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Article for Roof Magazine - April 2004

Houses in Multiple Occupation: Amend Housing Bill to Protect Communities and Students

The Sustainable Communities Plan committed the Government to the creation of “thriving, vibrant, sustainable communities in every part of the country”. Yet, there are parts of every major town and City that, on current policies, are being excluded from the Plan.  Ask any MP representing an area close to a university and they will tell you of the havoc that the expansion in higher education has wrought in the receiving areas as a result of leaving it to market forces to provide the accommodation needed for the thousands of additional students.  What were once settled communities have become student ghettoes during term time and ghost towns during the vacations.

Visit any of these areas and you will see streets full of rubbish, “To Let” signs and uncared for gardens. You will see shops, takeaways, pubs and other businesses (“magic mushroom” shops are the latest attraction) that cater almost exclusively for the student population.  You will find schools struggling because of falling rolls.  Late at night you will see and hear drunk and rowdy young people making their way home.  Burglaries are high because of the attraction of the multiple sets of electronic equipment in student houses.  Car parking is a nightmare.  Home owners sell up - driven out my the unpleasant environment and the anxiety that they never know from one year to the next who will be living next door but also tempted by the high price their home will command in the “buy to let” market.

The metamorphosis of the Bournbrook area of my constituency, next to Birmingham University, from one of family housing to student multi-occupation was already underway when I was first elected in 1992.  My representations to Tory ministers on the need for planning controls fell on deaf ears.  In opposition Labour had called for an effective national licensing scheme that would include smaller HMOs (Houses of Multiple Occupation) but in Government proposes only to make licensing of larger HMOs mandatory.  In 2000, ten Labour MPs representing university towns submitted a response to the Housing Green Paper in which we called for local authorities to be given powers to license all privately rented dwellings in our areas.  Such licensing would give councils the powers to require landlords to manage their properties responsibly.  We also wanted development control powers to limit the conversion of family homes into shared houses and suggested that local authorities could use such powers in a strategic way to both allow appropriate development of student housing and to demand closer working with colleges over future needs and predictions on student numbers, as well as enforcement of university discipline codes

Sadly, though the Government has, rightly, recognised that special measures are needed to deal with low demand areas, the special designation of student areas, has not been forthcoming, not even when it comes to the landlord licensing proposed in the Housing Bill currently before Parliament.  The definition of an HMO that will qualify for mandatory licensing of landlords covers only three-storey properties with five or more occupants.  OK for London maybe, but not other cities. It seems that the Government is anxious that nothing must be done to discourage a big expansion in the private rented sector, believing that it can make up for the desperate shortage of affordable accommodation in a manner that is “off balance sheet” for the Treasury.  The extra cost of housing benefit to cover higher rents as compared to social housing are to be ignored as is the harmful effect on communities if landlordism gets too high, as in places like Bournbrook in Birmingham and Headingly in Leeds.  Here we are talking about over 60% of the properties being HMOs – and this proportion continues to rise and extend to adjacent areas.

The Government should amend the Housing Bill to provide a more realistic HMO definition as demanded by the National Union of Students.  At the very least, discretion should be given to local authorities to designate areas where landlords should be licensed, as called for by the Local Government Association, the Chartered Institute of Housing and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health.  Those opposing such decentralisation are Universities UK and the British Property Federation.  Enough said!

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