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By Guest Columnist Cllr Jeremy Moulton, Conservative Councillor for Freemantle Ward
On 23rd March Southampton City Council will join a number of other councils who have implemented new planning rules, called an Article 4 Direction, which governs houses in multiple occupational (HMOs). This will mean that landlords looking to convert an existing family home to an HMO will require planning permission. Currently only HMOs with more than 6 tenants need planning permission but the new rules will also apply to ones with 3 to 6 unrelated people.
As a university and port town, Southampton has considerable demand for HMO and rented accommodation and the city has double the proportion of HMOs than the national average. Whilst HMOs provide much needed accommodation for tenants, large concentrations can conflict with established communities and commonly there are complaints about parking problems, noise and occasionally anti social behaviour.
The possibility of planning restrictions on HMOs has a long political history in Southampton. Residents’ associations have been campaigning on the issue for over ten years. The previous government long held out against bringing in national rules, until finally in April 2010, when at the 11th hour a Statutory Instrument was brought in requiring all new HMOs across the country to obtain planning permission. The new Secretary of State at the time was John Denham MP, a Southampton Member of Parliament, who championed its introduction in the run up to General Election. This was a significant political issue in the local Parliamentary election campaign and in the end he held his seat by just 192 votes and it could be argued that this helped save him. However as an exercise in public policy it was rushed and poorly thought through. Imposing these new rules on the whole country to meet the demands of residents in parts of his own constituency (and in fairness in parts of other towns and cities) was a classic piece of reactionary policy making. To deal with a specific problem in a specific place, the government brought in a universal rule that everywhere had to adhere to. This sort of policy is costly and expensive for taxpayers (and hence residents), councils and landlords.
The new Coalition government promptly repealed the rule and instead said to councils that they can decide what rules to have in their own boroughs and said that those councils that want to introduce planning controls on HMOs could introduce an Article 4 Direction. The new government favours localism and local discretion, rather than a one size fits all approach and I wholeheartedly support this. However with local decisions comes local accountability. Local councils need to make sure they make the right decisions, which lead to the right outcomes.
Southampton has consulted widely on its planned Article 4 and is now consulting on a new planning policy, a supplementary planning document, to sit alongside it. We have talked to residents’ associations and with landlords and we have looked closely at the approaches taken by other councils to try and learn from their successes and failures.
A balance needs to be struck between the housing needs of future residents and being sensitive to the concerns of established communities.
In short, the policy proposed for Southampton suggests that there should be a maximum threshold of HMOs in a given area. New applications for an HMO that would take the number over the threshold, or in an area that already exceeds it, would generally be refused. The percentage threshold will apply to a 40m radius (or a minimum of the closest 10 properties) from the property in question. The intention is that future HMO growth will be more evenly spread out and large new concentrations will be avoided. New parking standards will be introduced and it will be possible when granting planning permission to ensure appropriate conditions, like adequate bin storage.
It is in everyone’s interest for the council to be as clear as possible about when it is and isn’t likely to grant planning permission. Landlords want to know before they buy a property who will they be able to rent to. They want to minimise the costs of applying for planning consent, both financially and in terms of time. Residents too need to be clear so that they can be confident in the planning process. Councils want clear rules that they can follow and want avoid continual requests to have applications heard before planning panels, rather than be determined by officers.
Rules should be fairly simple too. In these constrained times councils do not want to be spending limited public funds on administering complex policies. Residents too would rather that their taxes that go on funding the council’s planning department are spent ensuring that effective planning policies are enforced.
Sadly a small minority choose to ignore planning rules and this can cause great consternation amongst local residents. Effective planning enforcement is important. Equally councils need to invest time and effort in communicating rule changes to landlords, particularly smaller landlords, who may well be blissfully unaware of changes in local planning rules and who may find themselves on the wrong side of a planning enforcement officer by mistake.
Existing HMO properties will be exempted from having to apply for planning permission. To avoid disputes later on it may be worth landlords with an HMO in an area where an Article 4 is introduced, applying to the council for a Certificate of Lawful Use or at the very least ensuring that rental agreements are retained so in the future HMO status can be demonstrated.
Councils need to be careful to avoid the law of unintended consequences. Often well meaning changes in public policy can have unforeseen, adverse consequences. Landlords with an existing HMO may be very reluctant to rent to a family in the future if it means they lose their HMO status. In an effort to safeguard family housing an Article 4 in this instance would actually serve to deny families access to houses that they might otherwise have been able to rent. To avoid this, Southampton is proposing that properties with C4 approval can move to C3 status and back to C4 freely.
It is important also to realise that an Article 4 Direction is not a silver bullet for those who would like to see greater protection for family housing. For a university town like Southampton, providing more purpose built accommodation can be a far more effective way for the council to meet demand for student accommodation and protect family housing. We are working closely with Southampton University to achieve this.
Councils also need to make sure that they target enforcement powers against those landlords and tenants who cause problems for other residents. Often anti-social behaviour is caused by a small minority and this needs to be dealt with specifically. Housing legislation gives councils powers to tackle landlords who don’t maintain the outward appearance of their properties and front gardens. Again councils should target their resources. Southampton City Council has deliberately not introduced additional licensing as we don’t think this will deal with those landlords who are irresponsible, instead it will impose extra costs and bureaucracy on the majority who are responsible.
Finally, every once in a while we should remind ourselves to make the effort to thank the vast majority of responsible, decent landlords who offer a very important service to millions of people in this country, providing good quality homes.
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