Published on November 2nd, 2020 | by John OMeara3
GLIMMERS OF HOPE IN OUR ROGUE LANDLORDS CRISIS
On 20th October Councillor Sharon Thompson (Cabinet Member for Homes and Neighbourhoods) hosted an online meeting for the Perry Barr constituency to discuss residents’ concerns about HMO’s (Houses in Multiple Occupation) and ‘supported housing’. You can find a list of points arising from the discussion beneath the constituency map lower down.
Supported housing should provide support for vulnerable tenants, but the initial approval and ongoing monitoring of providers is the responsibility of the central government body The Regulator of Social Housing, and the providers are ‘exempt’ not just from the usual limits on the amount of benefit paid to cover rent, but also from local Planning controls. Up to now this has left local Councils with limited powers to intervene. The case from local residents has been for quality of care alongside realism about impacts.
The Regulator of Social Housing and the central government bodies that preceded it, have historically shown almost no interest in investigating the quality of care in supported housing and impacts on local communities, focusing purely on the financial viability of potential providers. Unscrupulous landlords have exploited this to avoid oversight and profit from the greatly enhanced payments for care provision which may exist on paper only, adding to the effects of HMO’s (no ‘care’ provided) where maximizing numbers of tenants in properties is similarly lucrative (see previous article by the HMO Action Group for more detail, and two recent Birmingham Mail reports Mail1 and Mail2). But things may be beginning to change.
Based on this session there are a number of grounds for cautious optimism:,
- Birmingham has been granted ‘pilot status’ by national government for 6 months’ investigation and action on ‘supported housing’. This means there will be £1m for Birmingham to spend on inspection, and on enforcement where provision is poor.
- We are told that work already done means the Regulator of Social Housing is now prepared to take seriously the question of how supported housing providers relate to their tenants and their local communities (though the recently published Statement of Expectations makes almost no mention of impacts on local communities, which suggests there may be a continuing culture amongst commissioners, providers and regulators of supported housing of seeing neighbours as at best irrelevant and at worst a threat).
- The vast majority (over 90%) of the many thousands’ increase in supported housing places in Birmingham are accounted for by just 3 providers/landlords. This should make it easier to put pressure on those organisations to sign up to local standards of good practice while also holding them to account with the newly co-operative national regulator; it begins to close the gap arising from the Council’s relative lack of formal monitoring powers over supported housing (but the 10% could be critical for anyone living next to poor quality provision).
- £1m of Housing Benefit has been recouped from organisations claiming to provide support to tenants when they weren’t. This suggests the Council is getting better at exercising controls which Housing Benefit rules already gave them.
- Birmingham has developed good practice standards for supported housing, and based these on work with tenants in those schemes – residents need to ensure that the standards for relationships with local communities have the same strong grounding, but…
- This event, and previous ones, have shown a willingness from Cabinet level in the Council, and Councillor Thompson in particular, to find and listen to local voices about what their day to day experience is, and to involve them in finding answers. This has been particularly liberating for residents who have felt unable to break out of a purely individual ward based/top-down approach to issues which clearly required a broader focus. Strong and capable voices are coming forward from individual wards requesting inclusion, alongside the already influential HMO Action Group.
- It follows from the above, that Councillor Thompson herself is a key ingredient in this process: her openness, how she ‘gets’ local experiences, and her competence – all these play a vital part. But the momentum she has generated is vulnerable to the overall lack of capacity in the Council: one small example is that for a second time following a local meeting promises to send copies of presentations to residents have not been fulfilled.
- Birmingham MP’s like Khalid Mahmood and Jack Dromey are convinced about the case that needs to be made nationally, and are committing to its promotion.
The progress of these issues is a key test for the Council and its ‘localism’ agenda: it is surrounded by scepticism that it has the ability or commitment to hear the local experience and act upon it, while engaging with whatever representative processes local areas have the capacity for. If it fails to do that in this case it will be extraordinarily hard to revive public belief. We need the Council to include those strong and capable voices which are now emerging from across our wider Handsworth area and beyond and asking to be involved.
Perry Barr constituency (in grey)
Some detailed points arising from presentations and Q&A session:
- the level of support in ‘supported housing’ is not defined anywhere – other than it must be ‘not minimal’.
- people are being placed in supported housing from outside Birmingham without any consultation – it is hoped the pilot will result in a duty to consult.
- in his work on the issues at national level, Khalid Mahmood is looking at the possibility of a levy for HMO/supported housing placements from outside Birmingham, which could then fund an inspection regime.
- the ‘registered provider’ of supported housing can be very distant from the individual tenant – they may be engaging a ‘management agent’ who in turn is arranging leasing arrangements with a large number of landlords who are the ones with direct responsibility for the quality of the accommodation; in addition there may be sub-contracting with one or more care providers.
- the recently introduced ‘Article 4 Direction’ has given the Council power to stop further growth in HMO’s in ‘saturated neighbourhoods’ – but it can’t do the same for supported housing providers who are ‘exempt’ from planning processes, only the ‘Regulator of Social Housing’ can do that. The Article 4 Direction enables the Council to refuse HMO planning applications where it would result in 10% or more of properties within a 100 metre radius not being single family dwellings, 3 HMO’s in a row, or a family dwelling being sandwiched between 2 HMO’s.
- the Council can take into account ‘the cumulative impact of similar uses’ in an area (e.g. supported housing, care homes etc in addition to other HMO’s) when looking at an HMO planning application.
- Councillor Thompson said she would discuss with Planning the problems local residents have in often only having 28 days to identify the density of properties relevant to a planning application such as an HMO when existing data doesn’t come down to street level, and Planning themselves are often unaware of what already exists on a particular street – some of it registered and some not.
- Councillor Thompson encouraged residents, particularly now we have the pilot, to send details to the Private Rented Sector Team (PRS@birmingham.gov.uk) of any properties they suspected of being unlicensed HMO’s; also, in response to another concern raised, details of lettings agencies advertising properties as suitable for conversion to HMO’s.
- the use of bed and breakfast accommodation for families in difficulties is confined to 34 places in 2 hotels in the Perry Barr constituency, and the families are well supported by a multi-disciplinary team of Council staff.
Headline image and Khalid Mahmood image by Darren Quinton, Birmingham Mail
Image of Sharon Thompson in text courtesy of Sharon Thompson