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Council to debate HMO licensing, enforcement and planning consent. Submit your questions!

Updated: Jan 3, 2021

Bristol City Council is taking steps to revoke or refuse about 20 HMO licences held by "portfolio landlords", according to a document on the council website.

That's one of the details revealed in a paper on HMO licensing due to be discussed by the council's Communities Scrutiny Commission on 7 December, 2020. (See links below.)

The paper describes at length the licensing, planning and enforcement issues to do with HMOs (Houses in Multiple Occupation). As such, it addresses many of the questions asked by residents who contributed to the recent consultations on new rules designed to limit the spread of HMOs. Those were formally adopted on 3 November.

Members of the public are entitled to submit written or verbal statements to the public forum section of the commission's discussion. Written questions must be submitted by 5pm on Tuesday, 1 December, while petitions and statements should be sent in by noon on Friday, 4 December. (The meeting is likely to be held on Zoom and broadcast live on YouTube.) See my note at the end of this article.

The commission is chaired by Cotham councillor Anthony Negus, whose ward has a large number of HMOs, mostly occupied by university students.

Constraints on Action

The council's perceived failure to take action against HMO landlords whose tenants create noise and other nuisances is a frequent complaint by residents. But as the paper makes clear, the council faces a number of constraints as to what it can do. (Whether it's doing as much as it could is nevertheless one area for potential questions.)

Scrutiny Commissions—the council has several—play an advisory role, looking in detail at selected subjects with a view to finding ways to strengthen council policies.

The forthcoming discussion is therefore a perfect opportunity for anyone who wants to raise unfinished business left over from the recent adoption of the HMO Supplementary Planning Document.

Enforcement is one of these areas. While HMO landlords face obligations to try to prevent or mitigate anti-social behaviour by tenants, many residents believe the relevant licensing conditions are rarely enforced. Information provided to me in two rounds of correspondence with the Private Housing Team, the section that deals with HMO licensing, suggests that prosecutions, sanctions and licence refusals or revocations are indeed rare events (as the paper itself confirms).

The information at the top of this article comes from paragraph 16.1 of the document:

"Where a landlord breaches licence conditions or there is a serious breach, in addition to being

liable for prosecution they can also have their licence revoked or refused. This is a serious step as it

means that the landlord has to make alternative arrangements for the management of their

property without them involved. Currently, proceedings are underway to revoke and refuse around

20 licences where portfolio landlord believed not to be Fit and Proper partly due to them failing to

meet their obligations to manage their property."

All holders of an HMO licence must meet a "fit and proper person" test. The document doesn't identify the cases involved or the nature of the breaches, which may or may not involve failure to manage cases of anti-social behaviour—the primary focus of HMO legislation is on meeting physical standards such as fire safety or adequate room sizes.

Lack of Coordination

The document also discusses the oft-lamented lack of coordination between the planning process and HMO licensing. This has led to situations where properties that don't have planning permission for conversion to an HMO nevertheless receive an HMO licence. As the paper makes clear, this is chiefly a failure of legislation. The council has however taken steps to paper over the cracks by arranging for Planning and Private Housing to regularly exchange information about properties that have planning permission and those that have licences. It's then up to the relevant department to take enforcement action where permission is missing.

There is also clarification as to the circumstances in which some HMOs may not need to have planning permission. Paragraph 34.4 says:

"It should be noted that in those areas covered by Article 4 Directions, but where changes of use

from a dwelling house (Class C3) to a small HMO (Class C4) were carried out prior to the

introduction [of] that Direction, no planning enforcement action may be taken against such changes of

use in those instances as they would have been considered lawful in planning terms at the time."

This issue may surface in an appeal against refusal of planning permission at 24 Cotham Vale—see my recent article.

* I would be interested to hear from anyone planning to submit questions or statements to the 7 December meeting. There is potentially a lot to cover and it might be useful to coordinate our efforts.

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