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Draft Licensing Of Houses In Multiple Occupation (Mandatory Conditions Of Licences) (England) Regulations 2018

Debated on Monday 23 April 2018

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Mrs Madeleine Moon

† Aldous, Peter (Waveney) (Con)

† Djanogly, Mr Jonathan (Huntingdon) (Con)

† Elmore, Chris (Ogmore) (Lab)

Flint, Caroline (Don Valley) (Lab)

† Henderson, Gordon (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Con)

† Jenkyns, Andrea (Morley and Outwood) (Con)

† Jones, Sarah (Croydon Central) (Lab)

† Onn, Melanie (Great Grimsby) (Lab)

† Percy, Andrew (Brigg and Goole) (Con)

† Prisk, Mr Mark (Hertford and Stortford) (Con)

Reeves, Ellie (Lewisham West and Penge) (Lab)

† Smith, Henry (Crawley) (Con)

† Snell, Gareth (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab/Co-op)

† Thomas, Gareth (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op)

† Tolhurst, Kelly (Rochester and Strood) (Con)

† Wheeler, Mrs Heather (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Zeichner, Daniel (Cambridge) (Lab)

Peter Stam, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

The following also attended (Standing Order No. 118(2)):

Pound, Stephen (Ealing North) (Lab)

First Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 23 April 2018

[Madeleine Moon in the Chair]

Draft Licensing of Houses in Multiple Occupation (Mandatory Conditions of Licences) (England) Regulations 2018

I beg to move,

That the Committee has considered the draft Licensing of Houses in Multiple Occupation (Mandatory Conditions of Licences) (England) Regulations 2018.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Moon. I will be brief, because these regulations are excellent, and many people are in favour of them.

The private rented sector is an important part of our housing market that houses 4.5 million households in England. Houses in multiple occupation—HMOs—form a vital part of the sector and often provide cheaper accommodation for people whose housing options are limited. However, HMOs sometimes pose greater management challenges than single household occupation accommodation, and some occupiers of HMOs are the most vulnerable people in our society, which is why mandatory licensing of HMOs was introduced in 2004 for properties with three or more storeys that are occupied by five or more people.

Since its introduction more than a decade ago, mandatory licensing has successfully raised standards and enabled local authorities to tackle overcrowded conditions and poor management practices. However, the private rented sector has doubled in size in the past 10 years, which has led to increasingly small single household properties being used as HMOs.

As smaller HMOs were not subject to mandatory licensing, some rogue landlords have been able to avoid local authority detection and enforcement by letting HMOs with fewer than three storeys. Failures by those landlords have led to negative and harmful impacts on some local communities because of an accumulation of rubbish and waste and because of noisy and antisocial behaviour outside HMOs.

To address those problems, we have extended mandatory licensing to properties of fewer than three storeys. We laid the Licensing of Houses in Multiple Occupation (Prescribed Description) (England) Order 2018 before the House on 23 February, and it will come into force in October.

To address other common problems with such properties, the Government are creating two new mandatory HMO licence conditions: national minimum sizes for rooms used as sleeping accommodation and a requirement to comply with council refuse schemes. Those new mandatory conditions are the subject of the Committee’s debate, and I will outline each one in turn.

First, I will set out the proposed requirements for minimum room sizes for sleeping accommodation. By amending schedule 4 of the Housing Act 2004, the regulations require local authorities to include new conditions with licences,

“to ensure that the floor area of any room in the HMO used as sleeping accommodation by one person aged over 10 years is not less than 6.51 square metres”.

The minimum room size is just that—a minimum. It is a standard below which a room cannot be used as sleeping accommodation. It is not intended to be the optimal room size or the lowest common denominator.

Let me be clear that local authorities will still be able to set minimum sleeping room sizes that reflect the layout, space and amenities in the HMO in question, which can be greater than 6.51 square metres when used by one person over 10 years old. That is important because local housing authorities will need the discretion to set a room size that reflects the condition of housing stock in their areas.

The introduction of a clear minimum room size in HMOs is important because it will ensure that a consistent minimum size is applied nationally across the different types of HMO in the sector, and it will clarify the standard with which we already expect landlords to comply. The regulations clarify minimum sizes for rooms used as sleeping accommodation by children under 10 years old and by two persons over 10 years old.

Non-compliance with the minimum room size is a serious matter. If a landlord knowingly breaches the condition, they will be liable on conviction of a criminal offence, which could result in an unlimited fine or a civil penalty of up to £30,000.

We have introduced transition arrangements to give landlords time to comply with the new requirement and to rectify overcrowding. Local authorities must allow up to 18 months before they consider prosecuting the landlord for breach of licence conditions. HMOs that are already licensed will have to comply with the condition only when their current licence expires and at the first renewal after 1 October this year.

The second new mandatory condition created by the regulations relates to household waste disposal facilities. A new mandatory condition will need to be included in HMO licensing to require landlords to comply with their local authority’s refuse storage and disposal schemes. The purpose of the condition needs some explanation. People living in separate households in HMOs tend to generate more rubbish than is seen in a single household property. While tenants should be responsible for properly disposing of their rubbish, they need adequate and accessible receptacles to do so. This mandatory condition of licensing will mean that local authorities will have to proactively require landlords to provide waste disposal facilities where there is a scheme. It will also provide local authorities with the necessary enforcement powers if landlords are not complying with waste disposal schemes.

We anticipate that the vast majority of landlords will already be in compliance with the conditions—we are simply clarifying existing space standards under section 326 of the Housing Act 1985. In 2015 and 2016, we consulted extensively on the introduction of minimum room sizes for sleeping accommodation, along with the requirement to comply with council refuse schemes. The legislation should therefore come as no surprise to local housing authorities and landlords alike. For those landlords not in compliance, there is the 18-month transition period I mentioned.

I am grateful for your tolerance, Mrs Moon, in allowing me to ask a question when I am not a member of this Committee. The Minister replied to my debate in Westminster Hall on 21 March, and I am grateful for her comments then and her comments today. The regulations mainly tidy things up, but they have not addressed the main issue with HMOs, which is their cumulative impact—the total change of a community in a residential district. Has she thought about extending the excellent work she has started today by finally coming to terms with the awful consequences of the cumulative impact of multiple HMO applications?

As the hon. Gentleman said, he is not a member of this Committee, but he has great interest in this matter. We are very keen to see licensing arrangements organised by local authorities kicking on and taking shape and power. They have the power to alter the licensing for their areas. There are four criteria that they have to comply with. As long as one or two of those strong criteria are well evidenced, our Department is keen to sign off on those arrangements, but the power lies with the local authority.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, and to discuss these important HMO regulations. I will hazard a guess that I am one of the very rare parliamentarians to have lived in an HMO as a young homeless person and later as a between-homes, slightly older young person. I know how it feels to live in a property that was originally built for a single family, but that has been carved up in weird and wonderful ways to accommodate as many people as possible to maximise rental and housing benefit income. With the charity and housing association I was placed with, I was in the fortunate position of not having to suffer sharing a room or a house with multiple families, but that is the situation that many people across the country find themselves in. It is for them that we should not hesitate in improving the standards of the accommodation available.

The Government have made welcome steps in improving the deal for those living in HMOs, as the Minister outlined in her opening remarks. Labour has long argued for stronger rights and protections for renters, and the regulations will go some way to improving the rights of many of the most poor and vulnerable tenants, who are often the ones occupying such overcrowded houses. I take this opportunity to echo the sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North about the impact of HMOs on local communities. The number of HMOs impacts not only on immediate neighbours, but the whole community. With more people residing in individual rooms, people become less and less connected with their local community.

I have the great privilege of being the neighbour of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North. The situation in his constituency that he so ably describes also affects mine. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby believe that the Minister’s reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North would have been improved had she said that her Department was willing to support local authorities that want to go down the path of addressing that with additional resources? That would certainly speed up the introduction of such schemes.

Would that we were all so lucky to have my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North as a neighbour. I am sure the Minister listened intently to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West and hopefully will take them on board. I am sure they are offered with a generous and genuine sentiment.

I am pleased the Government are bringing forward the regulations and supporting the Bill of my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), to ensure that all rental properties are fit for human habitation. Nearly 170 years after the industrial revolution, and a generation on from slum clearances and rife Rachmanism, it is none too soon that we have in one place clear definitions of what is acceptable as a minimum space for a human being to sleep.

However, it would be welcome if the Minister expands on the details of the regulations, of which we are broadly supportive. One concern is the impact of setting a small national minimum room size. I raise that in full recognition of the consultations, but remind the Minister that, in HMOs, the room allocated to someone is not just a bedroom. There are ordinarily shared bathroom and kitchen facilities. Individual rooms provide not only a sleeping location, but everything else—study, hobby, exercise and leisure, and all of that person’s belongings, are within that space. It is not simply a case of considering that there should be enough space for a bed and a chest of drawers. There may be no other space to store, for example, a bicycle by which people might transport themselves, or space for shelving for books, or space for a chair on which to sit rather sitting than on the edge of a bed, or a table at which to study or to eat.

The Minister must take those things into consideration when concluding that the proposed minimum standard for a single occupier should be 6.51 square metres or 10.22 square metres for two people. Those sizes will be further compromised if young children requiring a cot share the space. Would the Minister be happy to live in such a restrictive space?

Local authorities are well aware of the conditions in which some of their residents live and may seek to provide alternative room sizes in their licensing schemes. I note that the regulations do not seek to limit local authorities from setting more generous room size allowances than the national minimum, as the Minister said in her opening remarks, but can she confirm whether she believes that local authorities are protected from legal challenge in the residential property tribunal by landlords who wish to test specific local circumstances? Will she confirm that she has taken steps to allow local authorities to set room sizes freely without fear of a residential property tribunal?

The Minister mentioned fines for anybody letting out rooms that are smaller than the minimum size in the regulations. That requires enforcement and goes to comments made in interventions. Will any additional resources be made available for local authorities? There is no point in having these regulations unless we can properly enforce them and check that they are being adhered to. Local authorities will struggle to do that without resources—officers should be available to go and check on properties.

If the Government are prepared to intervene to set minimum room sizes in private rental HMOs, will they consider doing the same for new build private properties? On a recent visit to a development in Doncaster with Keepmoat Homes, which is working in partnership with the local Labour council, I was shown new builds, some of which will be handed to the council for social housing. They are being built with a 30% greater footprint to avoid the problems that have so often been experienced by people buying new houses—that the rooms are too small for regular furniture and do not have any storage space for things such as cleaning materials.

A number of issues arise when living space is unsuitably small. That applies to all properties, whether they are privately owned or rented HMOs. First, in HMOs there is the obvious danger that overcrowding and over-cluttered space could create a much greater fire risk. Usually there is only one way out, and residents should not be hindered in getting to the exit easily because of insufficient space. Secondly, one of the biggest issues connected with limited space, especially in HMOs, is the impact on mental health. Once someone is in the room, it is usually locked. There is often limited socialising between tenants, and a lack of shared social space can lead to isolation. If children are living in and sharing such a room, the ability to play, develop, be creative and learn is hampered. The likelihood of serious decline in mental health is all too real.

Of course that all fits into the wider problem of a housing market in crisis. It is fair to say that part of the reason for such shocking standards of accommodation is that many of those affected simply have no other option. There is a serious lack of council and social homes, and private rents for sole occupiers are too often unaffordable.

I hope my hon. Friend will not think me churlish when I say that, if we are talking about becoming neighbours, I should prefer it if she moved to Ealing—although I am happy to move to Grimsby should that be required.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful case and is speaking up for those whose voices are seldom heard—those who occupy houses in multiple occupation. Does she agree that in such cases we should consider a community infrastructure levy or some other sort of payment because of the impact on local facilities? I do not just mean community centres—I mean places such as libraries. HMOs put an extraordinary strain on the community in terms not only of social cohesion but of demand for facilities, for precisely the reasons she has so eloquently explained.

Order. May I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are not discussing libraries?

Thank you for your guidance, Mrs Moon. I shall not talk about libraries, but I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, which relates to the point made earlier about the impact of HMOs on communities and the resources that local authorities require to meet the needs of all their residents properly.

Many of the vulnerable people who live in HMOs have to wait far too long to be provided with the council homes that they desperately need. The Housing and Planning Act 2016 offered little respite for many of those people, who are facing the sharp end of the crisis. Unfortunately, rather than providing enough council houses for the many who are on waiting lists, the Government decided to continue a sell-off of what council house stock we have left.

The regulations before the Committee show that the Government are aware of some of the problems facing the housing sector today, so will they back some of the steps that will help solve the crisis? Will they back a moratorium on the right to buy, under which more than 80,000 council houses have been sold since 2012?

Order. I again remind the hon. Lady to stay within the scope of the regulations. The purchasing of council housing is not in the provisions that we are here to look at.

Thank you, Mrs Moon.

I shall move on to an issue that is dealt with in the regulations—landlords’ responsibility for waste, and the additional waste generated in HMOs. The Government are right to require HMO landlords to take more responsibility for waste and its disposal. Often residence in HMO properties is transient, and the provisions should hold no fear for good, responsible landlords who take an interest in their property and tenants and the wider community.

A number of issues have been raised in the debate, and I hope the Minister will take as many steps as possible to answer those queries, but on the whole we believe that this statutory instrument represents a clear step forward for many poor and vulnerable people who have ended up in terrible conditions due to overcrowding of room space, and the Opposition are happy to support it.

I apologise to the Committee for detaining it further—I know how irritating it can be when a Back Bencher gets up in these sorts of debates, but I would be doing a disservice to my constituents if I did not say something, given how important this is to the people of Brigg and Goole.

First, I say to the hon. Member for Ealing North that we will not have him in the Humber if he tries to come—we are very discerning—and we are not prepared to lose the hon. Member for Great Grimsby either, so they will never become neighbours in any shape or form.

Maybe spiritually and emotionally, but certainly not physically.

Multiple occupation is a huge issue in my constituency. A three-bedroom terraced house in Goole can be bought for between £70,000 and £80,000. Many have been purchased and turned into homes in multiple occupation, often four-bedroom properties. We have a number of three-storey properties as well, which have similarly been turned into HMOs. That has become a big issue for my constituents. Hon. Members have rightly said that people living in those properties are often very vulnerable, and it is an important part of the housing market for those people, particularly those who are transitioning between different periods of their life. Members of my family have lived in similar accommodation. However, it puts a huge pressure on communities.

I welcome the changes, particularly on minimum room sizes—I note they are about 70 square feet to 110 square feet in proper measurements, which is a good start, but I hope local authorities go further than that. I welcome the regulations, but I want to raise one or two other matters that sometimes fall out of the discussion. In Goole, where this has been a big issue and where we have seen huge amounts of eastern European immigration since the early 2000s, it has put pressure on our housing market. Many of those people who have come have worked incredibly hard in our community, but it is no good pretending that it has not had a big impact on the housing supply.

I welcome the changes, particularly on refuse, which has been one of the big bugbears in Goole. East Riding of Yorkshire Council has finally started to get to grips with the issue of HMOs—it was slow on the uptake, but I give it credit for what it has done. Refuse has been a major complaint, as have some of the other matters that are often raised, such as parking. When lots of extra people are put into terraced streets where there is no off-street parking and no front gardens to be turned into off-street parking, which I understand happens in other places, there is not a great deal we can do. We need to look at that.

I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Ealing North on the cumulative impact element, which we need to take much more seriously. The proliferation of HMOs changes the nature of communities. It has certainly done so in parts of my town. I urge the Government to keep that under review.

There are also, sadly, elements of antisocial behaviour that come along with that. That antisocial behaviour is not people misbehaving, but if a terrace house is suddenly turned into four or five separate residences, it creates four or five times the normal noise. In a terraced house, that noise goes in both directions, whether it is people slamming doors, playing music or doing all the things we do ordinarily in life. Suddenly someone’s upstairs bedroom is next to what is effectively someone else’s living room, where they live for the whole of their time in that property. I am not suggesting for a moment that people, when they are being antisocial, are deliberately trying to cause problems for other people, but they have an impact, particularly with regard to noise.

I welcome the changes, and pay tribute to the Minister, who I know is trying to get to grips with this. I suppose the purpose of my intervention is to urge the Government not to stop here, but to continue to keep this policy under review and look at the other elements that can come from the proliferation of HMOs, especially in the areas of antisocial behaviour, parking and of course the cumulative impact that the hon. Member for Ealing North referenced.

I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. I will try to answer some of the questions if I can.

I should reiterate that the new minimum sleeping size is just that—a minimum. It will create a consistent standard that must be met across all HMOs. To be clear, in the example the hon. Member for Great Grimsby gave of two adults and a baby in the room, the minimum size for two adults is 10.22 square metres, which is reasonably large. Local housing authorities will still have discretion to set larger room sizes to reflect their conditions—I am sure local authorities will set standards to local conditions.

The mandatory conditions are necessary to enable local housing authorities to tackle overcrowded conditions and poor management practices in HMOs. On financing, local housing authorities have been aware of the changes for some time. We have consulted extensively. Some local authorities have been preparing in readiness to extend the scope of HMO licensing. HMO licensing is self-funding, and local housing authorities are able to recoup the cost of administering the scheme through licensing fees. I hope the hon. Member for Ealing North is pleased about that.

Poor housing conditions put the health, safety and welfare of tenants at risk and the Government are determined to tackle that. We want landlords in the sector to improve the standard of housing that they rent out, or to leave the sector entirely. We are being strong about that. I therefore recommend these regulations to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee rose.