Why the change in the planning laws is good for HMO Landlords!

Lets look at this so called change in the planning rules for HMO’s from a completely different perspective. If I was to have an imaginary conversation with the Housing Minister who introduced this change while he was still in office I think it could go like this.

Readers: Please note

(1) I have never had a conversation with the Housing Minister – this is pure fantasy and my apologies to him.

(2) The current government have indicated that they intend to repeal the changes made in October but few details are forthcoming, it appears they are going to leave it to each Local Authority to do what they want!

Me: Thank you Housing Minister for agreeing to talk to me about the change to the Use Classes Order for HMOs which became law on 6th April 2010. I, along with other landlords and all the landlord associations are not happy about it.

Minister: You haven’t got any microphones and you are not recording this, are you?

Me: No

Minister: Good, because I will deny ever having this conversation- now about the changes in the rules which I made, I don’t know what you landlords are bitching about.

Me: What?

Minister: I have done all I possibly can to help you HMO landlords with the planners.

Me: How do you work that out?

Minister: Easy, what are the problems you HMO Landlords have with planners about your HMO’s?

Me: Where do I start? Planners don’t like us, they don’t make it easy for us to start a new HMO, they have almost infinite discretion to refuse planning permission for a HMO, the time and cost involved in dealing with the planners and you have now made it obligatory that any new property with 3 or more unrelated people needs planning permission. 

Minister: That’s not the case, I have now made it easier for a landlord to start a new HMO and I have protected existing HMO landlords. It has all been an illusion to placate the baying masses who go on about studentification. You have got to remember I was up for re-election and as a Housing Minister I have got to be seen to be doing something and what is better than appearing to be stamping down hard on HMO’s while actually helping them?

Me: How have you helped us HMO Landlords?

Minister: Do you all think we politicians are stupid? What was the point of passing legislation to prevent studentification when it has already happened? The number of students is not going to increase anytime in the foreseeable future, the number of students is dropping due to the birth rate. It is a bit like bolting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Me: I did wonder about that.

Minister: Do you realise that you do not have to have planning permission for HMO

Me: But the legislation says you do

Minister: Ah! It is all smoke and mirrors. You HMO landlords are pretty good at ducking and diving and being robust when dealing with the officials, you have to be, otherwise you would never have got started! The legislation ‘appears’ to say that but leaves it up to the local authority whether to enforce it. If the local authority did not enforce the old law why will they enforce the new law?

Me: So you don’t need to get planning permission first?

Minister: That’s right and the sooner this is realised the better. Remember, it is not against the law not to have planning permission and the planners should only take enforcement action to stop you if they can show that you would not have got planning permission in the first place. If you do not apply for planning permission then the planners are unlikely to succeed on an enforcement appeal if they are unable to show the HMO is causing harm. As long as you are managing the HMO well and it is not causing problems the planners are going to be pretty hard pushed to prove that your HMO is causing harm to the environment.

Me: Are you saying just ignore them?

Minister: It is what I would do

Me: It is not very satisfactory to say just ignore the law.

Minister: I agree, but there are limits to what I can do. You and I know that over 99% of all HMO do not cause problems, it is all this hysteria that surrounds them. We have more problems with single mothers who cannot control their children terrorising their neighbourhood.

Me: Yes I agree, looks like a HMO landlord is dammed if they don’t apply and dammed if they do apply for planning permission.

Minister: Not quite it is even better, the change in the Use Classes Order for HMO’s is putting pressure on planners to say where they will and wont allow HMO’s and their criteria for allowing them so limiting their discretion. Even better than that, I have made all existing HMO’s with up to six residents legal. If you were running a HMO on 6th April with up to 6 unrelated residents then you do not need to get planning permission or show it was established under the 4/10 year rule.

Me: Where in the legislation does it say that?

Minister: That is the beauty of it, it doesn’t, that would be too obvious, when there are changes to the Use Classes Order existing use is automatically covered. I went as far as I possibly could by saying the change was not retrospective which in fact is true of all the changes in the law. Look at the Impact Assessment which all new legislation has, it makes no provision for tackling existing HMO’s most of which, as you know, do not have formal planning permission.

Me: Nice one- so does that mean if I had a HMO operating as of the 6th April it automatically became legal.

Minister: Yep, if it fitted the new C4 category with between 3 to 6 unrelated people living a property! If you want to start a new HMO, just do it! With all the confusion with the change it is very unlikely the planners will have the appetite to challenge you especially if it is not causing a nuisance to the neighbours. Remember most planners don’t want problems. Even if they say you need planning permission it is now going to be harder for them to refuse permission if you apply for planning permission and if you don’t apply for planning permission for the planners to take enforcement action.

Me: That has not been my experience, as soon as you apply for planning permission the neighbours will be notified and they will complain and the planners take their side, especially if councillors are involved.

Minister: The trick is not to bring attention to your HMO, keep it low key so the planners do not get to hear about it.

Me: The key seems to ensure your HMO does not cause problems, especially in early years.

Minister: Yes this is right. Remember we want and need HMO’s.

Me: That may seem ok from your perspective but on the ground, us HMO landlords are always having difficulty with planners over parking. I have had planners demanding 1 ½ parking spaces per occupier.

Minister: Bloody hypocrites those planners, they know most HMO tenants cannot afford cars because if they could they would not be living in a bedsit! The labour government has done all it can to help HMO landlords over this see Planning Policy Guidance 13 (PPG 13). In PPG 13 it clearly states that you do not need parking where you are near to a town centre or close to public transport. This covers most situations. If the planners refuse permission on parking grounds then you should appeal to the Planning Inspectorate, they have clear instructions to ignore parking with HMO’s in areas where there is good public transport links so the occupants don’t need cars– remember we pay the Planning Inspectorate and if they don’t behave we won’t reappoint them.

Me: I don’t think many people appreciate that.

Minister: I agree. Also an added bonus introduced in this change is that if you do apply for planning permission under the new C4 category the landlord can always change back to C3 use i.e. to use as a residential house without permission. This is especially useful for areas like London where HMO landlords were very concerned that once their properties were categorised as HMO then they would never be able to use or sell them as a residential house. But, even better, apply for dual use, that is C3 and C4 use together so you can change back and forth between singe letting and HMO’s at will.

Me: I see you are really trying to help HMO landlords

Minister: yes, glad you now realise it! The only thing HMO landlords have no fear is fear itself. You are the unsung heroes of this housing crisis providing low cost flexible housing of the intensity that we need in this country at a fraction of the cost of the social sector yet you get the abuse and the problems. Where is it written that, “life is easy” try being a politician!

Me: I agree with that

Minister: Remember, I have to be elected and I cannot start going on about the inefficient use of housing, second homes and where old age pensioners and widows are living in 3-4 bed houses which could house 6 or 8 people, mostly economically productive workers, while most of those widows and old age pensioners ceased contributing a long time ago. And then there is the enormous cost of social housing.

Me: what does social housing cost?

Minister: Don’t get me on that – it costs us 10 times more and sometimes even a lot more than that, to house people in social sector hostels than in the private sector. Obviously with the budget defect we are trying to cut costs and HMO’s are the answer but it is very difficult to stop funding the social sector because the public think they are doing a wonderful job. Little do they know!

Me: It is the problem with a democracy, you cannot tell the electorate the truth if you want to be elected.

Minister: Yes tell me about it. I really don’t see what existing HMO landlords are moaning about. The thing I am worried about, is that this and other changes in the law is putting off landlords starting HMO’s so reducing competition in what is a growing market.

Me: Most HMO landlords would consider that a benefit as well.

Minister: Quite! Sorry, got to dash, I have enjoyed our little chat give me a call sometime if you want to talk more.

Me: Thank you

I gratefully acknowledge the advice given to me in writing this article by Amanda Brown of Planning and Development Solutions www.pds.uk.com however the views expressed are that of HMO Daddy.

The author of this article has written the leading manual on how to become a HMO landlord, runs courses and provides consultancy on HMO’s.

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