After this months Portsmouth Council Planning Committee meeting, the answer to that question is easy – but whether to be a local councillor is a much harder one to answer.
Should we praise our public spirited citizens who put themselves forward to represent the people they live among and who endured 6 hours of debate on whether 12 HMO applications were to be approved or not, or should we be asking why they chose to start this process and override the advice of planning officials and ignore the view of planning inspectors in the first place?
We sent an email to all council members involved in the Planning process – summarising what we believe to be the main issues with HMO's in Portsmouth and 3 steps which we believe will go a long way to resolving them.
See it here: PDPLA Letter To Planning Committee
One stalwart PDPLA member sat through the whole planning session, this is what she had to say:
"They plan a site visit at one HMO because they really seem to be against long and narrow kitchens/communal spaces with other bits at the end even though the one being discussed had met communal space requirements, they still wanted to debate how 'usable' it is. They weren't sure on that one and no one would vote either way so the site visit was put up as option. It was very long and narrow and there was a dining table at the end of the room but had to be pushed against the wall as not seemingly wide enough and took issue with how tenants would be able to sit around it.
They refused another also with a narrow kitchen with sofas at the end. The landlord had reported it as all rooms over 10m2 and 20 something m2 communal space. Two of the rooms were found to be under at 9.5 and 9.6 or thereabouts and they decided to uphold the need for 34m2 communal space requirements as not all rooms where >10m2. Personally, I kind of agreed as the two sofas at the end of the kitchen were unusable. They were facing each other but because of the narrowness of the space, you would not be able to sit there without legs from the person on the opposite sofa being intertwined with your own? They obviously also bought up the issue of bikes having to be trawled through this space to the back also seen in a negative way.
They brought up parking issues at London road and the two at Jessie Road but I think of those roads as ideal for this purpose as no one who has a car would choose to live there because of the serious lack of parking. Very few of our HMO tenants have a car and certainly no more than the average family and sometimes none so I think it's a bit of baseless argument either way. I also think they were just annoyed as they figured that the "study" was already a bedroom.
The planner guy kept mentioning that it was only the addition of one person and therefore not a material change in use on this basis but they kept bringing up the fact that the problem is many of these have had planning permission quite recently from a family home to mostly mixed use and then they use permitted development to make it 6 bed with a pretend study/lounge and then it appears just the one extra room once it gets to the committee and that this needs to be stopped - they appear to be correct. They maintained that to go to 7 was a material change of use throughout and wouldn't even entertain the thought that it wasn't or take heed that planning said otherwise.
I was actually surprised how many had been granted this c4 permission in areas already clearly way over the 10% rule etc - how come planning don't stick to these rules? Personally, I think some places warrant it - like on London road as not ideal for family living anyway and are built up higher than other roads already so you might as well get as many HMOs as possible in these places (maybe even Jessie Road) rather than on quieter streets. But the areas such as all those cases that came up near and around Margate Road area - there's still quite a few families living there so I don't quite understand the justification for having permitted so many more in the past few years. This was the area seemingly most complained about by residents also. What's the point in these rules if never adhered too? Plus what's the point in licensing standards if PSH sign them off anyway even though not met? Is it just becuase they look new and swanky and feel bad that it's newly built?
Another problem mentioned several times was the over stretching of typical 2 up 2 down terraces into 7 bed HMOs and that this wasn't acceptable - such as the talbot road case. My opinion may be unpopular but I actually do agree with this. I went into one exactly the same recently and I've honestly never felt so claustrophobic in my life. Many of the terraces in that area are barely a full two up and down to start with. These new three floor tiny bed houses are so small in every regard, small windows compared to what was there originally, thinnest possible halls, lowest possible ceiling height even in stairs, small bedrooms and walk-through kitchens at the front. This one was tenanted and as I walked around, my very small backback and coat literally knocked stuff off from here, there and everywhere as I turned round in each room and brushed up against walls. Maybe they look acceptable on floorplans or when empty but it really didn't feel okay to me when lived in and felt full up just walking around with two other fully grown adults. You couldn't comfortably sit with a friend or family member in these bedrooms. There's also no longer any flexibility in the use of these houses as while sufficient for a 9 month stint as a student perhaps, it's no good for longer term nor for families and there may not always be a high student demand so I think it's illogical to create so many. Larger rooms rent so much easier and longer anyway and without voids so I don't think it's worth it financially overall but basically, I think they should be picking the right buildings with bigger footprints for this kind of thing in the first place as there's plenty around in Southsea and North End.
I have a terraced HMO in Fawcett Road that is already a six bed over two floors without having undergone any structural changes ever and easy to put another 2 or maybe even three rooms in the attic - all bedrooms are above 10m2 and some much larger so much more appropriate. The one I manage in Margate road is a five bed and all enormous so again, easy to put another 2 rooms in the attic exactly the same as the planning proposal for Margate Road they discussed here that was approved in the meeting as well (proposal also added ensuites in many and still all over 10m2) . I have a 10 bed just south of Albert Road and the hallways are so expansive you don't even notice how many other tenants you live with and all rooms are large and our tenants stay up to 10 years here as they are just so comfortable and literally can't be bothered to move. In fact, someone I know just moved into this house from a flat because it's so stable there. The smaller the room, the shorter the tenancy and always back up for rent so that indicates how it affects people's satisfaction.
I don't see the problem with the odd one or two small bedrooms in bigger houses with wide open hallways and a feeling of space as there is a need for them for short term situations - but 7 almost tiny bedrooms in one house is a bad balance for me. I would honestly choose to live in one of our 6.5/7m2 tiny rooms we have in a massive house with various different communal spaces than take some of these 8-9m2 ones in a very cramped house. They didn't like basements rooms that had been dug out either.
Discussion on the problem of landlords moving in two people per room instead of one and wanted to add 7 people only as condition of approval - clear lack of knowledge in this area.
Someone kept bringing up that all the extra rooms allowed on said road amounted to 4-8 extra houses.
And Nitrates obviously - I'm assuming mitigation payments/schemes of this nature are as about as effective and worthwhile as carbon off-setting!
Meet the communal space requirements, avoid long skinny kitchens/communal areas or walkthrough galleys where bikes need to go through, don't dig out a basement to get an extra room, don't round up spaces to 10m2 in proposals when they're not and try not to sneak in bedrooms to areas with oversaturation of HMOs by calling them lounges or studies when you clearly built them and likely already using them as a bedroom as it just annoys them? They don't really know how many HMOs there are so they really do need to get on top of this for multiple reasons. The 4 bed one we just sold reverted back to C3 use in Talbot rd was in fact within the 50m radius of the case in question at the committee. Clearly planning and licensing not adhering to the rules in many cases.
Being a planning committee, I would have expected them to have a better grasp of planning legislation and space standards required by the council and the difference between them or even just a better idea of what they needed to make decisions on but hey ho!!"
Other Members Views On The Planning Meeting
Having sat through the hours of debate in which council members went to great lengths to reject applications to add 1 more bedroom to a 6 bed HMO, we considered summarising the outcome but felt that readers might assume we are biased, so instead, we asked a number of members for their analysis of how the meeting went.
This is what they said:
"Interesting summary, even the News states they are using an out of date database. Quoting the figure of 6000 HMO's still and I would think the true figure for the proposed scheme would be nearer to the mandatory licensing number 1226?"
"Their policy has focused so much on restriction of HMOs and the belief that there are too many, they have given no consideration or awareness whatsoever to the disappearance of smaller ones. When it was commented upon in the meeting, there was no response or comment on that aspect."
"I noted their new policies mentioned supporting development of purpose built accommodation in regard to HMOs. Personally, as a renter, I do not wish to live in any new purpose built accommodation as new builds tend to be constructed badly, with minimal space and character and I don't want a commercial company as a landlord. I couldn't think of anything worse to be honest. Perhaps they need more of these for the undesirables with anti-social behaviour issues but doubt corporate landlords would house them in these?"
"The answer to parking is parking permits, not HMO rules"
"The normal laws of supply and demand apply to rooms in HMOs, arguably Licensing removes small HMOs and creates demands for larger ones. The cost of energy bills is impacting professional "bills inclusive" HMO landlords, more so for smaller ones. Increased rents achieved by 3 bed family lets are pulling HMOs out, bills costs and licensing are acting as a further push. I am aware of 8 x 4 bed HMOs coming out of the market for sure. 6 will go to family let, one is being developed into a 6 bed, two sold."
"We put a load of HMO's back into single dwellings some time ago and a couple back to joint tenancy to groups last year so there's less to deal with if you find the right group and they pay the bills (you can get a little more rent than for single let that way too). Some are being sold and I don't know about the few we have left but it's not looking good. The tenants in these tend to be self-sufficient and are long term but the costs don't weigh up anymore. I also feel bad when we have to give eviction notices but we can normally move them elsewhere so not so bad. If a single family let, you also don't have to deal with so many repairs, replacements or arguments between them plus we don't have to attend all the time for fire alarm checks and what not, no PAT tests if unfurnished and so on. Plus, if you use an agent for management, the charges and fees will be less too."
"I converted my 4 bed back to a family let last year. It has earned the same as had no voids, and more importantly my life is MUCH easier as I manage them all.The 2 family lets have been more profitable then my 5 bed HMO this year too. Convert them into super HMOs (if Planning allows it) or change back to C3. That's my advice."
"Convert small HMO's to family lets or super-HMO's is the way to go, but it is sad kicking out low income good people who are in place and been there a number of years. However, with a council like this we seem to have no choice"
"I had a quick chat with her - she's fuming as expected. Apparently the Planning Committee are going to visit one of the HMO's and are taking 7 deck chairs in order to see if they can all be seated in there at once. Just when I thought I'd heard it all – do these people have the slightest idea how people live in HMO's? They are not unsociable but then again, a house of 7 never eats together and don't all sit and watch Strictly together – OK, some might but…"
In Summary – The PDPLA View
If councillors had spent a fraction of the time focussed on HMO's in the past 15 years on regenerating the city, parking, transport or bringing in new businesses it is likely that everyone would be happier.
There are 2 areas worth considering when talking about HMO's
We have yet to see any evidence that there is a problem with properties in the city that needs so much focus and regulation. We accept that there are tenant issues where more could be done and our proposals would start to address them, but the actions of councillors appear to turn a blind eye, preferring instead to demonise HMO's when the city has no alternative for single people and to harass landlords simply because that is easier that resolving problems in this area.
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.