15:27 PM, 20th March 2012, About 10 years ago 1
On the 12th January, Councillor Jeremy Moulton set out the Southampton perspective in relation to Article 4 Directions taking away permitted development rights to change the use of single dwellings to small HMOs such as shared houses. The Residential Landlords Association, of which I am the Policy Director, has campaigned vigorously against the use of Article 4 Directions in this way and has called for a return to the old definition of a Class C3 dwelling which includes shared houses such as those occupied by groups of students, young professionals etc. Over 30 authorities have now made such directions, including Southampton City Council. Where these directions are in force a property owner has to apply for planning permission because they can no longer rely on permitted development rights. Often this will be refused. In our view 19 of these directions, including that made by Southampton, are far too wide and contravene Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG) Guidelines.
As Councillor Moulton rightly says any Article 4 Directions must be accompanied by planning guidelines. What we currently lack, however, is a national debate as to what we are trying to achieve through such guidelines and more importantly what Town & Country Planning is all about in this context. This is mainly driven by hostility towards the younger generation, particularly students, but this has serious consequences for young professional and working people.
Landlord organisations and Students Unions strongly believe that the planning system is being misused and Article 4 Directions are harming our young people. What we are seeing is attempts at social engineering driven by Nimbies who object to young peoples’ lifestyles. Predominantly HMOs house young people up to the age of 35. We have a clash of cultures between people who see themselves as “permanent residents” and families on the one hand, and young people who very often want to live independent lives for the first time.
The use of Article 4 and planning policies to restrict the numbers of small HMOs is yet another attack on the inter-generational pact that we all depend on. Not content with shutting young people out of owner/occupation and denying them social housing, proponents of this kind of legislation such as Southampton City Council now want to stop young people having free access to the only type of accommodation available to them, other than the “hotel of mum and dad”. A recent survey has shown that only 7% of young people who live with their parents are content with this arrangement. The haves, those who live in and own their own homes, want to deny young people any home of their own- even a rental one- in their chosen areas. Having analysed Southampton’s proposals in detail, I believe that if they are adopted they will be bad for Southampton as a City, bad for its residents and will have unintended consequences that will rebound on those residents who have called for implementation of such policies.
As with other cities and towns, Southampton are setting a limit of the number of HMOs in the centre and north of the City. New HMOs come about because there is a demand for them; not out of thin air. The changes to the under 25 rule so that those up to 35 who are in receipt of local housing allowance will no longer qualify for benefits for self contained accommodation will significantly increase the demand for this kind of accommodation. Also the demographics are changing. Household sizes are becoming smaller. Sharing provides an affordable option especially for the young. Southampton’s planning policies simply fail to face up to the changing reality of the housing market. What they will result in is the unplanned introduction of new HMOs in areas currently unaccustomed to seeing them. This will lead to local residents in those areas being up in arms at the prospects of having young people living in shared housing in their midst.
All of this is being done in the pursuit of so called “balanced communities”. Since when was the planning system about deciding who can live in which properties? If we controlled the number of people of any other specific demographic in an area, this would rightly be condemned but it seems to be different when we come to say where our young people can choose to live. Councils are under a duty to see that accommodation is provided for all; not to favour families at the expense of young people.
Councils such as Southampton, who have applied Article 4 Directions argue that there are problems resulting from existing concentrations of HMOs such as too much car parking, waste management problems, noise etc. When you look closely at the evidence supporting these claims it is flimsy to say the least. In any case there are a multitude of other powers to deal with any issues which occur. Try emptying the dustbins more often for a start!
What we have is Residents Associations calling for these controls to be applied and local politicians, who are afraid of losing votes, are completely ignoring the bigger picture. Our Cities and towns need to attract young people to contribute towards local economies. They need to retain graduates after they have finished studying locally. We need to encourage labour mobility. People, especially the young, need to know that they can move into a town and find affordable accommodation conveniently located for where they intend to work or study. Being new to a town, they will want to share with others. There is a much wider perspective to this than nimbies concerns because of what is happening in their own streets.
What the residents do not realise when they call for these controls is that they are adversely impacting on their own property values. Once an Article 4 Direction is in force, up to one third can be knocked off the value of property once the quota for small HMOs in the area has been reached. At the same time from the tenants’ perspective, landlords who have properties which have established planning use as small HMOs in favoured areas can charge more rent which hardly helps tenants seeking affordable accommodation. The economic consequences of these measures have been completed overlooked. Before too long those same Councillors who have called for these policies are going to find that they have very unhappy voters on their hands as a result of what they have done. We are in danger of creating a separate asset class for HMO accommodation. This is an ill thought out development.
These planning policies will become unworkable and costly. To implement them, you have to count the number of HMOs within a specified distance of a property for which the planning application is made. All local authorities, including Southampton, concede they do not have the necessary records and lack knowledge as to the location of existing HMO properties. At the moment planning applications of this kind attract no fees. Huge resources are therefore going to have to be devoted to operating such policies, particularly because of the unnecessarily wide areas to which Councils such as Southampton have applied their Article 4 Directions.
These planning rules cannot be retrospective. What has happened in the past cannot be undone. There is a pipe dream that families will re-populate these areas but properties which are now used as HMOs are not wanted by families as they are often unsuitable. Families are not going to move back into these areas. Usually they lack gardens or even room for a garage.
The Private Rented Sector has had to provide accommodation for students because University expansion was planned without any proper thought as to how students were to be accommodated. However student numbers are not going to grow in the way they have done in the past and may indeed fall. The massive growth in the need for student accommodation is a thing of the past and so far as students are concerned we are shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Those calling for restrictions argue for purpose-built student accommodation but once students are past their first year they want to live in the community, not in purpose built student accommodation.
Policies of the kind advocated by Councillor Moulton on behalf of Southampton City Council will prove to be a disaster. They interfere with local housing markets where flexibility is vital. At the RLA we do at least welcome Southampton’s commitment to allow interchangeability between Class C3 (single dwelling) and existing Class C4 (small HMOs). This is very welcome, as is the Council’s acknowledgment that where there are already areas of high concentrations of HMOs there is no point in imposing such restrictions. Two out of ten for Southampton City Council at least, but this does not take anything away from our view that we have got ourselves into an unholy mess which will result in new HMOs being introduced in new areas where they are unwelcome. They will start to appear in properties which are not the most suitable for housing young people as they want to be close to where their jobs are or where there is entertainment for them. We are also making them travel further which is hardly the recipe for sustainable development!
As I said at the outset, we really need a proper informed national debate about where we are going so far as housing our young people in privately rented accommodation is concerned. At the moment, policy is being dictated by short sighted nimbies not able to see beyond the end of their own street and politicians seeking electoral advantage. This is hardly the best reason for planning how housing is provided, as this is in short supply anyway.
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