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Viewpoint column written for Boston Standard by Mike Gilbert

Boston Borough Council housing, property and community portfolio holder

Your readers may have been surprised by your recent front page headline claiming an official count of only three registered houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) in Boston. Quite rightly they may think there must be many more.

Boston Borough Council's Conservative administration wants to ensure that residents living in privately-rented accommodation are safe and living in properties which are in a good state of repair, have adequate facilities and are well managed.

Current legislation determines that ALL properties occupied by more than two unrelated people (where there is no resident landlord) are HMOs, but we have to give some sensible consideration to friends, temporary lodgers and the like where such a property is not their main and principal home. The criteria for MANDATORY LICENSING of HMOs is different in that it also dictates that the property must be three storeys or more, occupied by five or more unrelated persons - hence there are only three licenceable dwellings in Boston.

Dwellings of three or more storeys that are home to five or more people from the same family ARE NOT houses in multiple occupation.  The definition of "family" is very wide and includes: couples (including common law and same-sex couples); persons related to each other, or to either member of a couple: child (step-child, foster-child, grandchild), parent (step-parent, foster-parent, grandparent), brother, half-brother, sister, half-sister, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, cousin. 

The criteria for the licensing of HMOs are "London-centric" and do not reflect what is happening in Boston. If anything, the three-storey criterion discouraged the use of three-storey houses for HMO. Two-storey properties currently escape mandatory licensing. The Government says we must operate the register, so we do, but the mandatory licensing scheme and the register do not reflect the HMO provision in Boston.

Statutory powers in our "armoury" can produce us an armful of ID cards, tenancy agreements, driving licences and other documents but cannot be guaranteed to establish anything one way or another so far as HMOs are concerned, just a list of names and faces but no explanation of who is or is not related to who.

We are developing a bespoke licensing scheme for Boston borough which will more accurately reflect the condition of the rented stock and be firmly grounded by a consideration of housing conditions and housing standards and the suitability of any residential property for the number of people living there. It will not and cannot regulate the number of private rented properties in any one street, nor the number of HMOs, vehicles or visitors - only the condition and management of the property.

The primary intention of any licensing scheme is to improve the quality of private rented properties for the benefit of the occupants, whoever they may be.  Evidence is being gathered to support a recommendation for a wider local definition for licensing of two or more households containing more than two unrelated people in any type of accommodation.

We have already gone on record as saying that the current definition for mandatory licensing  is far too narrow and therefore excludes many properties which are clearly multiply occupied. The council, with resources which are finite, has decided to concentrate on the worst houses regardless of tenure. Across the borough there are a number of three-storey dwellings, many of which have been constructed in the last ten or so years and accord with safety requirements, such as those on Haven Village.

Some of these properties may be HMOs and some may be licensable, however, we concentrate on single-storey and two-storey homes that pose real and immediate risks to the health and even the lives of their occupiers! 

If a property is a licensable HMO and the landlord, whose sole responsibility it is, hasn't applied for a licence, they may very well find themselves being prosecuted and facing a fine of up to £20,000.  Again, I must reiterate that it is the responsibility of the landlord to apply for a licence and we have gone to great lengths and expense to get the message out there as to what a licensable HMO is and how to apply.

So it's not a head-burying activity but the reality of utilising minimal resources to deal with the worst housing which accommodates some of the most vulnerable people in the borough.  The number of 'live' enforcement cases we have on the go at the moment is high and the number of statutory notices served is significant. The greatest of care is taken to deal with each and every case upon its merits on the basis of health and safety; residents would be up in arms if we were to take feckless action and lose a tribunal or court case at great expense to the tax payer. 

Complaints received between April, 2012 - May, 2013 are as follow, 163 single occupancy complaints, 57( 35%) of which known to be migrant workers . Cases referred and investigated as HMOs enforcement requests were 39. The net result of enforcement across all tenures, not including informal intervention, was:

24 Improvement Notices   

15 Prohibition Orders (which stops some or all of any dwelling being used for a range of purposes)   

3 Notices of Emergency Remedial Action (for example, the Council directly undertaking urgent repairs such as faulty electrics)    

2 Notices of Emergency Prohibition Order (served where a dwelling is just too unsafe to be lived in)  

4 HMO Declarations (served on a dwelling that has mixed uses, for example, mixed commercial and residential buildings)         

10 Section 235 Notices (a requirement to produce specified documents to the Council)

20 Section 239 Notices (using our Powers of Entry to inspect dwellings where there is no open invite)                             

6 Section 16 Requisitions for information (a requirement to supply information not documents)          

The number of enforcement actions targeting properties which are not  HMOs is high and constant.  We receive a significant number of complaints about HMOs that turn out not to be HMOs and an awful lot of officer time is wasted chasing up what are frequently malicious complaints.

During Operation Safe Haven over a two week period in September 2011, we inspected more than 40 houses believed to be occupied by A8 nationals and found beds in front rooms and living rooms, but this was largely the tenant letting an unused room to a friend or taking in one or two lodgers to help with the excessively high rents charged in this sector, not HMOs where the landlord rents and allocates rooms.