HMOs – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Some houses or flats that are occupied by more than one household are defined as Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs). The full definition can be found in this booklet. HMOs are subject to additional requirements and in some cases Licensing and/or require planning permission.

As a ward councillor I was aware of a number of complaints about specific HMOs, both in my ward and across Harlow. This covered complaints about anti-social behaviour, littering, and parking amongst other things that were believed to be connected with HMO’s. One of the first things I did when I became the Portfolio Holder for Environment (which covers planning and licensing) was to ask the relevant Working Group to look in detail at the issue, and give a nudge to start the consultation on whether a particular area (Morley Grove) should require planning permission for any HMO, regardless of size (a so called Article 4 direction).

Last night, the Working Group met to receive representations from Residents, Landlords, and other interested parties. While I am no longer the Portfolio Holder, I still take a more than passing interest in the subject, as it has a significant potential impact on residents, and on Harlow as a whole.

While I won’t detail all the points, these are some of the key points that were made:

  • HMOs are an important part of the housing mix – providing low cost accommodation that would not be available by other means, particularly when there is an acute shortage of social housing. For some groups, such as students and migrant workers this may be the only affordable accommodation available to them.
  • Not all HMOs are badly managed, have bad landlords, or impact on their neighbours
  • Some Landlords do not maintain their properties, are difficult to get hold of (or even to find out who they are), or actively ensure that their tenants are good neighbours. As a consequence it is a slow and laborious process to get any remedy to problems.
  • Some HMOs do have a significant detrimental impact on thier neighbourhood, particularly where the occupants are working shift patterns, or are transient – and hence to not have a sense of ‘ownership’ or belonging in their neighbourhoods.
  • Licensing is only useful if it is enforced (note some licencing is mandatory, other licencing – Additional Licensing – can be imposed if there is evidence of detrimental impact).

The Working Group are going to deliberate further and consider other evidence, and in due course present a recommendation to Cabinet. I will await this with interest, but for what it is worth the session reinforced my view that action does need to be taken. My current view is:

Licensing should be introduced across Harlow for all HMOs. 

  • This will ensure that Landlords are known, are fit and proper, and will give the council sanctions to intervene if properties are not maintained, present a health and safety risk (for example fire safety, gas checks, etc), or negatively impact on the neighbourhood. This should not adversely impact good landlords – and the costs of licensing for each house licensed per week will be modest – even more so if spread out amongst the (multiple) tenants.

The cuts to the inspection team should be reversed

  • Licensing is only effective if it is enforced, and adequately resourced. The cuts to the inspection team by previous administrations has significantly diluted the impact of existing mandatory licensing, and it seems that this has had a direct impact on residents in some areas. The numbers will of course have to be worked up, but licence fees should be ring fenced to fund the inspection team, and should be cost neutral.

At the moment I am not convinced that a town wide planning restriction (Article 4 Direction) would be appropriate, but there are clearly clusters of HMOs where this should be further investigated. This needs further investigation, and of course if pursued, widespread consultation.

I will be making representations to my Council colleagues on the working group to give serious consideration to introducing Harlow wide licensing, subject to the appropriate consultation and legal processes, in their recommendations to Cabinet, and if necessary raising it at full Council.

 

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