Thursday, 30 May 2013

Tighter regulation on private landlords

One of the major issues as Parliamentary Candidate of significant concern to those living in the inner urban Chatham area is the number of houses in formerly owner-occupied streets that are being purchased by private buy-to-let investors 

Let me be clear; I am not suggesting that all of the privately rented housing sector is a problem but we do have a number of private landlords who are simply not stepping up and being responsible citizens in urban wards. The number of neighbour complaints are rising and it is causing secondary problems around community cohesion.

We have a private housing team across Kent which I believe are struggling to cope in a regulatory environment which is simply not tight enough. It is letting down thousands of people not only in these properties but also the community surrounding them.

Medway Council - the local authority I sit on as Councillor - are not doing enough at the policy level to help the private housing team, and specifically tackle what is becoming a significant issue across Chatham and Medway as a whole; a few measures I think could be looked at should be actively considered

The Council should consider two powers; already available:

Article 4 Direction 

In June 2010 the government announced proposals to amend the planning rules for houses in multiple occupation (HMO). This relates to those houses that are shared by between 3 and 6 unrelated individuals. 

The idea at the time was to cut the number of planning applications in the system. According to the then housing minister Grant Shapps, this measure alone could reduce the number of applications by 8,500 per year by allowing a permitted change of use from a private house to an HMO without any formal planning application.

Whilst this Planning Change is welcome in the large majority of areas it is having a particularly negative impact in areas with previously high concentrations of HMOs and private landlords. 

The Article 4 Direction gives the Local Authorty the discretion to bring the application for change to an HMO back within the planning framework.

This does not affect any properties already used as HMOs. However if you let the property as a family let and you wish to turn in back into a HMO you will require planning permission.

If you are buying a private house and wish to turn this into a HMO, you will have to obtain planning permission. This will allow the community on the street or area to object and make representation.

It is noted that other Councils have undertaken use of Article 4 Directions and Selective Licensing arrangements where there concerns have been raised by residents groups and individuals about negative impacts on the character of the area including:
  •  Anti social behaviour
  •  Increased noise & nuisance from properties & on the street
  •  Imbalanced & unsustainable communities
  •  Adverse impacts on the physical environment & streetscape
  •  Increased pressure on parking spaces
  •  Untidy gardens
  •  Higher occurrence of ‘To Let’ boards
  •  Accumulation of rubbish

Medway appears on first analysis to be using its Article 4 powers for relatively minor issues. I believe we should be looking at stronger Article 4 powers.

Selective Licensing Agreement

Selective Licensing is a regulatory tool provided by section 80 of the Housing Act 2004 and allows local housing authorities to designate areas suffering from either significant and persistent anti-social behaviour and/or low housing demand; a designation can only be in force in a designated area for a maximum of 5 years.

Medway Council could easily designate an inner urban area or engage in a public consultation on the proposal similar to that being undertaken in other Cities across the UK

By making the designation all privately rented properties in the area (excluding “tied” accommodation that is linked to the job the person is doing) will be required to apply for a licence and will need to nominate either themselves, another owner or managing agent to be the licence holder.

Landlords will require a licence for any properties that they rent out within a designated area and the licence will contain a series of conditions that the licence holder will be required to comply with. These conditions relate to the management of the property, fire safety and anti-social behaviour. There will also be a requirement that landlords both carry out checks on any potential new tenants and provide references for tenants that move on from their properties. Landlords or their agents will also have to prove that they are “fit and proper persons” in order to hold a licence.

I recognise that the private rented sector is a vital part of the housing market and that most landlords try to provide decent well managed accommodation but Medway is behind other Local Authorities and we could be doing more.

One of the major frustrations I have as PPC is the organisational inertia and bureaucracy of local government. Medway Council should be proactively considering and consulting on both options like other Councils are across the UK.

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