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The quiet execution of HMO’s

We’ve recently been caught out by an opinion…

…not a regulation, not a policy, not even a considered change of strategy, but by an opinion and having done some research it appears this is something quietly spreading across the country.

I’m talking about the interpretation of regulations in creating large HMO’s (more than 6 people), a staple in the housing stock of many local authorities. there’s been no regulation change, no licensing change but now apparently they’re not deliverable.

So the context is that a large HMO (more than 6 people) requires a change of use planning application from C3 (if it was a dwelling) to sui-generis. So far, so simple. This change of use is then followed by a building regulations application which, again, is fairly straightforward. We make these change of use planning and building regulations applications, on behalf of clients, all the time without issue but recently, an application in Taunton, has hit an obstacle that hasn’t existed previously.

Our most recent application for change of use planning and reg’s submitted for conversion of a three story house to a seven bed HMO. Building control comments come back with no issues but pending the response of the Fire Officer. The fire officers response, when it arrived, cited a research document, produced by the Building Control Alliance in 2019, that identifies a dwelling as being for a maximum of six people. Not a new document but not one that has been reference before.

The officers conclusion was that a seven person HMO should be considered in the same way as a hostel or hotel with all rooms being separated by acoustic and fire compartment walls and floors. The document does identify that this is guidance and not a regulatory change but the building control officer was not going to over-ride this and the compartmentation of every room in this seven bed HMO made the project financially un-viable.

Large HMO’s form a valuable contribution to local authority housing stock providing an affordable form of accommodation and social environment many people value. If local authority housing departments decide this is no longer the case then action can be taken through the licensing process, that already exists, to restrict them. Landlords will be aware of the change, will make decisions accordingly, and the market will continue to function. If however, as has been the case on this occasion, this change in policy is brought in, not through determined consideration and policy appraisal but by the specific interpretation of a guidance document by one officer, then landlords will not know what is going on, will make poorly informed decisions and projects will become un-viable. The result is that many development projects will fail and landlords will withdraw from the market in the midst of a housing crisis. GREAT PLAN!

I’ve discovered that this new interpretation, of what is a 5 year old guidance note, has been spreading for a number of years, from the South East, with various local authorities being challenged on their decisions. Portsmouth City Council, for example, has made a clear statement that they will not be applying the guidance to large HMO’s which will still be treated as dwellings for building regulations purposes as the occupants are resident and not transitory as is the case in Hotels or Hostels.

I don’t know if that’s right or wrong but they have provided clarity which is all a functioning market needs. To this end we’ll be writing to the Chair persons, Chief Exec’s, Directors of BC and housing departments, for all the local authorities in the South West, to flag up this situation and get some clarity.

I’ll keep you posted!

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