The speech made by Ian Levy, the Conservative MP for Blyth Valley, in the House of Commons on 9 September 2020.
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law relating to the licensing of Houses in Multiple Occupation; to increase penalties for the contravention of such licences; and for connected purposes.
The private rented sector is an important part of our housing market. As we see large premises in town centres being vacated by businesses, there is a growing demand for them to be turned into housing. The introduction of high-quality residential units to town centres may be a great way to bring life back into town centres, but a worrying trend is developing in such units: they are subdivided into poor-quality houses of multiple occupancy, which are aimed at the very poorest and most vulnerable in society. The problem affects not only my constituency in Blyth Valley, but other towns up and down this wonderful country of ours.
Houses in multiple occupancy, or HMOs as they have become known, are a useful part of the housing sector, providing cheap accommodation for people whose housing options are limited. Although standards need to be met in large HMOs, these mainly relate to fire and building safety, as well as ensuring that facilities such as bathrooms are available. However, no consideration is given as part of the regime for the welfare of the residents or the impact that subdividing large properties into HMOs can have on the local community.
The standards set out a minimum accommodation size, but this makes appalling reading. Two adults are permitted to live in a space of just 10.22 square metres, which is nothing—the size of a reasonably-sized garden shed. According to the regulations, a child under 10 requires an additional 4.6 metres, or the size of a double bed—space not merely to sleep in, but to live, play, learn and eat in. Even more appalling is that, until the last Conservative Government introduced it in 2018, there was no minimum room size at all. The mental welfare of those forced to live in such conditions must be a concern for us all in 2020.
But however woeful the standards required for licensing HMOs across the country, in my home town of Blyth only one such premises is licensed as a house of multiple occupancy. Others are listed as hotels or marketed as Airbnbs or bed and breakfasts, creating a multitude of problems. When a property is not registered as a house in multiple occupancy, it falls through the gap, which means that local authorities such as the council and the police do not have the right of access and cannot implement boundaries, restrictions or measures to support the safeguarding of the clients living there.
The very nature of the accommodation provided by HMOs often means that those living in them have fallen on hard times or are suffering from mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse, and, in a lot of cases, as reported to me by the police, domestic abuse. These are vulnerable people, whom we have a duty to safeguard. Allowing HMOs to exist by disguising them as hostels, hotels or bed and breakfasts not only denies tenants security of tenure, but means that the accommodation does not face the true scrutiny it should. With no help or support, living in a community can be hard for people who are not well equipped to live on their own.
Many of these are young people. I worked for years in the NHS in a mental health capacity, and on a few really sad occasions I heard of clients forcibly being taken to cashpoints by drug dealers or loan sharks, where they were forced to empty their bank accounts of the benefits that had been paid in. This would leave the vulnerable client with no money left in their account to buy the basics to live for the next two weeks. Alone in a room with no support is no way for our vulnerable people to live in 2020.
You and I, Mr Speaker—and, I am sure, everybody in this House—are fortunate that we can take for granted being able to go to the fridge and have fresh milk, along with food to make a sandwich, clothing to put on our backs and a warm bed to sleep in. But when people are in a vulnerable position, it is hard when their finances are taken away from them. Just getting by, day to day, impacts on the trauma that some of these vulnerable people are already having to deal with.
It is vital that a stricter regime of checks and measures is imposed on landlords to ensure that safeguarding of clients is kept at the forefront. However, there are other issues that need to be addressed. For example, I find it concerning that, as things stand, the police are not consulted on planning applications for large HMOs. However, they are often called upon to deal with the issues that can arise from such dwellings. These houses cause concern in local communities that the inhabitants are likely to cause problems due to antisocial behaviour and other social problems. It is vital that the public living in and around the vicinity feel that they can live and integrate with the residents of houses in multiple occupancy safely and that community values are respected.
I would like to see, as a result of this legislation, greater powers to local authorities to deal with both the development and governance of houses in multiple occupancy. Requiring large HMOs to provide a nominated person to be responsible for the residents living there on a 24/7 basis would allow a point of contact for the authorities and the local community to highlight issues and, where possible, address them in a way that safeguards both the individuals and the local community.
I understand that not all HMOs exploit their tenants, and I also understand that there are other reasons why, for people wanting to live in small, cheap units close to facilities, they may be attractive. But I wish to ensure that they are not used as a method of housing vulnerable people in substandard accommodation with no regard for their mental or physical wellbeing or the needs of the local community. I want to ensure that someone being able to buy a house in a sub-prime area and divide it into multiple bedrooms, while showing absolutely no care for the individual or the local residents, becomes a thing of the past. I would like to see a balance given to the community, so that clients feel safe and part of that community, and the public living in and around the vicinities of houses of multiple occupancy feel that they can live and integrate with the clients, with respect and safeguarding for all.