A local letting agent had their licence to operate HMO"s in Southsea removed after they were found to be overcrowding a flat which they let. The agent appealed against the decision and the property tribunal found in favour of the agent, stating they "do not consider the breaches in this case to be serious breaches and that the breaches would not have been sufficient on their own to have been sufficient reason for revoking the license." Interestingly the flat in question was over the office of the agent so we have some sympathy for PCC's view that of all people, agents ought to get the paperwork right.
It is clear that the individual should have known better and it does look like he was not paying sufficient attention to the conditions of his license. He accepted that he had been in breach of his licence on both counts but pleaded ignorance and misunderstanding.
What does this mean for PCC"s enforcement policy and is there something we should learn from this?
Let"s first look at the facts: The property was a 3 bed flat over a shop licensed for 3 people and the agent had let it to 2 couples (4 people). When PCC discovered the misdemeanour following a tenant complaint to PCC, they checked the original licence conditions and apart from specifying that the property was licenced for 3 people, they also noticed a licence condition that a wash basin should be fitted in a toilet compartment which had not been complied with. (Having a separate toilet and bathroom makes sense but only if there is facility to wash hands after using the toilet if someone else is using the bathroom at the same time). The washbasin was still not in place 3 years after the licence was granted. and the agent, being one of the few agents in the city accredited by PCC, should have known better. As a result PCC decided to remove the agents licence to manage HMO"s in Southsea (and this would apply to all of their properties, not just this one).
Between being told of PCC"s decision and the appeal being heard, the agent had a washbasin installed and met the other conditions. Part of the defence at appeal was that in this particular situation, the defendant was a landlord and licence holder and management had been delegated to an agent who should have ensured licence conditions were met but did not - this appears to have been taken into account event though the 'agent' was an employee of the defendant and the property was also the building from which the defendant operating his/her letting business.
The tribunal decided that in its current condition, the property was perfectly adequate for 4 people (and met all of PCC"s stated required standards for 4 people in an HMO) and thus the decision to remove the licence was considered too harsh a penalty and the decision was thrown out.
So what can we learn? Well, in all these cases it is as much a question of the presentation of the legal argument and the mindset of the judge on the day as it is logic or reason, so we should not read too much into it. It should be noted that the landlord did employ the services of a barrister and PCC"s legal department may not have been a fair match. The average landlord would probably not even appeal let alone employ a barrister.
Three things we can take from this though, are very clear:
1. Check your licence conditions and any communications from PCC after they inspected your HMO"s. If you have not met any of the conditions or made requested changes, either do so or discuss with PCC why you think it no longer necessary - as if there is ever a subsequent inspection, say a tenant complains or a neighbour has issues with your tenant, you may have a problem you could easily have avoided.
2. If you have a licence for say, 4 people (one per room) and you want to let to a couple (2 in one room), whether you intend to let to only 4 or let to 5, first check that your property has the required washing, bathing, toilet, kitchen facilities for that number of people as specified in the PCC licensing conditions* and if they do, simply write to PCC and ask for the appropriate change in your licence. There will be no charge for this and PCC are unable to refuse if you meet the necessary criteria.
3. Respond promptly to any communications or requests from your local authority. PCC say they will want to work with landlords to improve standards so if you feel their requirements are unreasonable suggest alternative remedies or appeal. Do not ignore the problem and hope it will go away.
*We understand that the 'standards" are temporarily removed from the PCC website pending the new legislation (see article). If you don"t have a copy saved somewhere, let us know as we do.
Written & oral information and advice from the Portsmouth & District Private Landlord's Association is given in good faith, but no responsibility whatsoever is accepted by the Association or it's officers for the accuracy of it's information & advice nor shall the Association be held responsible for the consequences of reliance upon such information.