On the evening of the 19th of April 2012 I observed Cambridge City Council debate a Labour motion on the subject of regulating shared houses in the city. The motion talked of capping the number of properties available to sharers and extending the council’s definition of a House in Multiple Occupation to include all properties in which three or more people from two or more households live. The motion was debated in the context of upcoming elections, and a Labour Manifesto which says if Labour was running the council it would:
Look to use planning powers to limit the percentage of houses in any particular area that can be HMOs.
While the Liberal Democrats and Greens worked together to defeat the cap and expansion of the HMO definition and associated regulation this time, the ideas would re-emerge should Labour gain control of the council following the May elections.
I used the public speaking slot at the meeting to say that I was only able to live in Cambridge as a result of the availability of properties in the city to house sharers. Limiting the availability of such properties would have priced me out of this city in my twenties.
The Liberal Democrats, along with the Greens and Cambridge Socialists argued against the proposals. Liberal Democrat Cllr Amanda Taylor led the opposition. Her speech, which can be viewed in the video above, was relatively short, but it effectively highlighted many of the illiberal and discriminatory aspects of the Labour proposals. I have transcribed it:
Cllr Amanda Taylor’s Speech
When I first looked at this motion I thought it looked quite well meaning.
It started off by saying about the contribution that HMOs make to families, students and migrant workers.
But as I read on, I became quite appalled, because from talking about care and concern for those in those houses in lines one to three by line nine we were widening the HMO net to take in hundreds more properties and by the time we get to line twenty we’re talking about putting a cap on HMOs in particular streets.
Well I think if we’re talking about a review that’s great, but to talk about a cap, talking about two hundred meters, twenty-five percent it sounds very prescriptive and it also sounds if we’ve got the answer before we’ve done the research at all.
I don’t believe in discriminating against particular groups of people just because of the types of housing they wish to live in or the types of households they are in. I find that a very illiberal approach.
We’re not talking about shops or buildings here as we are with other sorts of planning; we’re talking about people.
There’s people in shared housing in my ward, near the cattle market on Cherry Hinton Road. I don’t see them as some kind of social problem to be kept to a minimum, they’re ordinary people like you and me, maybe more ordinary. It’s not just professionals and students but also nurses, police, waitresses, social workers, all sorts of people. Many are people who cannot manage to get a mortgage maybe because they’re in new jobs or in short term contracts or don’t have the money for a deposit so they’re obliged to go to the rented sector. Where I do get problems in my ward, like everyone else I sometimes get neighbour nuisance problems or complaints about noise and they’re not shared houses very often they’re ordinary families.
Now I find that for a party that has so much to say about the gap between the rich and the poor (and you have the right to do so) I think this motion shows remarkably little understanding of the difficulty of finding accommodation in Cambridge particularly for young people. I think because of the demographic we have in shared housing, it tends to be young people, overall and I wonder if you’ve given thought to an equalities impact assessment on this because I think you would find that it would affect young people more than other groups and would be indirect discrimination. I did find that surprising to come from Cllr Marchant-Daisley as I know [she] is involved in the equalities panel on the council.
There are many other reasons for renting or sharing houses, for example if you’re at the beginning of your career and you don’t know how long you’ll be there and of course it’s a social way of living for a single person. We’re not all neat little family units and I don’t think we should try to push people into a particular way of living. I think the diversity of the population and lifestyles in Cambridge is one of the great things about this city and what makes it a vibrant place to live.
I find that this motion, and conclusions that it comes to do seem to fly in the face of some of the statements made in the manifesto where your say that your priority is sustainable neighbourhoods for people of all incomes and that your first duty if you were a Labour council would be to stand up for all Cambridge residents. I don’t see that in a motion which limits particular types of people and their lifestyles.
I think it’s a very frighting sign of what we might see if the Labour group came to power in the city. I hope that you will vote against the motion.
[Interruption - Labour Cllr Price: "We're not going to are we"]
I hope you all vote against the motion and see that as a sign of tolerance and liberalism in the way that we run the city and the diversity which we all enjoy.
Transcript of Cllr Marchant-Daisley’s speech moving her motion:
First of all can I thank the public speakers this evening for raising the issue and Cllr Smart [Liberal Democrat Executive Councillor for Housing] for debunking some of the myths about it.
The purpose of this motion is to open up debate on what is a really important issue for the future of housing in Cambridge and our proposals are designed to do 4 main things:
- Consult with the review of the Local Plan
- Improve the standards of shared houses for their tenants and external environment
- Maintain and increase the shared housing sector while, for new HMOs, avoiding too greater a concentration in given streets
- To listen to the whole community
The first part of the motion is to do with regulation.
All Cambridge has a very significant level of and need for shared housing, and we believe that it is the duty of the Council to ensure that our many thousands of residents who live in shared houses and those that live in their neighbourhoods are protected from lazy or unscrupulous Landlords. The problems of poorly managed HMOs can range from the dangerous, arising from non compliance safety standards (and let us not forget the death of a Cambridge resident last year) to the uncomfortable (with poor quality accommodation) to the inconvenient with shoddy facilities for tenants. For those living close to poorly managed properties, they can suffer from inconsiderate neighbourhood noise, unkempt buildings or gardens, refuse and recycling not being properly handled.
Currently, only those properties that are 3 or more storeys in height and have 5 or more unrelated persons in them need to be licensed and therefore regulated by the council. In Cambridge that means that very many shared houses fall outside the statutory definition and are entirely unregulated.
We are proposing that a report be brought forward examining the implications of extending licensing to shared houses of 3 or more unrelated individuals and getting rid of the arbitrary and unhelpful requirement for the building to be a set number of storeys. Now, we don’t know at this state whether, looking that new definition would get the balance right, which is why we want a report. Evidence from improvements suggests that such a definition may be right, in Oxford this extension to licensing in these terms was supported by both the Lib Dems and the Greens, as well as the Student Union, and is said to be working well, with some Landlords complaining, but most reputable ones welcoming the changes as raising standards, avoiding a race to the bottom on standards and ensuring that the less responsible Landlords either improve standards or get out of the market, the former would appear to be the case as dire predictions about a decline in stock have not been realised. Apart from anything else, the economics of the market place mean that a Landlord is going to be able to charge a greater rental for a shared house than for a property let as a family home and is therefore going to be likely to improve their standards where necessary and adhere to their responsibilities. The response from tenants has been, unsurprisingly, positive.
All this however is anecdotal and we would like to see that evidence brought forward to confirm or otherwise those conclusions.
The second limb to regulation is, of course, increased expectations and where necessary enforcement and that has to be a vital component of any change. Once in response Landlords understand that Cambridge demands safe, good quality and well-run properties for both the tenants of these properties and their neighbours, then we can realistically hope to see an end to poorly managed and unsafe houses.
The last part of the motion relates to planning and is the part that appears to have led to a degree of wilful or innocent misunderstanding in some quarters.
The current Local Plan (produced by the present Ruling Group) refers to HMOs and says that development will be permitted subject to
“the potential impact on the amenity of the local area” and goes on to state that such properties “are residential in character but often have different servicing needs and increased levels of activity associated with them. The location of such provision requires careful consideration to ensure that the proposals respect the character and residential amenity of the local area. An over-concentration of uses, which can affect amenity and character can have a detrimental impact on a locality.”
The Ruling Group have therefore acknowledged the problem of an over-concentration of HMOs on a locality but have chosen to do nothing about it beyond some empty words in the Local Plan, but no real policy, no research, no evidence and no action.
As part of the review of the Local Plan we are asking the Head of Planning to report to the Executive Councillor responsible on the option of using planning powers to prevent, or to create a trigger to look at new HMOs in a street or stretch of street where there are 25% or more HMOs, and to put that out to consultation as part of the issues and options stage of the review of the Local Plan.
This, as has been made clear, does not affect existing HMOs.
What we are looking for is an appropriate trigger for intervention, there is none in the current Local Plan in spite of the plan suggesting (logically) that there should be. Is 25% the right trigger, I don’t know, we don’t know, we want a debate and some research, but a rational, mature debate about what the right figure is – we have not named a figure in our manifesto for this reason. The total number of shared houses is well under 25% of the housing sector, in some streets in Cambridge it is nil or nearly nil, but we believe that there are some streets where is it already near 90% and others are on the way to that level – that would be in clear contravention of the Local Plan, if the sentiment in it had been translated into actual policy.
This is only one of many policies for attacking housing issues and improving private sector housing for Cambridge. It is an area which has been ignored by the Liberal Democrat group for too long.
In context: Cambridge is a City with a huge number of students, professionals, workers of all kinds who rely on shared housing, and that need is not going to diminish. HMOs are a vital part of the housing sector, but they are not the only part and it is the duty of the Council to seek a balance between the different parts of the housing sector otherwise communities will not be sustainable, with unacceptable pressures on parking, the possibility of whole streets emptying out for parts of the year and families finding themselves squeezed out of the rental market due to the higher yields on HMOs.
We want new shared houses, but we can use planning powers to ensure that they are spread further and do not lead to or worsen over-concentration.
So we are NOT proposing a cut in the number of HMOs, nor are we proposing any form of moratorium, but we do want to look at preventing areas being dominated by HMOs.
The idea that this is a strange or unwarranted interference by the Council is unfounded – planning, and seeking to plan and build communities is one of the most important functions of the Council. We do not leave planning issues exclusively to the free market, we regulate and manage our fields and open spaces rather than allowing the maximum yield for developers. Look at the effort that is going into new communities like the Southern Fringe to ensure that we get the right mix: integrated communities, pepper-potting of social housing, high quality environment and standards – so why isn’t that good enough for shared housing? We impose ratios in commercial areas to regulate the numbers of shops to restaurants, for example to ensure a balanced High Street, and this proposal is analogous to that.
Some have expressed the fear that any such policy would drive up prices and decrease the supply of HMOs. We don’t see that it will, but we want to see the evidence. We are talking about new HMOs, these often come onto the market having been bought by investors, and we are not saying that they shouldn’t: what we’re saying is it might be appropriate to say to an investor that they need to invest in another part of the city.
There is huge pressure on housing, we have a duty to all the residents of Cambridge to seek to manage that for all of them, and this motion asks for a report to look at whether we ought to use the planning system to regulate the number of shared houses in a street or area. If such regulation is appropriate, we don’t know at this stage if it should be city-wide or applicable to certain areas and that is something the report can look at. We do not think, however, we should be afraid to look at using the tools available to us to plan for a well-balanced city and communities seeking to cater to the needs of all residents.
I move the motion.
The transcript was produced with the assistance of the Cambridge Labour Party who provided me with the text of the speech which I have checked and corrected against delivery.
One complaint which followed during debate was that the quote from the Local Plan was used inappropriately as it refers to HMOs which are currently regulated, and not the large numbers of shared homes which would be caught by Labour’s proposed definition.
Cllr Smart pointed out that unlicensed shared houses are not entirely unregulated, in particular they are, she said, still subject to fire regulations.
Councillors noted that the speech highlighted many problems, including unscrupulous landlords, which were not really addressed by the motion.
Thank you Mr Mayor.
Thank you Cllr Marchant-Daisley for giving a representative overview of our position.
I just want to let you know where we stand on a few points:
As we’ve made clear if you read the motion carefully we are not planning to prescribe policy in any way.
It is quite clear in the motion that what we are calling for is a report to assess options to improve the operation and regulation of HMOs in Cambridge, and regarding the planning aspects, future options including the target figures that Cllr Marchant-Daisley talked about should enable us to look at the proposals relating to the forthcoming Cambridge Local Plan 2014 to 2031. This motion does not set out things in stone it’s very much looking to open things up and debate the proposals.
There are a few other points. Oxford was referred to, and I know there have been of other cities where we have had examples of additional licensing proposals being brought forward. I believe in Peterborough, Reading and Swansea, sometimes these are city wide proposals and sometimes a certain area. This council could look at those practices, they could form part of the base for a report; we need an evidence base and not simply rely on some of the commentary which is coming out of Oxford which is a dire prediction of the additional licensing policy with rising costs of rent or declining stock availability and reducing capacity in terms of HMOs that’s not a good note, but we’re not saying that these things are no problem but we do want an evidence base and that’s essentially what our report would be about.
A few sort of specific points:
At the moment the HMO policy concerning mandatory licensing properties of three stories and above, I think that’s a rather arbitrary rule of thumb measure relates with fire service regulations and that’s to do with people who may have to evacuate from a building in the extent of a fire from the third story or above. So we cannot deny that there must be properties in Cambridge that are two story, or even single story, that would need to be notified under fire regulations when we’re looking at house which otherwise have no additional licensing regarding HMO status.
In Oxford they actually went through stages in introducing additional licensing, first of all looking at bringing in two story properties into the equation and then putting properties in where there are three or more unrelated occupiers so there’s no prescriptive big bang approach, there are different ways to do this depending on what the report we wish to see comes out with and what evidence that draws to our attention. We all know in our own wards, I’m sure everyone who’s been a councillor has come across examples in this campaign of properties in a badly managed, they’re unregulated, with unscrupulous landlords, exploiting tenants with unsafe accommodation and this has an impact not only on the people living in these properties but on the local area and on the local environment. Surely we would prefer and I’m sure good landlords would prefer a level playing field; a proactive regime from the council of inspection to a proper standard meeting fire and and electrical safety requirements. Encouraging responsible landlords means encouraging responsible tenants and they are very much part of the community. Ensuring the safety, security, and quality of life for both tenants and their neighbours.
So to reiterate we are just considering requesting a report be brought forward and assessing the options which arrive and in particular we’re not describing policy we merely wish the council to populate a proper evidence base and bring forward a really considered report on this matter.
My view bringing in a cap on shared housing in a stepwise manner doesn’t make it any better. It has to be considered that Cllr Todd-Jones’ speech has been made following criticism of the idea of a cap on shared houses which was raised in the motion. He has talked about things like fire safety and tackling unscrupulous landlords, which are things no one is arguing against, no one is arguing for more people to be killed in fires or for landlords to be allowed to get away with being unscrupulous. People are arguing against restricting the range of properties which house sharers can rent, but that aspect isn’t really addressed. The motion, and the Labour manifesto does mention the cap on shared housing.
There was support from all sides of the chamber and beyond for better evidence on the state of housing provision in the city, so again that wasn’t a key point of disagreement.
Cllr Colin Rosenstiel made an insightful speech, the content of which I expect will be of interest to those in any location where additional regulation of house sharing is proposed. (Video of Cllr Rosenstiel’s contribution)
We have another example here of the Labour party’s love of bureaucracy which actually would undermine some of the commitments they claim to advocate in their motion.
[Pulls trousers up]
If you look at the current rules on HMOs they involve requirements which are flatly contradictory with the requirements of family housing. So if I look at a street on my ward not far from where I live where the houses are tall enough to be registered as HMOs if they are thus occupied, they stay that way, they never go back to family housing and the ones which are in family housing use never become HMOs because the costs of moving from one sector to the other are too high.
If you are going to impose that on ordinary two story terraced houses all over the city that will freeze in the pattern that we’ve got now.
Let me give one example which will be perfectly clear to everyone here. Every council house in the city which has had new plastic windows installed has got lockable windows because that’s what our tenants want to give them some security. You can’t have them in a HMO because you have to be able to get out of a window without having to find a key, so all windows have to be replaced if a house becomes a HMO and that is the dead hand of bureaucracy which Labour wants to throw onto our housing market right across this city. It’s bad enough where it applies now in those streets with the taller houses that require but are student housing[sic].
The biggest HMO example which I know in my ward is Jesus Lane which is all but one house now student housing. But the council since long before the present local plan was totally unable to prevent that kind of thing taking place because one of the things which has happened in my lifetime in this city is you don’t get families living properties of seven and taking in lots of lodgers anymore because young people don’t want to live like that and haven’t wanted to live like that since they became adults at eighteen instead of twenty-one, forty-two years ago. There has been that change and therefore what we must not do is get into a bureaucracy which makes it worse and locks in the existing patterns and costs huge amounts to people that cause landlords to give up [..inaudible..]. If you’re a landlord of an existing two story house and flog it off rather than having to change all the windows for example and incur all the costs, there are all sorts of other things about putting in fire resistant doors.
Let’s not talk about glibly licensing and think it does not have consequences. It is a layer of bureaucracy which cannot be justified in terms of our number one job which is to ensure people have houses in the city.
I think Jesus Lane is largely Jesus College owned and run, and subject to the ANUK code and not council HMO licensing, it would though be subject to council planning.
Thank you Mr Mayor.
This is a bit of sad night for the other side and for the council really because in the previous motion we had the Liberal Democrats saying that council tenants should be happy that their improvements are only ninety percent correct to keep the cost down and in this motion we are having agreement among Liberal Democrat councillors, including councillor Taylor, standing up in favour of tenants in HMOs who are so far off the housing ladder they can’t even see the ladder that they should support this free market laissez-faire sometimes poorer quality unregulated HMOs. The only thing I can conclude from that, Mr Mayor, is you’ve been hanging with the Tories too long.
[Interjection: Cllr Owers (Labour, Coleridge) "Yeah, dam right"]
Cllr Benstead probably meant to accuse the Liberal Democrats, rather than just the mayor, of hanging around with the Tories too long, but like many councillors he gets tripped up by the requirement to speak “through the mayor”.
I think this shows that Cllr Benstead doesn’t appreciate that some people chose to live in shared houses. I have done myself, as as cheaper way of living allowing me to try and save up to buy a house of my own. Cllr Benstead (and the labour motion he was speaking in favour of) wants to restrict the numbers of shared houses in the city. By doing this he would push up the standard of accommodation in the city, however he would also push those currently living in shared houses out.
Many people are living in shared houses for much longer than is desirable. I too would like to see fewer people living in shared houses in the city, but the solution in my view is not capping the number of shareable homes, but tackling the underlying problems including demand for property exceeding supply, and of high property prices as a multiple of income. New build property on the city’s outskirts should be of a quality, and with good cycling and other transport links which enables it to participate the same property market as the city centre. In my view property prices are also pushed up by the manner in which affordable housing is provided, and other factors such as the availability of credit.
Those speaking in favour of allowing people to chose to live in shared houses, and allowing house shares to be free to rent any property they decide is appropriate and affordable for them in the city, are not as Cllr Benstead suggests, in favour of people living in shared houses rather than more appropriate accommodation or particularly supporting poor quality HMOs.
Cllr Zoe Moghadas
I really wanted to not repeat anything that Cllr Marchant-Daisley and Cllr Mike Todd-Jones have said. I very much support what they said.
I was slightly confused in a way by Cllr Taylor’s response, I do think that the motion makes it very clear that what the motion is pushing for is a report to assess the options and the included in that Cllr Marchant-Daisley made clear that the things that it stated are for discussion.
I really wanted to talk as a representative of my residents in Romsey as I am one of the councillors who brought forward their concerns and this is how this motion has been developed. Residents have come to me and they are worried about attaining a balance of housing in the area. Some families, some single people which I hope we would all agree that it is essential we maintain a healthy community. This idea that we’re not looking at that, that there should be a variety within our streets, that this concern and certainly some of the residents who have lived in Romsey for years and years and I have to say predominately from houses where there are families and obviously lifestyles get very different when there’s a house with single people and a house with young children in close proximity. In a way what they’re feeling is there has been a gradual creep. Many of those households are saying to me we will have to move out the area. I’m not sure that’s happening but there does seem to be more and more HMOs occurring which isn’t conducive to this idea of balance in the area and hence we’re asking for a review of a percentage restriction of HMOs within a street. Again we’re emphasising the review of this.
A big concern for us the focus on the impact on the area of badly managed HMOs in Romsey. At this point I’ll come to the amendment, I feel a section of this is very misleading. Cllr Smart has stated that if the restrictions were put in place rents would rise. That’s an assumption, there’s no evidence for that. In fact we’ve heard from Cllr Todd-Jones that research has been done looking at the Oxford model where this is in place, there is a restriction, to maintain the balance of HMOs in particular streets, and as far as I’m aware there’s no evidence to show rents have risen adversely so I can’t support a motion that has come up with something with no basis or evidence to it.
At the bottom of the motion she has acknowledged I know that I have urged those with problems to go to environmental health officers, I have contacted them myself on occasion. One such case that I was involved in, someone who has needed, someone who has maintained their property but lives next door to a property which is in such abysmal care and I dealt with that at the beginning of the year when I first got elected and that still hasn’t been resolved so there’s a problem with the current systems the existing sanctions just don’t seem to be rigorously enforced so again it comes back to this need for what the report to actually assess these issues which have been brought forward.
In a number of points during that speech Cllr Moghadas appears to have shied away from explicitly saying what she appears to be implying, such as a view that it is concerning, for some unspecified reason, for single people and those with young children to live near each other. As with the other Labour speeches lots of material irrelevant to the motion is included, for example on the effectiveness of the council’s enforcement of environmental health related matters, presumably rubbish or noise.
One problem with the Labour contributions is they spent much more time talking about things which would not be addressed by their proposals rather than explaining why they want caps on house sharing and HMO regulation to be massively extended to many thousands more properties. Their contributions need to be considered in this context.
The Liberal Democrats deleted all of Labour motion, and replaced it with their own text. A number of paragraphs drafted by Tom Woodcock and Cllr Pogonowski where then added, and the final motion comprising the Liberal Democrat, Green, and Cambridge Socialist text passed.
The final motion, as amended, which was passed reads:
The Council recognises the vital contribution that shared rented housing makes in providing homes for students, professionals, migrant workers and many people on low incomes. It acknowledges that housing is expensive in Cambridge and that this is the only way many people can afford to live in the city.
Council therefore rejects the idea of limiting the number of Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs) in the city or part of the city. If restrictions are put in place, rents would rise and people would quickly be priced out of the city. Making it difficult for people to access shared housing in the city, could have a disastrous effect on the economy of the area.
Council notes the desire of some to “extend the current HMO definition to include all properties with 3 or more people in two or more unrelated households, regardless of the building layout” but also notes that the conditions required in the legislation are not present in Cambridge to extend the licensing system in this way and agrees that it should be kept under review. However, Council also recognises that the implementation of the licensing of smaller properties can be deeply intrusive and lead to complex enquiries about details of people’s relationships and domestic arrangements which are no business of the council. Any extension of the licensing system would need to be framed to avoid this.
The Council also notes that, while the majority of landlords are responsible and manage their houses in a satisfactory way, a minority are not, causing severe problems both to their tenants and to the neighbours. It further notes that while the majority of residents are responsible people, some are not and are inconsiderate, irresponsible and cause considerable problems to their neighbours.
The Council therefore endorses the actions of the Environmental Health Officers in responding to complaints and working towards changing the behaviour of the irresponsible minority in all types of tenure whether landlords, tenants or home- owners. It notes that advice, warnings, enforcement letters, injunctions, confiscations and full prosecution are all used to this end.
However, Council requests that an annual report is brought to Community Services Scrutiny Committee detailing the number and type of complaints received by the Environmental Health Department and how they have been dealt with, including the number of prosecutions.
The council further recognises that the massive shortage of secure and affordable tenancies in the city is forcing many to live in inappropriate accommodation or in many cases housing poverty.
In order to help the Council implement housing and planning policy effectively, the Council requests the Executive Councillor for Housing conduct a comprehensive survey into city residents living in private rented accommodation, which looks at rents, agents fees, quality and safety, housing security and the location of housing.
The Council requests that the results from this survey go to Community Services Scrutiny Committee and the Development Plan Scrutiny Sub Committee to look at the findings and to help inform debate around the Local Plan Review with regards to HMOs.
The latter three paragraphs were introduced by Green Cllr Pogonowski.
This article is a work in progress, I intend to add more videos and other content to it shortly