Wednesday, 7 April 2010

And now for something completely different.

Where the hell are we gonna live...
where the hell are we supposed to live?
The Levellers

The battle buses are rolling, the Tory jets are fuelling up and the march of the nice shirts and sinister wives has begun. I'm technically on holiday, which technically means that I'm technically supposed to sit around reading nice books and writing a dreadful one and not technically blog about the election. So, for those of you who, like me, are already sick of seeing their terrible faces, here is a blog that is not, technically, about the election.

The government has just rushed through a bill called the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 2010. No, it hasn't made the headlines, and probably wouldn't have done so even if it weren't Election Announcement Week, because it's a very, very boring bill. I know, because I've just read it. In between interminable sub-clauses concerning what types of building may or may not be used to store maggot-infested meat* is a slippery little snippet of legislation creating a new dwelling category, 'Houses with Multiple Occupants' - meaning that any three or more unrelated adults living together now constitute a legally separate form of household, requiring separate planning permission and separate housing administration. Sounds like an everyday piece of wearisome local-government wrangling, but let's be paranoid for a second and ask ourselves: who is this set to target?

The practical effect of the legislation will be this: if you're a student, on a low income, a lodger in a landlord's home, a migrant worker, or if you simply want to share a flat with more than one friend who you don't happen to be fucking, any landlord offering to rent you a property will have to go to the expensive beauraucratic nightmare of obtaining planning permission. Even if you can find a landlord willing to take on the hassle, the local council will be able to decide whether allowing house shares will fit in with their "development plan" for your local area - a scheme that has already been test-driven in Loughborough. The number of properties available for people wishing to flatshare will inevitably decrease, rents will rise, overcrowding will worsen, and many of us will simply be unable to afford to live in large towns and cities.

Is this a targeted attack on young people? Let's have a little look at the Manchester City Council briefing on the new legislation:

"Problems caused by high concentrations of Houses in Multiple Occupantion (HMOs) have become an issue in a number of towns and cities across the country. High concentrations can have a detrimental effect on the local environment as well as impacts on social cohesion and services within an area. Manchester, along with other local authorities, has lobbied the government for greater planning powers to be able to tackle these problems."

Manchester and other councils evidently consider people living in houseshares - students, migrants and young adults - to 'have a detrimental effect on the local environment'. They don't like our sort, you see. Not only are we feckless enough to want somewhere to live, we have the temerity to use actual services. The bloody cheek of it.

Let's not forget, either, that those of use who are under-25 and are sick, on low incomes or receiving jobseekers' allowance will still only be allowed to claim housing benefit based on the average "shared occupancy" rent in the local area. Young people are expected to live in houseshares, and local governments will only pay for us to live in houseshares - but they'd rather those houseshares were kept to an absolute minimum. Where in gods'name young adults, students and migrant workers are actually supposed to live is, apparently, not their problem. Starve, move in with mum or leave the cities, they don't care, just don't have the audacity to be young, poor and energetic on our doorstep, thanks.

Where do Generation Y live? Together, mostly. Sometimes because we want to, and usually because we have to. Soaring house prices driven by the neoliberal property fetish and a failure, across the country, to build anything like enough new homes for the past, oh, twenty years now mean that for nearly everyone under thirty, the idea of being able to afford even to rent one's own place is an impossible dream - never mind having a mortgage. No, it's not ideal. I've lived in communal housing for three years, and yes, it's very different from Friends. But there's no alternative; and the makeshift communes of the 21st-century have produced, rather charmingly, some of the most radical ideas and creative projects that Europe and America have seen in decades. I suspected that I was a socialist before I started living communally with other young, poor somethings trying to build lives. Now, I know for sure. My housing arrangements are a significant part of my wanky online bio for the simple reason that they have a sincere effect on my politics.

Right now, I pay half my meagre salary to live in a room the size of a normal person's toilet (we suspect it used to be a toilet before a dodgy landlord modded the place) in an overcrowded houseshare in inner London, the fourth such houseshare I've lived in since moving here in 2007. Nobody does enough washing up, everyone gets on each other's nerves, and we all have to pretend not to hear each other's shagging sounds through the paper-thin walls. We are also family. We play music together, cook together, discuss politics, write together, share smokes and paperbacks and ideas. We may not be related, but we're enough of a family to have agreed to put up a sign in the window endorsing the Liberal Democrats, and we are voters too.

There are millions of us, young, frustrated, eking out a living in warren-like flatshares in every city in the land, and we all have votes, and it's policies like these, put in place by local authorities and blithely given the nod by central government, which engender a strong suspicion that politics has nothing to offer us, that they're all the same, and that the man might, in fact, be out to get us. And sometimes, that's the correct assessment. It doesn't mean one shouldn't get one's wriggly young arse down to the polling station like a responsible person, but sometimes the assessment is correct.

As far as me and my housemates are concerned, we're sitting here waiting for an election, when what we need is a revolution. Not the revolution, the rapture for socialists and dreamers, the big change that's always coming over the hill, the revolution, the kind there's only ever one of. I'm talking about the sort of quiet, radical upheaval that follows in the wake of social agitation and gets things done. The sort of unravelling that prevents the authorities from lashing out at the poor, the young and the disposessed. I'm talking about everyday revolution, revolution I can grab with my hands and show to my friends. I want it so much I can almost taste it.

Looking at these three grinning hairdos, it's painfully obvious that none of them will bring that revolution, even though all three are so frantic to repeat the word 'change' that I keep expecting one of them to voice his desire for the Queen to appoint him Britain's first African-American Prime Minister. Two days into the big push, and I can't persuade myself to feel anything but irritated over this election. Can we have some revolution now, please?

[Muchos Gracias to JH-M for the tip-off]

*Unfortunately for our prospective overseers, the Houses of Parliament are excluded.

ETA: Oh, and the Digital Economy Bill passed. Ugh. Not in my name.

31 comments:

  1. Mm, I think the HMOs are more for student areas to stop 'ghettos' forming in Easter/Summer holidays.

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  2. Well said. Something like this has been rumbling on in Southampton for the last couple of years as well... too many HMOs, those students in flat-shares don't know how to read the instructions on recycling bins, yadda, yadda.

    Why, anyone would think that an unpopular political class had an *interest* in making it as unviable as possible for groups of young people to live and think and plan together!

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  3. The category of HMO already exists in practice, at least - but the implementation is very slipshod and uncertain. In current law when a local authority decides that a dwelling is an HMO (and current law is very unclear, and I'm not sure that this law is any clearer), one additional effect is that the landlord becomes wholly liable for council tax, not the tenants.

    Unfortunately, in practice, local authorities are using the HMO category as a reason to refuse council tax benefit while continuing to pursue the tenant, rather than the landlord. This may well just be a way to force those who are, for whatever reason and duration, on benefits to move back in with family or make rent by whatever means necessary.

    Unfortunately for significant numbers of, say, young LGBT people, the former is not an option.

    A lot of recent legislation is very keen on exerting a higher degree of social control. Quite what beneficial effect the main parties think this will have is unclear. It seems likely all it will do is to create another Thatcher's 80s and radicalise another generation of youth - something which may have beneficial effects in the long run, but the short term effects of which I am not personally looking forward to.

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  4. There isn't a housing problem. There's a land problem. A deliberate one.

    The middle classes want their quaint countryside and quaint villages. Therefore, they drew lines around every settlement and said "you have to build inside those lines". No more building on the outskirts or founding new towns on greenfield land. What used to be called "building houses" gets called "urban sprawl". I'm sure you can see the class war in that name. That's why nobody's been building cheap houses. The land inside the lines costs so much, you can't make a profit unless you're building for the middle classes.

    In effect, the country has chosen to create a rural museum of farms on land that's only allowed to be used for farms, and decided homeless or overcrowded young/poor people are a reasonable price to pay.

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  5. I have briefly looked at the details of the bill but in my experience of local government the issue with HMOs is not houseshares but tenant exploitation. In high density urban areas, unscrupulous landlords are cramming multiple families into properties, sometimes in makeshift housing (i.e. sheds in the garden) without legal amenities or tenant protection. In London, these individuals are often immigrants with poor knowledge of the system who are easy pickings for 'slum' landlords.

    I suppose in theory that 'typical' houseshares will fall under the legislation but I doubt councils will have any interest in following this up within the planning system, especially considering the financial pressures they'll be facing over the next ten years. The real issue with HMOs is tenant exploitation and I think that this is the aim of the legislation rather than attempting to strong-arm people just sharing a flat.

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  6. To be fair, HMOs have been known for years to be more likely to have house fires, and also other anti-social problems. Seems perfectly sensible to require planning permish. Even if the logic of lumping all HMO-types together is a bit flawed, it'd be elitist and discriminatory to differentiate between Oxbridge HMOs and DHS or CMHT ones, don't you think?

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  7. I dunno, Dandelion. It's a bit presumptious to suggest that I live in an Oxbridge houseshare and that none of us are on DHS or are involved with the CMHT. Don't you think? Not to mention, in this case, entirely untrue.

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  8. I think you answered your own question, Penny, when you described your current living situation. Landlords should not be able to gut and honeycomb properties to exploit young people like you. Your home is laid out the way it is - rooms the size of toilets - precisely because your landlord makes more money that way, and he should have to seek permission to do so. This is a form of re-regulation of the private rented sector, and if it has the effect of preventing exploitative developers from creating more hideously inadequate homes for young people, is that so terrible?

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  9. When you look at the regs, it says that you are still permitted to have six residents living together as a single household under the category of "dwellinghouse" rather than HMO. My understanding was that "as a single household" means joint tenancy, sharing utility bills and having no locks on internal doors. This was how I lived when I shared a house.

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  10. HMOs have existed since 2006. AFAICT the amendment to the Town & Country Planning Act is just to bring it in line with them.

    From the site linked to - "The HMO licensing provisions are not intended to reduce the number of HMOs, or to change their use, but are aimed to increase the quality of existing HMOs in the private rented sector in terms of both physical conditions and management standards."

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  11. I'm having trouble finding the definition of "single household" that's relevant to the current Order. Communities.gov.uk defines a "single household" as "a group of people living at the same address with common housekeeping - that is, sharing either a living room or at least one meal a day", which would put you in the clear, but of course that's not actual legislation. Dammit, why can't they publish laws on GitHub?

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  12. I haven't read this Bill so don't claim knowledge of any changes but my understanding up until now is that HMO has been the description for houses inhabited by multiple individuals (or multiple families) who have separate agreements with a landlord - and often have bedsits with separate locked entrances which just share some facilities - as opposed to houseshares or flatshares where several people have one joint tenancy and theoretically all live together.

    The point is that HMOs are not communal living.

    As I say, though, having not read the bill, I can't claim to know whether its suggesting a new interpretation of HMO.

    The interpretation you suggest seems a bizarre one as it would mean, for example, that an unmarried couple who've been together and living in the same house for 50 years and have a lodger, would be living in a HMO - which certainly doesn't make the definition very useful in terms of providing information.

    That's irrespective of point that the main reason many of us live in private shared housing is that it's the only option available due to economic policies which we didn't vote for and which people who can afford to buy their own homes did vote for.

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  13. Although, on the Digital Economy Bill, you have an unlikely ally...

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  14. No, Wildeabandon - this is different and a lot more pernicious. HMO *licencing* is to do with quality and safety and in general terms only properties on 3 or more storeys with 5 or more tenants in 2 or more households is required to be licensed. In special circumstances this could be extended to additional (smaller scale) HMOs, but only on a local area by local area basis with the permission of the Secretary of State.

    The new changes relate to *planning permission* which you previously only needed for an HMO of more than 6 people living together. Planning law is complex and bureaucratic; instead of taking into account of safety and tenant needs (like licencing) it's about the "local development plan". The local community has the power to make submissions against applications and to lobby against any decisions made - expensive and lengthy.

    Instead of being "you need more than one toilet for 6 sharers" (licencing), this is basically a NIMBY charter. It's nothing to do with tenant rights, it's to do with protecting neighbours from WICKED VICIOUS HOUSESHARERS (your own housing situation would be caught, were you to be moving into the property tomorrow!).

    This is causing serious, serious concern:

    http://www.landlordlawblog.co.uk/2010/04/07/new-hmo-planning-categories-now-in-force/
    http://blog.painsmith.co.uk/2010/03/12/new-planning-categories-for-hmos/
    http://www.landlordlawblog.co.uk/2010/01/30/hmo-planning-law-changes-causes-consternation-among-landlords/
    http://www.landlordzone.co.uk/blog/news/hmo-regulation-what-the-new-rules-mean-for-landlords

    Even David Cameron has tabled an early day motion attempting to reverse the changes...

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  15. Mike P-J, "Single household" is defined as under s254 of the Housing Act 2004. It's a negative definition - if you don't fit into their boxes of married or living together as if you are married (or same sex equivalent) or "relative" (standard blood-based definitions apply) then you're not a single household.

    So, no - "dwelling house" (C3 planning status) only applies to, say, a couple living with their four adult children. The new category (C4) covers any situation where there are more than two people living together who aren't a couple living as if they are married and their blood relations.

    Even two married couples sharing a flat will be caught.

    http://www.landlordzone.co.uk/forums/showthread.php?t=27071 - example showing that councils are already saying they'll not grant planning to any C4 use where there are lots of existing shared houses.

    It's hard to get across how much this REALLY REALLY SUCKS.

    The government's own Rudd report recommended AGAINST this sort of regulation. It suggested that problems of community cohesion/anti social behaviour were dealt with by the police, or environmental health, or positive schemes to encourage integration of students/sharers into the community. Much more logical, in my view.

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  16. Sometimes, I am so glad I don't live in London...

    Also, it's "Muchas" not "Muchos" ;)

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  17. Laurie's point is not about how sensible or not it is to require planning permission, but about the unintended effects of the legislation. By making it more difficult to live in shared accommodation as rents increase and number of properties decrease, social pressure is being exerted.

    As no-one is going to build new properties to serve as houseshares, and indeed very little new-build social housing of any kind, where are people going to go? We're left with a stark choice between being a "smart young professional" and paying high rent accordingly or, if our circumstances, background, health and degree of parental support don't allow that, becoming social detritus and shoved into what isolated council estate bedsits remain - if we're lucky.

    There will be no room for people living together and, to some degree, solving their problems together, as "the market" won't support it - and we're all to pretend that the market is blind and impersonal and operates in a vaccuum free of political forces. I have some news for you: it ain't so.

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  18. IIRC:

    The Law in Scotland has been much tougher on licensing HMOs etc for many years and there are still loads of flat shares.

    They got tougher on it many years ago after a group of students tragically died in a substandard flat. This would have been in the West End of Glasgow so no excuse for the basic integrity of the building, just an unscrupulous landlord.

    I would be concerned about social pressure in principal but on the flipside, the growth of buy-to-let led to a reduction in family-size units.

    I know that's the concern of the councillors I know in WF.

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  19. This has sent me off to read the relevant bits of the Housing Act 2004. The single household definition is ridiculous.

    It moves well beyond the legal and contractual relationships around housing into areas of people's private lives where, in my view, the state has absolutely no business taking a view or requesting information - although I know that similar intrusions take place as part of the benefits system.

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  20. Jenny - thanks for the explanation; looks as though I misunderstood :/

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  21. Bring me the head of Lord Peter Mandelson8 April 2010 at 18:38

    So, the Digital Economy Bill will become an act based on the attendance of 39 of 646 MPs(5%) who turned up to debate the bill's third reading. You may not believe what you've just read so I'm going to write it out again in bold letters:

    The Digital Economy Bill was passed with only 39 of Parliament's 646 MPs bothering to turn up to debate this pernicious and sweeping piece of controlling New Labour legislation.

    Considering the impact Mandelson's - and pea-brained Adam's Family Lurch doppelgänger Steven Timms - legislation will no have in connection with the average British internet user isn't the fact that only 5% of British MPs actually turned up to scrutinise the Bill during the course of its final reading absolutely disgraceful? I'm really am too angry to write anything more about this matter now.

    Our MPs are contemptible.

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  22. This explains the exact definition of the HMOs.



    Article 2(4) introduces a new Use Class (houses in multiple occupation) which, subject to an exception, covers use of a dwellinghouse as a house in multiple occupation as defined in section 254 of the Housing Act 2004. In broad terms, this use occurs where tenanted living accommodation is occupied by persons as their only or main residence, who are not related, and who share one or more basic amenities.

    the key quote for students is "only or main residence", nearly all students main residence is the place where they lived before university with their parents

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  23. Hi Laurie,

    So you're arguing against state regulation and for the free market as being more in the interest of low-status groups?

    Are you moving towards a generally more free market position? Or is it just this issue?

    - Francis

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  24. Re: Scottish HMO laws

    The HMO laws in Scotland have been in place for a number of years, but they're more concerned with safety. A lot of the impetus for the laws came from an incident where a student died because her bedroom window had bars across it that prevented her from using it as an escape route when the flat caught fire, so most of the criteria relate to fire safety, but there are also rules about the provision of bathrooms, cooking facilities, and floor space. Neighbours are given the chance to object if someone applies for HMO permission for a nearby house or flat, but in practice very few do, and there's no facility for local councils to cap HMO numbers - although it was considered a while back (a mass e-mail campaign started up within hours, only for the participants to be told off for their "immature" behaviour by one of the targeted MSPs).

    Does this mean that the Scottish property rental market runs on utopian, tenant-supporting principles? Does it shite. What happened was that everything started to stratify pretty soon afterwards, with rents for licensed HMOs going up, and a grey-market emerging from underneath. The legislation didn't make poor quality housing go away: it just got a bit shadier. Councils don't exactly go to great lengths to catch out the landlords of unlicensed HMOs (and rarely prosecute the ones they do find), and the worst properties just end up being let to low-income families instead, often through council-run schemes to house homeless families in the private sector because of the dire shortage of social housing. Young flat-sharers in Scottish cities have the choice of either renting through an agency, who will screw you over financially but will probably meet the required safety standards, or try to find an independent landlord, but a lot of them will have unlicensed properties that could put you at risk. If you're new in town you might not even get the choice - Edinburgh agencies, for example, put up financial barriers to anyone who hasn't already lived in the city for six months, and you'll need a permanent contract from your current employer, with at least six months' service under your belt. This pushes a lot of people towards dodgy landlords, because there's so much demand for housing that the marginally more respectable ones don't need to worry about turning business away.

    Some people think that the it's just young, educated, aspiring-middle-class people (like me) complaining about how we can't get a nice house the moment we step out on our own, but when it's this easy for landlords to monumentally shaft someone with a degree and a big mouth, what the hell are doing to the people who have neither?
    I could go on, but it's too late in the evening to get worked up over one of my pet causes.

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  25. I'm voting Green. Caroline Lucas hasn't got a wife.

    The local Lib Dems put out a letter to people they claimed had raised issues with them on the doorstep (I hadn't really), lamenting "family homes" being turned into HMOs (Houses in Multiple Occupation.)

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  26. Penny wrote, "Starve, move in with mum or leave the cities, they don't care, just don't have the audacity to be young, poor and energetic on our doorstep, thanks."

    And they won't exactly be pleased if you get in a van and start moving around the country!

    And I seem to remember that, under the Tories, certain MPs were outraged by people in seaside towns having the temerity to claim housing benefit! The cheek of it! Dolies wanting to live in beautiful seaside towns like Margate!

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  27. On the subject of overcrowding, I once lived in a 3 bedroom house with a family (two parents, two children) and another student. The student and I had a room each and the family shared a room. The family was a bit weird (once caught me downstairs watching "Blackadder" at about 9.30 and insisted it was the middle of the night and everyone should be in bed) but not unpleasant. But one day they tried to put 4 foreign students in the family bedroom, presumably with the intention that the family would sleep downstairs. Family went out, foreign students voted with feet and left.

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  28. I dunno, Dandelion. It's a bit presumptious to suggest that I live in an Oxbridge houseshare and that none of us are on DHS or are involved with the CMHT. Don't you think? Not to mention, in this case, entirely untrue.

    Well, yes, it would be presumptuous, if that is what I had suggested. It wasn't though. I made no suggestion at all regarding your particular houseshare, or as to the possibility of HMOs falling into more than one of the categories I mentioned.

    It's a shame you didn't address the point I actually did make though, namely the practical reasons why HMOs as a group might reasonably be required to have planning permission (even if not all HMOs exhibit those reasons), and the ethical problems with discriminating against different types of HMO...

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  29. Tax grab, to be passed on to the tenants.F--- landlords, f--- private property.Not to mention undesirable types.

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