Agenda item

Additional Licensing Scheme for Houses in Multiple Occupation (Agenda item 10)

Report of Paul Claussen, Executive Member for Planning & Environmental Services.

Minutes:

The Executive Member for Planning & Environmental Health introduced this item and highlighted the fact that the public consultation had raised a number of concerns from the Eastern Landlords Association and the National Landlords Association.  He asked if he could address some questions to the Principal Environmental Health Officer.

 

Firstly, he asked what the justification was for Breckland Council introducing this scheme.  Members were informed that following waves of migrant workers to the area a significant amount of properties were turned into houses of multiple-occupation.  Many were and remained as unsuitable and did not fall into the current mandatory licensing scheme category of being 3 or more storey dwellings.  Introducing this additional scheme would provide the Council with prior notification of who owned and managed these unfit properties.  The Private Sector Housing Team did not want to be responsible for people living in unsafe housing or neighbours feeling threatened by the occupiers.

 

The second question related to the challenges with regard to public consultation and the Executive Member asked if the Principal Environmental Health Officer could provide assurance that proper wider consultation had been carried out.  Members were informed that certain groups such as all Parishes, Town Councils, Landlord Associations and a sample of known HMO owners, neighbours and Landlord Forums had been targeted.  The 12 week consultation had also been made available on the Breckland website.   The Executive Member was content that due process had been followed and that support for this scheme was being requested.  In response, the Principal Environmental Health Officer advised that he had been heavily involved in this matter from the start and he was satisfied that he had followed the consultation process as set out.

 

The third question related to how the fee had been arrived at.  Members were informed that following guidance the fee would be classed as a cost recovery for administration costs only not for enforcement.  The original figure for the mandatory current scheme had been set several years ago at £225; this fee had since increased to £300.  Other authorities’ fees had been examined and compared and it was amongst the cheapest and less than other Norfolk authorities.  This cost could be justified as a minimum cost.

 

The Executive Member was happy with the responses.

 

The Chairman guessed that with the current system these HMOs were difficult to locate and asked if they would be more identifiable in future if this additional Licensing Scheme was introduced.  The Principal Environmental Health Officer explained that anyone who wanted to open an HMO would have to apply for a licence; this new scheme would also allow direct application of conditions and standards. 

 

Referring to the Housing Act, which classed HMOs as three or more storey dwellings with five or more occupiers, the Chairman asked if his house would be classed as such as he lived in a three storey house with a family of four but sometimes with a lodger.  His mind was put at rest when it was highlighted that one or two lodgers living with a family would not be classed as an HMO.  Also certain educational establishments were ruled out.

 

Multiple-occupancy was classed as a high risk as there was no one person to take responsibility for safety.  The Principal Environmental Health Officer mentioned the time when he worked in Norwich where five deaths had been reported in two storey HMOs.  Most landlords were very good and obeyed the rules but unfortunately, due to the sign of the times, he felt that multiple- occupancy would increase.

 

Mr Wassell, in his capacity as a Watton Town Councillor, had been contacted by both sides and he wanted assurance on their behalf that Breckland Council would be taking full note of their concerns.  Members were assured that Breckland Council was already doing this but needs and concerns had to balanced and he had no wish to unduly penalise landlords.

 

There was some confusion in relation to fees and it was confirmed that the fee was £300 per HMO and was a licence that lasted five years.

 

The Overview & Scrutiny Chairman thought that this was a very serious matter and Breckland Council needed to be mindful that HMOs were a potential risk.  He raised concerns about enforcement costs not being included and asked for assurance that when enforcement was required it was carried out with vigour and that costs were recovered.  Further to this, he asked if the Council ever visited the property during the five year term.  The Principal Environmental Health Officer explained that there was an element of cost recovery previously agreed by Cabinet some years ago.  All Officers had been trained to deal with enforcement and complied with all regulations and all were content that what they did was as good as they could make it.  As far as inspections were concerned, properties were inspected before a licence could be granted following which there would be a visiting period every three years or more regularly if necessary.

 

The Chairman suggested that Councillors should be notified of such properties in their Wards; the Councillor could then report any wrong doing to the Licensing Team.  Members were informed that a public register was held and it was agreed that it would be put on the Council’s website.

 

A question was asked about fire risk and whose liability it would be if a fire occurred at a licensed property.  The Principal Environmental Health Officer explained that the Team did provide appropriate advice in relation to fire risk and ensured the structural element was satisfactory.  It was a requirement that the Licence Holder was a fit and proper person and that they had ultimate responsibility to maintain smoke alarms etc.  A benefit of having such a licence was that landlords had to abide to a management code and if the ownership changed there would have to be a change to the licence holder.  Worst cases would be prioritised and inspected more frequently to minimise the risk and the Council’s reputation.  The Council did not work in isolation and did consult with a number of authorities including the Fire Service and the only way that Breckland could be held accountable was if it failed in its duty.

 

The Chairman was satisfied that Breckland Council was fully compliant with legislation.

 

The Vice-Chairman considered this additional scheme as another layer of ‘red tape’ but agreed that there had been excellent representations in the report.  He asked if Breckland Council had contacted Officers at South Holland Council and whether Gt Yarmouth Borough Council had been approached.  Members were informed that South Holland had only just created a Private Sector Housing Team and preliminary discussions had been had.  There had been no direct contact made with Gt Yarmouth as yet.  It was pointed out, however, that there was a Private Sector Housing Forum in Norfolk that met quarterly where individual cases and good and bad practices were discussed.

 

The Executive Member for Planning and Environmental Health was aware that the Licensing Scheme was very much determined to local authority boundaries.  The Principal Environmental Health Officer agreed and highlighted the fact that there were very few authorities that had this additional Licensing Scheme apart from a Council in Oxford.  As Breckland was one of the first authorities to introduce this scheme, the Vice-Chairman felt it was unnecessary and therefore did not support it.

 

The Executive Member for Planning & Environmental Health classed Breckland Council as being completely reactionary and took on board new schemes as and when required and as necessary.  This would not be seen as an extra burden as the Council would have more of a monitoring role and the emphasis would be on the landlord.

 

Members from the Eastern Landlords Association were in attendance and with the Chairman’s permission were allowed to put their views and ideas forward.

 

There was some debate in relation to whether it was legal to have such a scheme in place for longer than five years (the term of the licence).  The Principal Environmental Health Officer emphasised that Breckland Council could only operate within the law to the best of its ability.  No-one knew what the law would be in future but at the moment landlords would have to re-apply after a five year period.

 

Options

 

Having considered the replies to the public consultation the options available to Cabinet were as follows:

 

  • To either confirm progress to introduction of the scheme
  • To modify any part of the scheme; or
  • Not to introduce the scheme.

 

Reasons

 

Following waves of migration of workers from EU countries into the area, large numbers of houses in multiple-occupation (HMOs) had been established and continued to be established, to house them.  A considerable amount of officer time was taken up establishing ownership and management responsibility which would have to be declared at the licensing application stage.  Licensing also allowed direct application of conditions and standards.

 

Following a vote, with one abstention, it was

 

RESOLVED to proceed with the introduction of the Houses in Multiple Occupation Additional Licensing scheme.

Supporting documents: