Friday, 18 June 2010

HMOs – About turn!

Changes have been announced regarding the treatment of HMOs that will largely reverse the effect of the recent amendment to the UCO which came into effect on 6 April. This attempted to distinguish between dwellings occupied by groups of people (up to six) living together as a single household (which still come within Class C3) and dwellings occupied by between three and six unrelated individuals as their only or main residence, who share basic amenities such as a kitchen or bathroom (which now fall into a new Class C4). The ‘saving’ in Class C3 for dwellings occupied by groups of people (up to six) living together as a single household was intended to cover groups such as a small religious community, or a homeowner who is living with a lodger. The intention was to put student lets and similar house-shares into the HMO category (now Class C4), although there seems to me to be considerable scope for debate as to whether particular domestic arrangements put the use into Class C3 or C4.

The General Election distracted many people’s attention from the change, but the last government cannot really be accused of having ‘sneaked it though’, because it has been the practice in DCLG for some time past to put through tranches of such changes twice a year, to come into effect on 6 April and 6 October.

It subsequently seems to have dawned on DCLG that the effect of this change is that LPAs are liable to be snowed under with planning applications to authorise student lets and similar arrangements now falling into the HMO category, and there could potentially be a reduction in the number of premises available on the market if landlords were deterred by the red tape involved in applying for planning permission. Up to 8,500 applications a year were expected as a result of the change. This may well be what lay behind the announcement from the Housing Minister, Grant Shapps, yesterday (17 June) of a substantial relaxation of the new rules.

The changes to the UCO will remain in place, but the GPDO will be amended so that changes of use between Classes C3 and C4 will be permitted development. In those areas where LPAs feel that the concentration of HMOs is a problem, they can use their existing powers to make an Article 4 Direction. So, instead of a blanket requirement for planning permission for change of use to an HMO, this will be a requirement only in those areas where LPAs exclude this particular form of PD through an Article 4 Direction.

Until we have seen the exact wording of the proposed changes to the GPDO it will not be possible to assess the precise legal effect of this amendment. However, one possibility which occurs to me is that it might (perhaps unintentionally) make it much easier to create an HMO than it was, even before 6 April. Prior to that time, an HMO was sui generis, so that it would always have required express planning permission. I would need to look again at the definition of an HMO, as now refined by Class C4 in the UCO, to see whether the combined effect of these changes is as wide as I think it might be. This is a topic to which we may return.


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