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New rules to limit spread of HMOs gain approval from councillors

Bristol City Council’s drive to restrict the spread of HMOs finally reached the finish line on Tuesday, 3 November, when the council’s Cabinet, chaired by the Mayor, Marvin Rees, adopted new rules to guide future planning policy.

The rules will severely limit opportunities for developers to create new HMOs (Houses in Multiple Occupation) or enlarge existing ones in streets and neighbourhoods that already contain a lot of shared housing.

HMOs are central to discussion about student noise because a large proportion of students living in the community rent this kind of property.

(There are two types: Large or “Mandatory” HMOs housing 5 or more people—typically these cover whole houses or large maisonettes—and small or “Additional” HMOs of 3 or 4 people, which usually are flats. There can be several HMOs in one property, depending on its internal layout.)

The new rules are contained in a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) titled “Managing the development of houses in multiple occupation”. (See links at the end of this article.) The SPD gives teeth to an existing planning policy (“DM2”) by clearly defining the circumstances in which an HMO application would create or exacerbate a “harmful concentration” of HMOs.

Future planning applications will have to pass both of the following tests:

  • No “sandwiching”. If there’s an existing HMO in a street, the three houses on either side cannot become an HMO. In a late twist, the council’s planners also agreed to take account of HMOs across the street or behind a property. (See the SPD for examples.)

  • No more than 10% of HMOs in an area. Using a circle of 100-metre radius drawn from the application site, planners will count all the dwellings in the area and check how many are already HMOs. If it’s more than 10%, the application will usually fail.

Across the city, HMOs are seen as a valuable part of the housing mix, particularly for young people and lower-income groups. At the same time, people living in shared housing often are more transient and may be less committed to the areas in which they live.

A council Evidence Paper (see links) says large numbers of HMOs can form “harmful concentrations” leading to unbalanced communities and problems such as noise disturbance, poor waste disposal and lack of social cohesion.

Clifton and Cotham

It’s only in certain parts of the city that HMOs are predominantly occupied by students. However, the Paper notes that university expansion is one of the reasons HMOs have spread rapidly in recent years. “Some 45% of Bristol students continue to live in HMOs,” it says.

Districts in which housing imbalances can be found, the Paper adds, “include areas directly surrounding/accessible to the city’s universities, including the central districts of Clifton, Cotham, Kingsdown and Redland … “

The need for tougher rules has become more pressing because of University of Bristol’s continued expansion.

Plans call for students at UoB’s proposed satellite campus in Temple Meads to live in blocks of flats in the city centre (“purpose-built student accommodation”). However, student numbers are already rising and even when the new PBSA comes on line, there’s no guarantee students will prefer it to a traditional house-share. Landlords are reportedly already buying up houses in Totterdown, near the new campus, in anticipation of rising demand.

Councillor Nicola Beech, the Cabinet member responsible for the new policy, nevertheless told Tuesday’s meeting: “I can’t stress enough that this is fundamentally not about opposing students in our city.”

Legacy Issues

Although the SPD is a big step forward, there’s one major caveat: While it may prevent things getting worse in areas with lots of HMOs, it won’t undo the “harmful concentrations” that already exist. Once granted, planning permission for an HMO can’t be taken away. And HMO licensing, which is a legally separate process, also doesn’t address these kinds of issues.

So communities afflicted by HMO-related problems such as noise disturbance will have to continue demanding remedies from the council and other authorities, including the universities.

In the public forum section of Tuesday’s meeting (on Zoom and YouTube; links below), I asked whether the council intends to tackle these legacy issues by, for example, targeting enforcement functions for noise and waste on areas with high HMO numbers. Cllr Beech acknowledged the premise of the question but was non-committal as to specific action.

I asked a second question urging the council to actively encourage HMO developers and existing landlords to adopt simple noise-mitigation measures such as fitting soft-closers to prevent doors slamming, and doorbells instead of cast-iron Victorian door-knockers.

The final version of the SPD includes a new section, "6.3 Sound Reduction Measures", which was inserted following submissions by me and others during the two rounds of public consultation on the new policy. The SPD now says: “In all circumstances applicants should consider on a voluntary basis the provision of a range of easy to install sound reduction measures where appropriate.”

While I recognise that “voluntary” is as far as the SPD can go, I was disappointed it doesn’t give specific examples. My question, therefore, was to ask whether Planning might compile a best-practice list and actively promote it to developers. I also suggested the list could be pushed to landlords by council staff who deal with HMO licensing. Again, Cllr Beech recognised the point but made no promises, so this is something to keep pressing.

Planning v Licensing

Of itself, the SPD also doesn’t resolve the long-recognised problem that HMO licensing is not directly linked to the planning system. In some cases, HMOs have received licences even though they lack planning permission. This is chiefly a failure of law rather than Bristol’s procedures. (Nevertheless, it’s difficult to see how a landlord who flouts planning law can meet the “fit and proper person” test required for an HMO licence.)

Still, it’s possible the SPD exercise will spur progress on this and other issues. As Cllr Beech said in reply to one of my questions, the council has learned a great deal about HMOs in the process of creating the new policy.

Might this also mean there will be a more receptive response in future to representations on HMO matters? At least the problems are now officially acknowledged, not just in the SPD but also in the Evidence Paper, which puts on record many of the concerns that residents have voiced over many years.

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