Ben Reeve Lewis comments on the government’s plans
As I wend my way through a variety of meetings, presentations and consultations and chat to a wide variety of people who like me are ‘On the housing circuit’ as it were, I have been hearing not very closely guarded rumours throughout the summer that government are looking at extending HMO licensing.
Tessa already reported on the legal issues about his on Monday this week so I won’t go into the technicalities and rumours have been openly circulating on this for some time.
There are obviously going to be many views and angles on this but I want to comment on the angle I know best – what will the response of a local authority enforcement team be to these proposed new rules?
Councils have the remit for enforcing and policing this stuff.
Licensing is a headache, not an income generator
Firstly get out of your head the notion that licensing fees are simply an income generator. The money raised is ring fenced and can only be used to finance the scheme itself, not enforcement or any ancillary schemes.
I have no doubt that there has been some creative accounting going on here and there but by and large, councils are risk averse, albeit desperate for cash.
Widening the definition of licensable HMOs presents a headache for local authorities, simply because the more of them there are out there, the more resources will have to be poured in to fund the tracing of them, the licensing of them and the enforcement action for non-compliance.
This means ‘Boots on the ground’ or in the case of local authorities (and to remove the military metaphor) ‘Hush Puppies on the ground’ and this means employing people at a time when all councils are cutting staff.
The double edged sword
The financial logic of extending HMO licensing is going in the opposite direction to councils trying to meet government imposed targets and reduce costs, which simply means ‘Reducing services’ which, in case you aren’t following this, means ‘Cutting staff’.
So it’s a double edged sword.
For committed old housing enforcement warhorses like me with an inbuilt anger at bullying and injustice, on the surface of it this is manna from heaven but at the same time the ex-council pragmatist in me says “How the hell is this going to work?”
Also it seems to me to be edging closer to simply licensing all landlords, as they are doing in Wales, in which case why not stop the fannying around and just do it? Instead of coming at it through the Housing Bill 2015, the Consumer Protection regulations, the ludicrous right to rent and these new proposals, which mean the same thing in the end?
Additional licensing to be made redundant?
A few weeks back I attended a consultation meeting for ‘Future of London’ which reported that over 20 of the 32 London councils are considering additional licensing.
Those figures based on April 2015, so you will be able to add a few more to that now.
If government does introduce these new proposals then those additional licensing schemes will be pretty much redundant as the process will be mandatory anyway and the legislative hoops that Enfield failed to cover adequately but were later navigated successfully in a well learned lesson by Croydon council despite challenges from local landlord pressure organisations dressed up as ‘Concerned groups’, wont be required.
It’s a gift to local authorities, albeit a loaded gift.
The writing is on the wall, the PRS is getting regulated.
A Done Deal
Government offer this up as a consultation process but you know how it is, it’s a done deal. Just in the same way they announced the roll out of the Right to Rent without even bothering to consider the results of the pilot.
The NLA and ARLA can offer up their two-pennorth but I suspect that just as is the case with the National Housing Federation regarding introducing the right to buy for housing association tenants, they will have to capitulate into a state of damage limitation.
This government does not do consultation except insofar as it is carried out AFTER the decision has been made to implement. Look no further than Jeremy Hunt & IDS if you want a take on their operational style.
Those of you who have read my witterings for the past 4 or 5 years will know that as an enforcement officer even I wasn’t a fan of licensing, my take was always to just use your resources to identify and take out the rogues
An approach predicated on the twin notions of why target people who have done nothing wrong? and the insider knowledge of how few resources there are inside councils these days.
My moderate approach has been overtaken.
The Housing Bill 2015 and these proposals for widening HMO licensing increases powers for local authority enforcement teams whilst at the same time placing more burdens upon organisations under systematic attack by Westminster.
The government will introduce this legislation, just as they have with the Right to Rent and the Housing Bill 2015, just look at the tiny window of consultation there was there.
Two alternative viewpoints
So a couple of things are going to be hot topics of conversation in council meeting rooms over the next couple of years.
Councils will continue to fall short of acceptable enforcement because they are so busy cutting staff due to central government’s hatred of them whilst trying to destroy public services in the hopes of promoting the Trans-Atlantic Trade Partnership.
Councils do what Newham did and go to war, employing literally hundreds of enforcement staff to police the new rules and avoid being accused of being inefficient.
Time will tell which way this is going to go. How councils will respond is not a subject for Mystic Meg and despite being plugged into my numerous contacts and hearing their views I wouldn’t like to bet either way.
The response won’t be consistent, it won’t be unified, given differing financial pressures and political persuasions of individual councils but they will have to respond in some way.