07:07 Friday 1st November 2013
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
PAUL STAINTON: Our big question this morning, is enough being done to regulate landlords behind houses of multiple occupancy? It’s a problem in Peterborough, in Wisbech and even in the relatively affluent Cambridge. But only just over 400 houses of multiple occupancy in Cambridgeshire have to be automatically licensed. It’s thought the actual amount of HMOs in the county is in the thousands. .. In Peterborough they’re considering going one step further and making all private landlords in specific problem areas get a licence. And on each individual licence will be a people limit specific to that house. .. Peterborough City Council says in a statement:
“We’re currently consulting on selective licensing to raise standards in the private rented sector, and tackle problems including rogue landlords, overcrowding, anti-social behaviour and poor property conditions for tenants. It’s important to note that whilst there are many good landlords, we recognise that poor management practices by others are having a negative effect on the areas. Selective licensing would enable the Council to direct more resource to the area, to bring about significant improvement to properties in the wider community, and give tenants more information about who they rent from. The licence fees would cover the costs of implementing and administrating the scheme.”
07:42 Friday 1st November 2013
PAUL STAINTON: The criteria for a house of multiple occupancy is a house with five or more people and at least three stories high. Those houses need a licence. But there are many more HMOs that don’t fit that criteria. Some of them are fine, but many, as we’ve already heard this morning, in Peterborough, are not.
PETERBOROUGH COUNCIL WORKER: The landlord got wind that the Council were carrying out investigations, and told the tenants that he was going to have to remove the kitchen to make it look like a single family dwelling. And he gave them a story to tell the Council that should they come knocking. It’s a single family household. Nobody lives downstairs. They live here alone. How that would have worked I don’t quite know, but he promised that he’d put the kitchen back once the Council finished their investigations. Mum’s obviously devastated, because she can’t do the motherly thing, make the family a meal.
PAUL STAINTON: In Peterborough they already have areas where all HMO owners should pay for a licence, irrespective of the size of the house. But the system isn’t working, with rogue landlords illegally evicting tenants when they’re asked to stick to the rules. The solution? Well the City Council now wants all private landlords in problem areas to get a licence, and each individual licence will have a people limit on it. Well Terry Lucking is a landlord in Peterborough with sixteen properties, none of which are houses of multiple occupancy. All though are rented to families, and he’s not happy about what Peterborough City Council have had to say.
TERRY LUCKING: I think it’s unfair that good landlords are going to pay six hundred pounds in addition to what they’re already paying. And many of them have got marginal profits on these properties. So they’ve got a further burden of six hundred pounds to pay over five years. And the landlords that it is aimed at will get away with it.
PAUL STAINTON: Terry says a better solution is to have all houses, all rental accommodation in Peterborough, regularly inspected. So what is the situation like in Cambridge? We’ve heard about Peterborough. It’s estimated that there’s 2,700 HMOs in the City of Cambridge. 259 of them at the moment have a mandatory licence. Cllr Catherine Smart is in charge of housing at the City Council. Morning Catherine.
CATHERINE SMART: Good morning.
PAUL STAINTON: Are you with Peterborough? Do you think houses should have a licence? They should have a people limit on them, whatever their size, however many people are living in them?
CATHERINE SMART: We looked at this last year, and we decided not to go down the “everybody has to have a licence” route, because just as that landlord said, we thought that probably what would happen would be just the rents would go up, and they’re high enough already in Cambridge. So what we decided to do was to get an additional officer in. And that officer is targeting the landlords where we’ve always had problems in the past, the portfolio landlords, the ones that have got several places, and going and inspecting those, and seeing that they are properly .. in good nick, and getting standards up that way. So we decided to go for the targeted approach, rather than the blanket approach that Peterborough are looking at. We did look at it last year, as I said, and we decided it would be better to target our effort on those landlords that we have question marks about anyway.
PAUL STAINTON: What about Terry’s suggestion that actually you should just visit every rented accommodation in Cambridge?
CATHERINE SMART: Well, probably sooner or later. Well, it would take an enormous number of officers who would have to be employed and paid for.
PAUL STAINTON: Wouldn’t it pay for itself, if you charged a licence?
CATHERINE SMART: Well that’s just what I was saying, that if you charge a licence fee, all that will happen will be that the landlord will pass it on to the tenant, and the tenants’ rents will go up. And rents are very high in Cambridge to start with.
PAUL STAINTON: Do you even know how many rented houses there are?
CATHERINE SMART: We decided we would not go round that way. We would go on the targeted one, of going for the ones that we had questions. So if the tenant complains about a landlord, we will not only look at that property, but any other property the landlord has.
PAUL STAINTON: Do you know how many rented pieces of accommodation there are in Cambridge? Do you actually know the true figure?
CATHERINE SMART: No.
PAUL STAINTON: How can you find out?
CATHERINE SMART: Why should we want to, unless …
PAUL STAINTON: Well you could regulate it then, couldn’t you?
CATHERINE SMART: Yes, but if there’s a complaint, we’ll go and inspect that one, and any others the landlord has. That’s the point. We’re wanting to target, rather than a sort of blanket approach. Landlords that are doing a good job, and the tenants are satisfied with the service that they’re getting, leave them alone to get on with it. Target our efforts on the people who are not doing a good job. That was the decision we made.
PAUL STAINTON: How would you know though? If you don’t know how many rented pieces of accommodation there are in Cambridge .. There could be students hanging out of buildings left right and centre. How do you know? You’ve only got at the moment, what is it, two hundred and fifty nine HMOs. There could be hundreds more that you’re not looking at, because you’re not aware.
CATHERINE SMART: As soon as somebody complains, we will be aware. And those are the ones we will go for.
PAUL STAINTON: Is that good enough?
CATHERINE SMART: Yes, because if people are getting on alright, let them get on. What we want to do is ..
PAUL STAINTON: What if they’re not?
CATHERINE SMART: Well then they should complain and then we ..
PAUL STAINTON: What if they’re scared, they daren’t complain? Surely we need a better system than this, don’t we?
CATHERINE SMART: It would be no use, even if we did know they were rented, if they don’t complain, because there are so many, we cannot. We will want to concentrate on the ones who are not doing the job properly.
PAUL STAINTON: So there are so many we’ve given up effectively. Is that what you’re saying?
CATHERINE SMART: No. We’re going after the ones that aren’t doing the job, not playing fair. Those are the ones we’re going after. And it’s much more effective to go after the ones where there are complaints.
PAUL STAINTON: We’re not confident here, are we, that we’re protecting people. We’re not confident that we’re protecting migrants, students. There could be people out there who are scared to complain, and we don’t know.
CATHERINE SMART: The sooner that one person in that portfolio complains, we will then inspect. We have chosen to do this targeted approach. We will inspect every single property that that landlord has. So it doesn’t necessarily mean that the person in one particular property has been the one that’s complained. But if somebody has complained, we will target those. We’re also actually looking at properties where we’ve had a number of complaints in the past. So it’s not .. we really are targeting the ones who are not doing the job properly.
PAUL STAINTON: As long as somebody brings it to your attention, you’re targeting them.
CATHERINE SMART: Absolutely.
PAUL STAINTON: OK.
CATHERINE SMART: And the sooner they do, the sooner we can.
PAUL STAINTON: OK. Labour’s called for a cap on the proportion of HMOs in certain areas of Cambridge. Is that a good idea?
CATHERINE SMART: I don’t think so, because in actual fact it’s spread pretty well throughout the city anyway. There are areas, concentrated areas, in my own ward is one of them. But the tenants need these properties. The implication is that people who live in shared housing are somebody to be avoided. They’re people. A lot of them are young professionals. Some are students, but most of them aren’t. They’re young professionals who can’t afford to buy a property in Cambridge, because the prices are so high. That’s one of the problems of course. The suggestion that they’re something to be avoided is very questionable.
PAUL STAINTON: OK Catherine. We’ve got to leave it there. Catherine Smart, Cllr Catherine Smart in charge of housing at the City Council.
08:08 Friday 1st November 2013
PAUL STAINTON: How do you regulate, and how do you make sure that rogue landlords behave themselves? One simple question. But we’ve had three very different answeres from our local authorities this morning. The problem is that according to the current regulations only around 400 houses in multiple occupancy are in the whole of Cambridgeshire, and they’re the ones that have to be automatically licensed. That means there are hundreds and possibly thousands more HMos across the county who are completely unregulated and completely unknown to the councils. .. It’s frightening the scale of the problem, isn’t it? Well in Peterborough the City Council now wants all private landlords in problem areas to pay to get a licence. And on each individual licence will be a people limit specific to that house. Well Terry Lucking is a landlord in Peterborough, and he’s also Chair of the National Landlord Association. He thinks the idea punishes good landlords, and that there need to be regular inspections of properties.
TERRY LUCKING: My recommendation is that they’re all visited annually. There’ll be 210 properties a week, 42 a day, 5 people and 8 properties a day, with five people on the street to visit those. And if the licence fee charged, and I think it will generate something in the region of two and a half million pounds, I would have thought that that two and a half million should go all the distance needed to employ five people. And I can’t see that five people is going to cost two and a half million pounds over five years to run.
PAUL STAINTON: Well in Cambridge there’s a very different tactic to regulating the problem. Cllr Catherine Smart was on the show earlier. She explained that the Council had looked at introducing a licence scheme but decided against it, Instead, it only intervenes whan a complaint is actually made.
CATHERINE SMART: We looked at this last year, and we decided not to go down the “everybody has to have a licence” route, because we thought that probably what would happen would be just the rents would go up, and they’re high enough already in Cambridge. So what we decided to do was to get an additional officer in, and that officer is targeting the landlords where we’ve had problems in the past.
PAUL STAINTON: Do you know how many rented pieces of accommodation there are in Cambridge? Do you actually know the true figure.
CATHERINE SMART: No. Why should we want to, unless ..
PAUL STAINTON: Well you could regulate it then, couldn’t you?
CATHERINE SMART: Yes, but if there’s a complaint, we’ll go and inspect that one, and any others the landlord has. That’s the point. We’re wanting to target, rather than a sort of blanket approach.
PAUL STAINTON: Well that’s Cambridge and Peterborough. Fenland also has a problem with rogue landlords of course, and overcrowded housing. The police in Wisbech estimate up to 1,000 could be overcrowded in the market town alone. Yet only 13 HMOs have mandatory licences. Well Cllr Kit Owen is in charge of housing at Fenland District Council. Morning.
KIT OWEN: Good morning Paul.
PAUL STAINTON: I understand you need to have a register for these house as well, don’t you?
KIT OWEN: Well that is absolutely correct. We do as your correspondents referred that the regulation refers to properties of three stories or more, in order to qualify for the HMO licence, or require the HMO licence, and have to be occupied by three or more families who aren’t related. And we do know of many of the properties in the Fenland and Wisbech area which are in what we regards as multiple occupation but not subject to the licensing regime I just referred to. However, we have for a number of years now ensured that we do know where these properties are. But we do not have the resources to inspect them on a very frequent or regular basis. So far ..
PAUL STAINTON: Do you have a register?
KIT OWEN: Of HMOs?
PAUL STAINTON: Hmm.
KIT OWEN: We have a what can only be described as an unofficial register, because there’s no requirement for licensing these properties.
PAUL STAINTON: There’s a requirement to have a register though, isn’t there?
KIT OWEN: Of what Paul? Sorry.
PAUL STAINTON: There’s a requirement to have a register of these houses, isn’t there?
KIT OWEN: There’s a requirement to have a register of HMOs, but an HMO only becomes an HMO subject to licensing if it’s three stories or more. But we do know pretty much where these properties are.
PAUL STAINTON: So you’ve got thirteen HMOs you’ve said. Yes?
KIT OWEN: Yes we’ve got thirteen HMOs.
PAUL STAINTON: Have you got a register of those thirteen?
KIT OWEN: Yeah yeah. We’ve got a register of those thirteen.
PAUL STAINTON: Right. So you have got a register, and you are all sorted.
KIT OWEN: I’m not saying we’re all sorted. You’re probably missing the point. The point is that there are several hundred properties in the Wisbech and Fenland area which are in multiple occupation but not subject to the regulations and licensing regime stipulated by the Government. However, as I was trying to say, we have been aware of these properties for some time. There used to be about 300, two years ago, but the properties are now increasing to close towards 1,000. But we do know where they are. We keep an eye on them. However we haven’t got the unlimited resources to go round on a regular basis and inspect them in the way that they should. Now this comes down to in fact if you or I were to lease our house out, we would probably employ a property agent who would carry out stipulated inspections in accordance with the agreement, and make sure the property was being looked after. Now there are some, and I repeat some landlords who are in it for the fast buck, and don’t really care. I’m not tarring all landlords with the same brush. There are some very good landlords in Fenland and the Wisbech area. But there are some who are a little bit unscrupulous, who don’t carry out the inspections they need to. They don’t ascertain or verify the number of people living there,. what they’re doing, the facilities they’ve got available etcetera. And that is what the Council wants to catch up with. Because we haven’t got the unlimited resources as I say to carry out regular inspections every day, every week or every month.
PAUL STAINTON: What are you doing then? Because you’ve just already admitted there that there are hundreds possibly thousands of houses that need looking at.
KIT OWEN: Up to a thousand I said, not thousands.
PAUL STAINTON: Well you don’t know, do you, is the honest truth.
KIT OWEN: We’ve got a pretty good idea …
PAUL STAINTON: You don’t know.
KIT OWEN: .. records we keep at the Council …
PAUL STAINTON: Yeah, but you don’t know do you?
KIT OWEN: .. not only for electoral purposes, but other purposes.
PAUL STAINTON: But you don’t know for sure, do you?
KIT OWEN: We are not 100% sure. I wouldn’t like to put my hand on my herat and say ..
PAUL STAINTON: No. So how are you ensuring that people are in safe housing?? How are you ensuring you’re looking after these people? Surely the Peterborough scheme, where everybody has a licence, is a good scheme, isn’t it?
KIT OWEN: It does sound a very good scheme, but I’d want to have officers look at it before we embark on that route …
PAUL STAINTON: You’re doing a lot of looking and a lot of soul searching, but you’re not actually doing anything are you?
KIT OWEN: .. coming in every five years. That does enable you to acquire the facilities, the resources and officers to carry out the inspections that are needed. So I do think on the face of it, I only heard about it twenty four hours ago, this licensing regime proposed by Peterborough does sound a very good idea. But as somebody has already pointed out, it could hit the good landlords, and there are many good landlords. They’re the ones that are not spoken about much. It’s the less responsible landlords are the ones you hear about. And we hope we are chasing them and getting them to do the job they should be doing.
PAUL STAINTON: Do you think you’re doing what you should be doing for all these people in these hundreds you say of houses where people are living in multiple occupancy? Do you think you’re carrying out your responsibilities?
KIT OWEN: We’re carrying out our responsibilities to the best of our ability with the limit of the resources available. Now I’m not saying we’re doing absolutely everything. We cannot achieve everything.
PAUL STAINTON: What are you doing for these people? Specifically what are you doing? What are you doing for these people?
KIT OWEN: It’s not the same houses all the time. One house ceases to be an HMO either because they’ve been spotted as not being appropriate, or the Council has shut it down for some reason in conjunction with the police and the fire service and health service. And they become another property, occupy another property. So it’s a moving feast if you like.
PAUL STAINTON: can I just sum up. You’ve got hundreds of houses you’ve admitted that could be in multiple occupancy across Wisbech and Fenland. You’re not sure.
KIT OWEN: Not of the exact number.
PAUL STAINTON : You haven’t got people to help them out.
KIT OWEN: Not enough people.
PAUL STAINTON: You don’t know really where they are.
KIT OWEN: Well we do know roughly.
PAUL STAINTON: Ignorance is bliss, isn’t it?
KIT OWEN: No you’ve got to take that back Paul. I didn’t say that. I said we know pretty much where they are.
PAUL STAINTON: You said you couldn’t be 100% sure.
KIT OWEN: Can you be 100% sure of anythinG?
PAUL STAINTON: Why haven’t you got a system ..
KIT OWEN: Do you know ..
PAUL STAINTON: Well you’re failing these people.
KIT OWEN: .. you’re 100% sure.
PAUL STAINTON: You’re failing these people, aren’t you.
KIT OWEN: No we’re not failing anybody. We’re chasing it up. We’re doing our best with the resources available and the finance available and the information that comes to us.
PAUL STAINTON: You just said you haven’t got the finances available.
KIT OWEN: We’re doing what we can.
PAUL STAINTON: But you haven’t got the finances to do the job properly.
KIT OWEN: We haven’t got adequate. We’d love to have more, have you got some?
PAUL STAINTON: Well you’re the Council. It’s not my responsibility.
KIT OWEN: We’re the Council. We’re subject to other things. We have other duties.
PAUL STAINTON: But it’s your responsibility.
KIT OWEN: This is not the sole duty of the Council. We have other duties as well, and we have limited resources, as you’re well aware.
PAUL STAINTON: So people can just look after themselves can they?
KIT OWEN: We haven’t said that at all. I said we are following up. We do know where they are. We are carrying out inspections. We’re not carrying out as many of these inspections as we would like. We would like to do more, but we require more finance. Therefore, it is hoped that officers will consider the proposals of Peterborough City Council, as to the licensing regime, and give it due consideration. I am not at this point saying yes, we’re going to bring it in to create more cash, create more resources, to carry out more checks, because it’s got to be looked at as to whether it’s viable for Fenland and Wisbech.
PAUL STAINTON: Cllr Kit Owen, in charge of housing at Fenland District Council.