There is little debate about whether local councillors like HMOs or HMO landlords, but the Portsmouth Planning Committee excelled themselves this month strongly implying one of our members, who has spent millions improving local property, was a rogue and rejecting other properties due to the lack of a downstairs toilet (nowhere does it state a property must have a downstairs toilet and in both cases, they had only been removed to meet the excessive local space requirements).
Read our complaint to the chair of the Planning Committee..
Dear Councillor Attwell,
Many local landlords and property professionals have watched the last planning committee meeting on 8th February, particularly item 13 on the agenda, 22/00233/HMO 13 Wyndcliffe Road, Portsmouth PO4 0LA. This related to a decision on whether PCC should pursue enforcement action against one of our members Mr Antony Lane.
Firstly, Councillor Vernon-Jackson overstepped the mark in his comments about Mr Lane. You commented at the time on the use of language and Mr Lane has written to Cllr Vernon-Jackson asking for an apology. On behalf of the PDPLA, I would ask that at the next meeting of the committee, you make it clear that such remarks cannot be tolerated and outline the sanctions that will be imposed should any further such outbursts occur.
Secondly, we are dumbfounded by the ongoing confusion surrounding what does or does not constitute a material change of use and by some of the other decisions made on several other properties based on standards that don't exist. This is representative of the poor performance issues of the planning system in Portsmouth as a whole.
Regardless of the technical legalities of whether increasing the size of this HMO by one extra person constitutes a material change of use or not, Mr. Lane followed what he considered to be a precedent set by the Campbell Property judgement. This precedent is highlighted to you regularly and accepted by the planning department as significant to decision making. Therefore, to negatively judge Mr. Lane purely for taking the same stance is not acceptable and deserves clarification at the next meeting with an apology issued.
We also think that it would be in PCC's, landlord's and developer's interest if the question of what constitutes a material change of use was resolved or clear guidance issued so that all parties could better understand, if not agree, as to when planning permission for HMO enlargement is required. Not easy when officers clearly have different views to Councillors but essential to avoid repetitions of this sorry situation and to stop so much wasted time by officers. We realise that expert and neutral advice may be required, and it is unfortunate that the Planning Inspectors are inconsistent in their decisions on what constitutes a material change of use. However, this is not helped by weak planning policy with a lack of supporting evidence highlighted to you in cases such as Campbell Properties. For example, in comparison Southampton has clear guidance in their planning documents and claim they have good supporting evidence and are well supported in such cases/appeals.
Regarding item 13, repeated insinuations were made by members of the committee that this property is of a poor standard and that Mr Lane is a bad landlord. Perhaps the property is not up to the very high standards demanded by your committee, I have not seen it. However, we would not rely upon the one-sided opinions of a clearly very disgruntled neighbour in making such a judgement without proper investigation.
We understand that the property was not referred to Planning for investigation by the Licensing team owing to any issues they had regarding the standard of the property as was stated by Cllr Sanders, but purely because it looked to them as though it might need planning permission to go from 6 to 7 occupants. Can we ask that you clarify this for the minutes please.
I would also ask, next time one of our members chooses to make a deputation in support of an application, that you show the same relaxed attitude to time keeping as you did with the '6 minutes' allocated to the neighbour making the inaccurate rant about 13 Wyndcliffe Road.
We appreciate that with the performance issues in the Planning department you may see these comments as a minor distraction from the bigger problem. However regularly making HMO decisions contrary to officer recommendations must impact the morale of the department and fighting appeals adds to their workload.
It is also grossly unfair; it presents landlords with considerable delay and expense, and it is a waste of Council Tax money for your committee to refuse permission against expert officer opinion only for the decision to be overturned on appeal. This should be a rare occurrence; it has become the norm in HMO cases. There are actions that we could take against PCC to reduce this behaviour, but it would be much better if your committee would learn from their mistakes or employ planning officers who know how to deliver what you want.
The Wyndcliffe Road property was inspected in 2019 by Mr Conway, a senior Housing Regulation Officer well known amongst landlords for his excessive demands and his overzealous interpretation of the HMO standards. He deemed it suitable and issued a license. It has not changed. If members of your committee are correct and this property is not of the required standard, what exactly is the point of Private Sector Housing and licensing schemes?
We are informed that Mr Lane tried to resolve the neighbour issues using a mediator, the mediator discovered that some of the neighbour complaints were unfounded and dropped the case. We also understand that no enforcement actions have been undertaken by Private Sector Housing on the back of these complaints. What makes members of the planning committee, who have not seen the property nor have evidence of the complaints, think that they are better placed to pass judgement?
At least two of the other planning applications decided upon in the same committee meeting were rejected for standards that don't exist either within the planning policy, building regulations nor the newly approved Space and Amenity Standards. They were rejected for a lack of WC on the ground floor with both cases only having removed the existing toilet to meet PCC's exacting space requirements for communal areas. The newly approved HMO standards simply state: "No bedroom should be more than two floors away from a bathroom/shower room or WC" and there is no stated requirement to have a WC on the ground floor. These standards were approved by Cabinet less than two months ago after a costly consultation period. Were these documents not properly digested prior to giving their approval or do members of the committee believe they need to be updated again?
SPDs and HMO standards documents have been shown in law to be no more that guidance. They need trained professionals to interpret and apply them. Yet, we see discussions based on the assumption that any property with a macerator must be unbearable to live in or near and a property without a downstairs toilet is unacceptable – if those are genuine views held by the majority of the committee, then put it in an SPD or lobby central government to change the building code/regulations, but please discourage members from rejecting HMO applications on such ill-founded and spurious logic.
We hope that members agree that Planning and PSH standards need to be the same perhaps with some understanding that older established HMOs may need a more flexible approach to standards than new build or following major works. This cannot happen if untrained members continue to make such judgements.
We suggest that unnecessary and costly (to both sides) appeals could be avoided and the relationship between landlords and PCC could be improved if all HMO planning applications were first checked by Private Sector Housing and that members accepted the judgement of the experts.
Apologies for the length of this email – we had a lot of members who were very unhappy with the February meeting. Hopefully, some of the points we have highlighted will help you ensure the meetings are more effective in future.
Thanks & Regards,
Portsmouth & District Private Landlords Association
And if you want to see it for yourself - here is the webcast: Planning Committee, 8 February 2023 on Livestream
The discussion of item 13 (Wyndcliffe Rd) starts at 3 hours 47 min but the worst of it runs from 4 hours 10 min on...