Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave given to bring in a Bill to require developers to disclose for planning purposes an intention to use a building for supported housing or other accommodation that is specified for the purposes of Universal Credit and Housing Benefit; to establish a suitability test for accommodation proposed for such use; to make provision about the fitness of persons to be landlords or managers of supported or other specified accommodation; and for connected purposes.
The issue of the conversion of small family homes to houses of multiple occupation that are subsequently used as unregistered hostels has become a real problem in my constituency. Unregistered hostels, or exempt accommodation, are a problem in many parts of Birmingham and elsewhere, as illustrated by other the Bills introduced to the House by the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Ian Levy) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy). They are a lucrative business for those who concentrate on what we call supported exempt accommodation, which is a part of the exempt-accommodation sector in which operators are supposed to provide some level of support as well as lodgings but the accommodation is not commissioned by the local authority. This part of the sector has become important for more commercially minded providers. My experience is that much of the non-commissioned accommodation is anything but supportive and has become a goldmine because of the ease with which owners receive Government money for vulnerable people in desperate need of accommodation.
In theory, supported housing refers to any scheme in which housing and support services are provided jointly to help people to live as independently as possible. The sector covers a range of accommodation, including group homes, hostels, refuges and sheltered housing. Much of the accommodation is excellent and those providers should be applauded, but it can be supplied by a wide variety of people and not all are as reputable as we might hope.
In their report “Exempt from Responsibility?”, which was published last November, the Spring Housing Association, the Housing and Communities Research Group and Commonweal Housing examined the use of exempt accommodation in Birmingham. They concluded that there are thousands currently living in non-commissioned exempt environments that are potentially unsafe, unsuitable and not conducive to progression or growth. This provision is largely untracked and unmonitored, and there are more than 11,000 vulnerable people living in this kind of accommodation in Birmingham. There are virtually no standards beyond the most basic: it is supposed to be fit for human habitation, have no hazards and comply with relevant building-maintenance legislation, but there seems to be nothing covering the size of rooms, kitchen and toilet facilities, restrictions on numbers or the suitability of owners or managers. That means that the same property can have a mix of tenants that might include youngsters from care, people with mental health difficulties, those released from prison and victims of domestic abuse and their children.
Not only do we find mixes of tenants in a single property, but there is nothing to prevent several such properties from being developed on the same street. These properties are often associated with complaints about antisocial behaviour and drug use, with local residents on the receiving end of abuse and intimidation. I have been contacted by neighbours who have been threatened by occupants of such properties and by vulnerable occupants who felt threatened by other tenants. It can often be difficult to identify the owner or managers, and on occasions when matters are reported to the police or the local authority, ownership can mysteriously change hands.
The tenants are given no say over the choice of residence. These are usually vulnerable people who are desperate for a place to stay, which means they can end up in highly unsuitable accommodation. In one situation, a pregnant woman and her young son were housed with several men who frequently harassed her. On one occasion, she had to barricade herself in her room while my office called the police.
The “Exempt from Responsibility?” report says that residents of exempt accommodation described
“feelings of ‘entrapment’ in financial instability; exclusion from decision-making processes”
in those properties and a total
“lack of control over where, and with whom, they are housed.”
One resident described an appalling lack of upkeep and care:
“It was dirty, filthy, rats and allsorts. Really dangerous. Never saw a staff member again after I got the keys.”
I am aware of one establishment where the supervisor appears to double as a taxi driver, regularly performing his taxi job when presumably he should be supervising at the accommodation.
The police are not consulted when a property is converted with the intention of providing exempt accommodation. They, like the residents, become aware as problems emerge.
The research to which I referred concluded that there is an accountability deficit and advised strengthening the criteria in terms of payment of housing benefit or universal credit rent to such providers. It also suggested that the Regulator of Social Housing might need new powers. We certainly need a clearer definition of what constitutes adequate support when it comes to supported accommodation and there must be greater transparency in identifying those profiting from such accommodation.
I understand the Government’s anxiety about regulation, but they should consider a stronger framework for consumers and better protections across the exempt accommodation sector. Providers should be subject to routine monitoring, with close attention paid to complaints from tenants and neighbours. Any property intended for such use should be subject to a background planning check to ensure that it is safe and suitable for such purposes, with a specified number of occupants, and that there is no history of breaches of planning law or unapproved extensions or building work. When the intention is specifically to convert a property for such use, that should be subject to a planning application and not allowed under permitted development rules. Approval should be based on the nature and safety of the conversion, adequacy of facilities and suitability for particular client groups.
We need to be clear about who is responsible for managing and supervising such accommodation as well as who owns it. Both should be subject to fit and proper person checks. Those minimum changes might go some way to raising the quality and safety of what has become an extremely problematic part of the accommodation market.
Question put and agreed to.
That Steve McCabe, Jack Dromey, Kerry McCarthy, Dame Diana Johnson, Jim Shannon, Ms Karen Buck, Mr Clive Betts, Gary Sambrook, Shabana Mahmood, Rachel Hopkins, Daisy Cooper and Ian Levy presented the Bill.
Steve McCabe accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 15 January 2021, and to be printed (Bill 214).