and many other towns and cities across the country.

That destruction of family homes through conversions under permitted development is bad enough, but what consideration have the Government given to how the problem is likely to be exacerbated by their latest proposals to allow the addition of up to two extra storeys on dwelling houses and purpose-built detached flats? It seems like the perfect recipe for a rash of jerry-building on a scale previously unimaginable.

When I recently consulted my constituents about the Government’s proposals for reforming our planning laws, 97% told me that they wanted more power to seek redress against developers who breach or ignore existing planning laws. They want a deterrent against rogue builders and developers who are destroying their communities. Some 93% also want a right of appeal against applications that have a significant impact on a local residential area and change of use applications that are likely to have a similar effect.

This is a very important issue. For me, the big issues are vulnerable people and supported accommodation. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that for something to be classified as supported accommodation, the support workers must be on the ground? Therefore, the buildings must be suitable and accessible, not simply to the vulnerable individual, but to their family and indeed the families residing in the area. There must be a point of contact to protect the vulnerable tenant and the local neighbours.

I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman, and in fact I will touch on that point later in my speech.

My constituents want redress because they are fed up with seeing perfectly good family homes destroyed by those who insist on converting them with the sole intention of turning huge areas of Selly Oak into little more than dormitories. The first target for that activity is students, who are a lucrative source of income as they are short-term tenants who are unlikely to make too many demands about repairs. As I said, students are increasingly being enticed to move to more modern, customised accommodation, leaving the owners saddled with large and unattractive houses in multiple occupation.

Unsurprisingly, those owners are looking for financial pickings elsewhere, and they have found them in what we tend to call supported or exempt accommodation. My experience is that most of that non-commissioned accommodation is anything but supportive. It has become a gold mine, enabling Government money to roll in for houses in which vulnerable people from a variety of backgrounds are packed in like sardines.

In theory, supported housing refers to any scheme in which housing and support services are provided jointly to help people live as independently as possible. The sector covers a range of accommodation types, including group homes, hostels, refuges and sheltered housing. Much of that accommodation is excellent, and the providers should be applauded, but supported housing can be provided by a wide variety of bodies, and not all are as reputable as we might hope. Exempt accommodation, as the name implies, can be provided by non-metropolitan councils, housing associations, registered charities and other bodies, and it is exempt from normal licensing requirements and checks.

Research undertaken by the Spring Housing Association, the Housing and Communities Research Group and Commonweal Housing examined non-commissioned exempt accommodation in Birmingham. It concluded that there are many thousands of individuals living in non-commissioned exempt accommodation environments that are potentially unsafe, unsuitable and not conducive to progression or growth.

One problem with exempt accommodation is that there appear to be no standards beyond the most basic. They are supposed to be buildings fit for human habitation with no hazards, and to comply with the relevant legislation regarding building maintenance and conditions. That means they can accommodate an extraordinary mix of tenants, including youngsters from the care system, people with mental health difficulties, those released from prison, and victims of domestic abuse and their children. Such people often find themselves living together in the same house.

It is not unusual to find more than one exempt property or unregulated hostel in the same street. Local residents are frequently on the receiving end of problems emanating from those unregulated hostels. Regular complaints include noise, drug use, antisocial behaviour and other unacceptable activities. Local residents are verbally assaulted if they dare to complain. My constituent witnessed a person being chased down the street by her exempt accommodation neighbour, who was wielding an iron bar.

On occasions where a property has been reported to the police or local authority, its ownership has mysteriously changed hands. The tenants are given no say over their choice of residence and frequently cannot identify the landlord—these are often desperate and vulnerable people. I was contacted by a young woman who had been advised that the property to which she had been referred was not suitable for couples with children. She was several months pregnant at the time, but none the less found herself placed in a property in need of multiple repairs. When she complained to an employee of the supported housing group responsible for the property, she and her partner were threatened with a knife.

One establishment specialised in parties during the March lockdown. There was some difficulty in establishing who owned that property, but, again, it appeared that tenants had been placed there initially in the hands of one group, only for it to be replaced by another as the complaints mounted. In Gristhorpe Road, the landlords appealed against a notice for eviction by the local council because of repeated problems. The appeal was lost, but the notice has been ignored.

In another street, there are three properties side by side. Again, ownership is unclear, but there are reports of frequent drug dealing and antisocial behaviour. Just the other evening, I learned of a group of so-called paedophile hunters who turned up to deliver their vigilante justice at a property converted to bedsits for supported accommodation. The police are not consulted when a property is converted with the intention of providing exempt accommodation. They, like local residents, become aware of those residing there after problems emerge.

The research to which I referred earlier concluded that there is an accountability deficit with respect to this kind of accommodation and advised strengthening the criteria for housing benefit or universal credit rent paid to providers. It also suggests that new powers might be needed for the Regulator of Social Housing to address some of the problems.

A key issue in my area and many other parts of the country is the shortage of family homes, but I submit that the relaxation of planning laws envisaged in the current White Paper is the wrong prescription when it comes to increasing their supply. The combination of existing permitted development rules, new flexibilities and the continued disregard for planning laws is likely to only increase the problems caused by unregulated hostels.

A prevalent view in Government circles seems to be that delays in house building are a problem with the planning process. When it comes to houses, nine out of 10 planning applications receive fairly prompt approval, but approval does not equate to building. Government figures show that 2,564,000 units have received planning permission from local councils since 2009-10, but only 1.5 million homes that have received permission have been built. How do the Government account for the shortfall? Proposed changes will tip the planning process in favour of developers but ignore the problems faced by local communities. In many cases, it will result in a reduction, rather than an expansion, of much-needed family homes.

We need better regulations. We need a clearer definition of what constitutes adequate support in supported accommodation, and we need increased transparency when it comes to identifying the providers. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government needs to consider mandating the regulator of social housing, in order to develop a stronger framework for consumers and better protections across the exempt accommodation sector. Providers should be monitored regularly, and close attention paid to client-tenant feedback. I would also advocate that any property intended for use as supported accommodation should be subject to a background planning check, to ensure that it is safe and suitable for such purposes and that there is no history of breaches of planning law or unapproved extensions or building work. We also need to be clear about who is responsible for managing and supervising such accommodation, and the owner should be subject to fit and proper person checks.

We need proposals to protect existing homes, not plans to ease their conversion to houses in multiple occupation or unregulated hostels. We need permitted development to be used to help people with family homes, not developers who are determined to destroy them. We need policies to encourage more affordable housing, not policies likely to reduce the supply. We need planning powers designed to support local communities and vulnerable people in need of housing, not measures that will undermine them.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) for securing the debate; it has touched on issues that are of deep concern to me as a relatively new Minister in the post. I have taken a keen interest in how we can ensure that there is the right supply of supported housing for people who need it, and that the right oversight arrangements are in place to ensure that it delivers the best outcomes for such individuals. Those are priorities for the Government.

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the concerns of his constituents around some of the challenges presented to them when faced with a large number of properties that they believe are managed incorrectly. It is shocking to hear the stories of some his constituents this year. As he touched on, supported housing is critical in providing vulnerable individuals with the support that they need to live as independently as possible. For some, it is a transitional arrangement whereby short-term accommodation provides them with support and equips them with the tools and skills that they need to move on, to live independently and to thrive in the community.

The Government are committed to ensuring high standards across all provisions of supported housing. That means delivering high-quality accommodation and support for residents, but also value for money for the taxpayer. We know that insufficient support and poor-quality accommodation leads to poor outcomes for individuals. That is unacceptable, and it fits with what the hon. Gentleman said. Although the vast majority of the sectors deliver high-quality provision and positive outcomes for individuals, I am aware of the issues surrounding poor-quality supported housing in some areas. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern about supporting housing schemes in his constituency and others, where there are particular questions about the sufficiency and ownership of the support provided.

Such properties often house individuals with multiple complex needs who are extremely vulnerable. They may have experienced homelessness, rough sleeping, drug and alcohol dependency, involvement with the criminal justice system, poor mental health, or a combination of those factors. It is vital that they get the support they need to live and thrive independently.

The hon. Gentleman raised serious and valid issues—as did the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is no longer in his place—of which the Government are well aware. We are actively working to improve quality and oversight across the whole supported housing sector to ensure that all schemes meet the high standards set by most providers to improve the homes that people live in, so that the support those people receive is tailored to their needs and schemes provide good value.

Supported housing schemes should be appropriately planned and placed in the right locations within communities. That helps to foster good relationships between local residents and residents of the supported housing. I understand that lack of planning can cause issues that are detrimental to the cohesion of the community, such as antisocial behaviour. Social landlords are required by the Regulator of Social Housing to work in partnership with other agencies to prevent and tackle antisocial behaviour in neighbourhoods where they own homes. Collaboration between local partners and the relevant powers, including the council, police and landlords, is essential for tackling and solving the problem of antisocial behaviour, but it is right that decisions are taken locally.

The vast majority of supported housing providers are legitimate, ethical landlords who provide high-quality accommodation and support to vulnerable people. Most supported housing providers are registered providers, which means that they are registered with and subject to regulation by the Regulator of Social Housing, including on governance, financial viability, quality and value for money. The Government also have regulations in place to oversee the safety and management of HMOs and to monitor their proliferation in certain areas.

Local authorities already have powers, through the planning system, to limit the number of HMOs—Birmingham City Council has already used an article 4 order to restrict the development of new HMOs across the whole city—ensuring that all such properties will now be consulted on locally and that the view of neighbours and local communities are taken into account in the decision-making process.

HMO licensing was extended on 1 October 2008 alongside the minimum size for bedrooms, which, for a single adult, must be a space greater than 6.51 square metres. Through the Housing and Planning Act 2016, we are determined to crack down on rogue landlords who cause misery to their tenants and put their health and safety at risk. We have put measures in place to make it easier for local authorities to tackle rogue landlords effectively by introducing civil penalties of up to £30,000 and rent payment orders for a wide range of offences. Banning orders and the database of rogue landlords are an important part of the package to help local authorities to tackle the worst offenders.

Although the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak raised undoubtedly serious issues, I cannot stress enough that they relate to only a very small part of the sector. Introducing over-hasty regulations to control that very small part of the sector may have unintended consequences for the rest of it, particularly smaller providers. Being regulated by a national body and the local council could prove to be far too onerous, and there could be consequences for much-needed supply if good providers exit the market. The Government are committed to ending rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament. Penalising good-quality providers, who make up the vast majority of the sector, could damage critical progress towards that aim.

The Government already have a programme of work in train on the regulation and oversight of supported housing, and it is right that we pursue that to thoroughly test ideas. My Department, which has been working jointly with the Department for Work and Pensions to drive improvements in oversight and regulation of supported housing, recently made two announcements on the progress of that work. First, we have published a national statement of expectations for supported housing, setting out the Government’s vision for achieving the best quality accommodation to meet local needs. That emphasises the importance of strategic planning in understanding and managing local need for and supply of supported housing, and empowering local authorities to develop a sustainable longer term plan to meet the needs of residents. The national statement of expectations also mentions the need for community cohesion and proper engagement with residents. I strongly support that.

I understand the Minister’s point about being concerned about over-hasty regulation, but as she progresses this work, will she look at whether there is a role for the Regulator of Social Housing in relation to exempt accommodation, and at the easy access that landlords have to Government funds for exempt accommodation? Those seem to be two difficulties at the moment.

Absolutely. I will be looking at all the options that are available. There is a fine balancing act when it comes to decisions or regulations that we make. However, the hon. Gentleman will know of one of the pieces of work that we have already initiated—the £3.1 million of funding for five local authority areas to test approaches to improving quality and oversight in the housing sector. That will enable us to get data, evidence and best practice to test some of the work. That is ongoing but we hope that the pilots will influence some of it.

There are a number of objectives for the pilots. Undertaking inspection and enforcement work through a multidisciplinary team will drive up standards in accommodation and send a clear signal to providers about our intentions and expectations for supported housing schemes. Also, through a review of the care and support provided at the properties, again through the use of multidisciplinary teams, councils will ensure that people get the support that they need and is appropriate to them. I understand and take the hon. Gentleman’s point about oversight of support and its quality.

Finally, in relation to the delivery of a comprehensive assessment of local need for and supply of supported housing, improved oversight of local provision will empower local areas and enable them to plan strategically to meet current and projected demand. I am pleased to say that, as I have outlined, the hon. Gentleman already has one of the schemes within his local authority, Birmingham City Council. We hope that that will drive up the quality of support, in addition to a focus on managing the antisocial behaviour aspect of supported housing in Birmingham. My officials are working closely with the council to monitor progress and provide support.

I absolutely share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about achieving the best outcomes for the individuals in question, and have taken on board issues that he has raised about the impact, particularly in his constituency. I thank him very much and look forward to engaging and working with him as we progress the measures within Government to improve quality and oversight. I am grateful to have had this debate today.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.