Portsmouth Hates Landlords
Portsmouth has been one of the worst places to operate as a private landlord for many years owing to the anti-landlord policies of Portsmouth City Council, but recent events have taken the problem to new levels - forcing many of the poorest tenants out of the city.
Gerrymandering? Probably not. But could it be? Yes, definitely.
Read our formal complaint to the council.
Our Complaint Sent to PCC's New CEO
Following on from and in support of the complaint raised by one of our members, John Hodgart, please accept and treat this matter as a complaint about the endemic and institutional discrimination against private landlords in the city and the unfair and unjust handling of all matters related to shared housing in the private rented sector to the detriment of the most vulnerable members of the population.
Viewed collectively, these issues could be interpreted as gerrymandering with the poorest and least able purposely being driven from the city.
In a sector where private renters are more satisfied with their accommodation than social renters (English Housing Survey 2021-2022 published by UK Gov) you would expect council resources to be apportioned accordingly – but that is not the case.
In a city where 32% of households are one-person households (12.4% aged 66 years or over) and 28.8% of people live in the privately rented sector one would expect that between a quarter and a third of the council resources would be directed in support of the private rented sector (percentages taken from the 2021 Census) – yet what resources are focussed in this area are there for enforcement not support.
Wherever we look from the leadership, the council members and the behaviour of staff – what we see is institution-wide maltreatment of private landlords compared to the light touch on social housing providers and a positive demonisation of HMOs and those who provide this much needed housing - there are 66,000 single person households in the city and only 15% of properties have 1-bedroom, so where else is there to live for those least able to afford more?
The problem starts at the top – Council Leader (at that time), Gerald Vernon Jackson at the Planning Committee last February called one of the applicants, PDPLA member Antony Lane, a 'shit landlord'. Why? Because he has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds improving run down city properties to provide much needed housing for single people and he had the temerity to come to the planning system for approval for a property that met ALL the necessary criteria and was, in the words of one council officer 'of a very high standard'.
At the April meeting, the senior planning officer formally reprimanded councillors on the committee as they were breaking the rules by consistently refusing HMO applications, yet the response of the council leader was to ask the City Solicitor for a form of words which he could use generically to reject HMO applications. When she refused, he persistently repeated the request in several forms.
This is not an issue with a single individual. At the same meeting, the Cabinet member responsible for Housing sought to reject an HMO application because it used 'macerator toilets' even though there are no local or national regulations in place limiting their usage and another because there were no toilets on the ground floor (equally bizarre and unlegislated).
This problem is not new – the previous council leader famously once blocked an HMO application which met ALL the very high standards set by the Private Sector Housing team because 'it would mean 6 people having to share 1 toilet' – patently untrue as Portsmouth Licensing requirements for a 6-bed require at least 2 toilets. And the current council leader has also been guilty of leading the witch hunt against HMOs at Planning Committee.
All these incidents are documented on our website (pdpla.com) and the webcasts should still be available in PCC records.
It may be that individual teams, groups or officers in the council staff see the desire of councillors to rage against HMOs and they seek to support that by taking a harder stance toward them, the problem has become worse in the past decade, but we would argue that whatever its cause – the effect across the council is driving good landlords out of the city, pushing up rent levels and making it harder and harder for those most in need to find a home in the city.
Housing Options have a legal obligation to provide support to anyone who becomes homeless – and legally, when a section 21 is correctly served a tenant becomes homeless. In these situations, Housing Options consistently leave tenants believing that no support will be available until the bailiffs arrive – patently untrue and putting tenants in a position where they are likely to incur unnecessary costs associated with the legal and other charges against them because of not leaving when legally they should have.
During the worst of Covid, PDPLA members helped this team house many homeless people, one member took on 50 of which just 15, retrospectively, could be classed as good tenants. Yet, now many of these tenancies are failing, the PCC team are providing little support. In the words of one member in a recent email to the Options team, "The sad thing is, personalities aside, the Council sways landlords to take their tenants, some of which are knowingly ne'er-do-wells, into their private rented accommodations at 'lower-than-market-value rents'. In my case, I thought I was going into a relationship that would also be giving a second chance to people in dire straits. I did not anticipate the inevitable troubles that all-too-often kick-off a little further down the line, and that PCC would practically abandon a landlord to his fate. In those early days, some four years ago when PCC and I first met, I had no idea of how low some of their tenants would stoop with their lies and cheating. In PCC's case the Council even goes so far as advising these Grifters on Section 21s to 'do nothing, pay nothing, just sit tight'. Really?"
The institutional bias against private landlords and HMOs runs deepest in Private Sector Housing and in the Planning team, the 2 groups that one would expect to best understand and support the need for this type of housing.
We have landlords with 20+ years' experience whose properties are well maintained and have been continually licensed since it became necessary, without ever having any issues raised or problems reported, properties inspected without issue and all paperwork submitted and correct throughout 2 or more previous licence periods, who are now being told they will be assumed to be bad landlords unless they can prove they are 'fit and proper', prove that they are well trained, and prove that they undertake fire prevention activities which are not specified or required anywhere else in the country. One can only conclude that the inherent distrust of landlords and assumption that they are all bad is worst in this area of PCC.
Another example, a member had an HMO inspected this month where some minor works were identified (sealant around sink/mould around a door etc). The PCC inspector ignored the landlord and made a big show to the tenants of the works to be undertaken, stating "the council is making your landlord do these things, for your health & cleanliness". She also told the tenants "the council is here for ANY problems. If your landlord isn't sorting things out, you call us". Given that all the issues were low level HHSRS concerns (Class 3 or 4) it would have been more appropriate to discuss with the landlord whether he/she considered the work necessary and whether it could best be undertaken between tenancies or with the current tenants in situ. Sadly, instead there was an obvious belief that 'landlords are bad and the councils' job is to protect tenants from them'.
Planning: With 15-20 thousand people already living in HMOs in the city and such a high proportion of single person households, one would imagine the Local Plan was very focussed on ensuring adequate housing for this sector. Sadly, there is no recognition of the need for HMOs or any plan showing areas where they are to be encouraged or extended. All we see is the endless 'HMO bad / get rid of HMOs mantra'. Bias shows everywhere – from the strictly enforced 6-minute deputation time for an HMO landlord at Planning Committee followed by the much longer rant from an ill-informed neighbour which, far from being curtailed, is encouraged by members of the planning committee. The refusal to accept that a change from 6 persons to 7 is not a material change of use, even though we have lost count of the number of appeals lost (at some cost to the taxpayer) because the planning team refuse to accept the law, the view of the Planning Inspectorate and the obvious answer that is apparent to everyone else.
Council Tax – We appreciate that there are pressures on revenues and steps have been taken over the past decade to maximise income. A student landlord 10-years ago would have declared his/her student let, would have been classed as exempt and would pay no Council Tax. We have moved to a scenario where every billable day is billed – from when the last student to arrive takes residence to when the very 1st student in the house ends their course is exempt, every other day (and often the day of arrival and ending) is billed. Some may argue that this is as it should be – yet the same approach is not applied to student halls. There are automatic exemptions for some University owned halls – but it grates when they offer buildings like Rees Hall to Saga for summer holidays lets and still do not get charged. And neither do the private halls which legally have no such exemption. All we ask is evidence that all rooms used for or by students in the city are treated equally – if revenue were the driver, small landlords with 1 or 2 properties would not be the target so we can only deduce that it is policy to victimise this sector.
The council tax discrimination is worse when you look at disaggregation (when single shared properties are broken into individual units for council tax purposes – now outlawed). PCC will state that all they do is the billing, it is up to the Valuation Office Agency (VOA) what council tax band is applicable and whether a property is disaggregated or not. From the other side, the VOA will say they use the information from local councils and only choose to disaggregate when asked to do so by a local authority. Wherever the blame lies, there is an obvious correlation between PCC having awareness of an HMO (due to discussions about Council Tax or Planning or Licencing) and the VOA disaggregating that property – and a much higher proportion here than elsewhere. Our conclusion is that a person or persons, within PCC, whether autonomously or as part of a wider intent, has been feeding details of local HMOs to the VOA for disaggregation which has had a disproportionate impact on the vulnerable tenants who live in them.
Refuse: Bin collection is yet one more area where local landlords suffer. You have a property with a large front garden in North End or Cosham, don't worry the bin men will walk in, collect your bin, empty it and return it. You have an HMO in Southsea with the bins in the forecourt? Unless the bins are within 2 feet of the pavement, with the handles facing in the right direction and unobstructed by gates they will not be emptied. It is a small thing but one more example of the contempt with which local landlords are regarded by Portsmouth City Council and its agents.
Parking: Residential parking permits are per dwelling unless that dwelling is in an HMO which has been deemed a dwelling for council tax purposes. So, a person living in a 1-bed flat can apply for a parking permit in the same way as any other resident but someone in a 1-bed unit in an HMO will be treated as one of many and may be charged a 2nd or 3rd car rate. Payment of Council Taxes, parking permits and everything else that is charged by the local authority appears to be on a basis that the interpretation of the rules for private landlords, particularly those with HMOs, will be whichever interpretation generates most revenue although it may be a completely different interpretation to the next council dept or group. Indeed, the definition of an HMO differs from one department to the next.
Trading Standards have no interest in taking up cases where local landlords have been fleeced or abused by rogue or criminal letting agents.
As a member of the public, if you have a problem or a need for information, the My Portsmouth app is quite useful. However, say you have people in the flat above you who are causing a disturbance or people in the house next door who have left rubbish outside their house and it is causing a problem. You go into the app and select 'Report It' – you are presented with 12 choices. Fly tipping or litter might be appropriate for the rubbish issue but not the ideal option. The ONLY option relating to housing apart from 'Dangerous Building' is 'Report an HMO issue' and in the intro (which few probably read) it describes an HMO as a property divided into multiple units – so an acceptable definition for both of the examples quoted. It is no wonder that PCC can argue such a high rate of problems in HMOs compared to other properties when the ONLY properties you can report an issue with are HMOs.
Individually, one might argue that all these examples are just unfortunate or maybe a little overzealous but collectively, they constitute a determined attempt to drive good landlords out of the city – why invest here when the bureaucracy is loaded against you and any profits are reduced by irksome local requirements. Much better to invest in Southampton or Brighton where the local administrations are more supportive of those who provide housing for local residents. Many of our members have HMOs in other cities and it is obvious to them how anti-landlord the policies are in Portsmouth.
If Portsmouth landlords had a different skin colour to other residents or chose to be referred to by a pronoun specific to their group, PCC would run training courses for its staff and put protocols in place to ensure an equality of treatment and an understanding of the challenges we face but as we are typically 'normal people' who have chosen to invest their pension savings or earn a living providing a much needed service, it appears that PCC have decided they are free to demonise us and take whatever measures they wish to make our lives harder and our business less successful even if that ends up driving the least able tenants out of the city owing to the resultant shortage of housing and increased rents.
We ask that PCC remedy this situation by conducting an external and independent review of their behaviours towards private sector residential landlords and accept and implement whatever recommendations that review defines. In addition, each of the areas of City Council operation need to change their processes and practices to eradicate this discrimination. In recognition of this need, we request a statement from PCC confirming the reduction in HMOs in the city over recent years as a result of its policies and practices – without this recognition and acceptance we will not believe that our concerns are being taken seriously.