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1 The National HMO Lobby welcomes the Report by ECOTEC on Evidence Gathering - Housing in Multiple Occupation and possible planning responses, published by Communities & Local Government (CLG) on 26 September 2008. The Lobby has long advocated amendment of the Use Classes Order (UCO), in particular Class C3, in response to problems posed by houses in multiple occupation (HMOs), in all the countries of the UK. The Lobby responded to the government consultation of 2002, and it welcomed the amendment of the UCO in Northern Ireland in 2004. It was disappointed that the English UCO revision of 2005 overlooked amendment of Class C3. Its responses to consultations on From Decent Homes to Sustainable Communities and The Supply of Rented Housing, both in 2006, raised the matter. The Lobby welcomed the recognition of the issue by the Commons Select Committee's report on Coastal Towns, and by CLG itself in 2007, and the subsequent commitment to consultation made by the Planning Minister in the Commons on 15 January this year. Members of the Lobby contributed actively to the research by ECOTEC, and to the Seminar at CLG in April, on which the present Report is founded.

2 The National HMO Lobby nevertheless has some reservations regarding aspects of the Report.
2.1 In section 4.1.2 of the Report, it is quite mistaken to assume that the changes to the planning system under consideration are intended "to deal with the spatial distribution and concentration of particular social groups" (p37). The proposals are entirely concerned with HMOs (and their place in the UCO), which are very evidently a particular use of land or property (as is clear on page 43). The point is that this usage is quite distinct from other uses within Class C, in terms of density, range, duration and structure of occupation, quite regardless of who the occupants are (see the Lobby's 'What is a HMO?'). Indeed, section 2.2 (p11) lists a whole variety of very different households which occupy HMOs (including students, claimants, seasonal workers, migrant workers, young professionals, even commuters).
2.2 The Report reproduces a number of misconceptions about the positive impacts of HMOs.
a) "An increased population in a particular area can increase the range of goods and services" (2.3.3, p13). But if the population increase is homogeneous (for instance, a particular age range), this actually reduces and re-orients the range of goods & services.
b) "A critical mass of students generate more demand for public transport and can ensure better transport links to benefit the wider community" (2.3.3, pp13-14). In fact, car ownership is higher in student houses than the national average.
c) "A student population constitutes a flexible part-time labour force" (2.3.5, p14). But this labour force competes with local young people. Casualisation undermines the indigenous workforce.
d) "Students also contribute to their local communities through volunteering work" (2.3.5, p14). But volunteering is addressed to a whole range of issues, and is unable to rectify the detrimental impacts of studentification.
e) "There are positive impacts to be had from a high demand for private rented accommodation particularly in areas where there is an element of low demand" (2.3.5, pp14-15). There is little evidence of this. In fact, concentrations of HMOs frequently develop in areas of existing high demand.
2.3 The Report's suggested Option One (4.2.1) is to 'do nothing', on the assumption that in various ways the market will resolve the problems. But it would seem foolish in the extreme to rely on the market to resolve a problem which was generated by the market in the first place. Further, doing nothing runs the risk of the same mistakes being repeated elsewhere.
2.4 The Report's suggested Option Two (4.2.2) is to rely on non-planning mechanisms to tackle the problems. These are summarised on pages 40-43, and also outlined in section 3.3 (pp22-35). These pages cover a wide range of local level initiatives - but throughout, they are entirely descriptive; no attempt is made to evaluate their effectiveness. In fact, it is generally the experience of those in locations where they have been tried that they are very costly in terms of human and material resources, and that they barely scratch the surface of the problems. The Report itself gives the reason for this: they address symptoms, not causes.
2.5 The Report's suggestion in 4.1.2 (p38) that "there would likely be a time-lag between the changing of the legislation and the adoption of the required planning policies to support this" is contentious. It is supported by reference to Northern Ireland, where local planning policies were not initiated until after the local UCO was changed. But many local authorities elsewhere already have the local planning policies in place, and simply await amended legislation to make them effective (some of these are outlined in 3.3.9, pp25-28, and also on pp42-3). In these circumstances, the suggestion of yet more research into developments in Northern Ireland (in 4.3, p46) is misguided - a weak experiment is not a good model. This is simply an extenuation of a time-lag which should be abbreviated as urgently as possible - not least, to curtail market exploitation.

3 The National HMO Lobby however welcomes many positive elements in the Report.
3.1 The Report comprehensively summarises the 'challenges' (problems) posed by concentrations of HMOs, social, environmental, economic, in section 2.3 (pp11-15). One thing missing is the sheer demoralisation of the resident community in the face of the degradation of their neighbourhood, and their powerlessness to do anything about it.
3.2 In section 3.1, the Report makes the crucial distinction between causes and symptoms. "It was clearly evident from the discussions that took place with local authorities, as well as residents' groups and some universities that the different mechanisms and initiatives, which had been put in place, were only dealing with the symptoms associated with concentrations of HMO properties and were not effective when it came to deal with the factors which led to the high concentration of HMOs" (p19). This distinction is of course essential in any attempt to address the 'challenges' of HMO concentrations.
3.3 Accordingly, the Report recognises the limitations of current approaches.
(a) Section 3.3.11 surveys numerous 'non-planning mechanisms', which can only address symptoms. For instance, HMO licensing "was intended to deal with standards rather than concentrations of HMOs, which was the fundamental problem for most participants" (p29). The HHSRS "focuses on property standards rather than concentrations of HMOs" (p30). The Management of HMO Regulations 2006 "have less relevance to controlling concentrations of HMOs" (p30). Landlord accreditation schemes "are voluntary ... And again, they are used to engage with private landlords on their practices and property standards rather than address the issue of concentrations of HMOs" (p31). Section 3.3.12 concerns stakeholder partnerships. "This approach [Loughborough's Off-Campus Community Service Delivery Strategy] is resource intensive and may limit the ability of some organisations, particularly local authorities to take it forward. In addition, the Strategy only deals with the practical service implications of the presence of a large student population in a relatively small town. It therefore does not address the more structural issues relating to community cohesion and community imbalance" (p34).
(b) Even planning policies, which should address causes, are ineffective. "The implementation of these restraint policies are undermined by the limitations set out within the current Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987" (p18). "Without the suggested changes to the national planning legislation discussed earlier, the robustness of these policies might not withstand the test at a planning appeal or inquiry" (3.4, p36). "It was argued by many of those who were interviewed that although the mechanisms outlined in this chapter can bring short and medium term solutions to address the symptoms, they do not address the structural issues around community cohesion and community imbalance, which can result from a high concentration of certain social groups" (p36).
3.4 The Report acknowledges the need for change to planning legislation. Section 2.1 indicates the ambiguities over definitions of HMOs in housing and in planning legislation: "There are different legal definitions of HMOs and what constitutes an HMO. For example, the Housing Act 2004 defines an HMO as an entire house, flat or converted building which is let to three or more tenants who form two or more households, who share facilities such as a kitchen, bathroom or toilet. Under planning legislation, there is no clear definition of HMOs. Under the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987, a dwelling house is defined under the C3 use class as a house used by a single person, or any number of persons living together as a family, or by no more than six people living together as a single household. HMOs are unclassified and are therefore "sui-generis" (of its own class)" (p10). In practice, the Order has proved unenforceable. One of the 'key findings' in 4.1.2 is that "the majority of stakeholders felt that in order to deal with the causes and the wider structural issues associated with HMOs, there was a need to change current planning legislation" (p37).
3.5 The Report's suggested Option Three (4.2.3, p43) is to amend the UCO. This Option is warmly welcomed by the Lobby. As the Report notes, "the majority of discussions that we held with planning practitioners strongly felt that the initiatives were only touching the surface, for example none of the planning policy levers could address issues surrounding shared houses which had less than six residents … Therefore in order to deal with the causes and the issues associated with houses in multiple occupation it was felt by many that there was no alternative but to amend the current Use Classes Order by providing a definition of HMOs along the same lines as the 2004 Housing Act. This would allow local planning authorities to have more control over the location and concentration of properties in multiple occupation." The Report notes both the need to redefine HMOs in the UCO, and to amend the UCO "to provide a distinct class for HMOs" (p43). The Report concludes (4.3, p45) "it is our view that they [non-planning mechanisms] have limited impact upon the longer-term issues surrounding houses in multiple occupation, particularly where properties are classified as a dwelling house under the C3 Use Classes Order but are occupied by up to 6 people living together as a single household. For this reason, it is suggested that Communities and Local Government undertake wider consultation on proposed amendments to the current Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987 and that consideration be given to providing an amended and clearer definition of HMOs, potentially along the same lines as that of the 2004 Housing Act."

4 The National HMO Lobby exhorts CLG to respond speedily to this last recommendation by the Report. It may well be the case that in some towns, in some circumstances, the market has made some contribution to the resolution of the problems identified by the Report (as suggested in 4.2.1). But this remains marginal. Meanwhile, DIUS has proposed twenty new HE Centres (which may have the same unintended consequences as elsewhere: the Lobby has responded appropriately to the HEFCE consultation on the New University Challenge). At the same time, many existing HEIs are pursuing vigorous expansion plans, without accompanying accommodation strategies. And even where student numbers are not increasing, the student housing market remains perennially mobile - internal migration means that though some neighbourhoods may be 'destudentified', shifts in demand bring studentification to new neighbourhoods. For all these reasons, the National HMO Lobby urges urgent action by CLG on the ECOTEC Report.

Dr Richard Tyler, National HMO Lobby, October 2008


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