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Council to launch ‘overdue’ consultation on expanding landlord licensing

Bristol City Council wants to significantly expand landlord licensing in a bid to drive up standards for renters. But do the plans go far enough?

Photo by Andrew Tryon, via CC license

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Matthew Ringshaw recently moved out of a four-bed flat on Hurlingham Road in St Andrew’s. His flatmate left six months ago because the amount of mould growing in his bedroom was getting too much. “He was so miserable from living there,” Ringshaw says.

The flat was cramped, had almost no natural light and – during a bitter start to the year – had no central heating. “We were left without a boiler for a whole month between January and February,” Ringshaw adds. 

Currently, landlords of smaller houses in multiple occupation (HMO) with less than five occupants don’t have to register their property in many areas of Bristol, meaning it’s harder for the council to ensure good standards are being met. 

But that could all be about to change. Today, Bristol City Council is launching a consultation to gather opinions about significantly expanding landlord licensing in the city. But with many properties like Ringshaw’s already under a licensing scheme, what tangible difference will these proposals actually make for renters?

Green opposition councillors, who form the largest group within the council, welcomed the plans despite describing them as long overdue and unlikely to solve Bristol’s wider affordability crisis. Meanwhile, landlord groups were strongly critical of the proposals and doubtful about the effectiveness of licensing as a practice.  

What exactly are the proposals?

The council wants to introduce a citywide ‘additional licensing scheme’, which would require landlords of smaller HMOs to apply for a licence. This includes properties with three or more occupants from different households.  

“From my perspective, it’s really good news for tenants because it will set out really clearly the standards that we expect properties to be meeting,” Tom Renhard, Bristol City Council’s cabinet member for housing delivery and homes tells the Cable ahead of today’s launch (Tuesday). 

“I used to rent for a very long time in this city, and I’ve got the lived experience of having good landlords, bad landlords and everything in between,” says Renhard, a Labour councillor for Horfield. “I’ve been wanting to launch a new licensing scheme since I joined the cabinet.”

Since October 2018, landlords letting out larger HMOs with five or more people have already been required to get a licence. 

Under the new proposals, a further ‘selective licensing scheme’ in the wards of Bishopston and Ashley Down, Cotham and Easton would require landlords of almost all rented homes to get a licence, including those who let to single and family households. The percentage of housing stock under a selective licensing scheme will increase from 8% to 17%. 

The wards were chosen for the selective licensing scheme following a survey carried out by the Building Research Establishment, which found a higher level of issues with private sector rented properties within those wards. 

Previous schemes in the city 

There is already a patchwork of landlord licensing schemes across Bristol, which the council says have been shown to make a positive impact on housing standards and tackling rogue landlords. 

In April 2013, the first discretionary licensing scheme launched in the city. Covering Stapleton Road only, the scheme resulted in over 1,200 properties being licensed, 850 properties being identified as requiring improvements and 10 landlords being prosecuted. 

Three years later, Eastville and St George joined, with a further 3,409 inspections being carried out, 750 notices being issued and four prosecutions undertaken. The council says this resulted in fire safety improvements at 675 properties. 

An additional HMO licensing scheme is currently in place in 12 central Bristol wards, which will run until July 2024, alongside Horfield, Bedminster and Brislington West, which were added in April last year. 

Progress has been made in these areas, according to the council, but they are behind target for inspections. Of the inspections undertaken so far, 94% of properties failed to meet licence conditions and 76% were breaching HMO regulations.

Other cities across the UK have introduced similar landlord licensing schemes in recent years, such as in Liverpool and Oxford, but even the most extensive schemes, such as in Birmingham, don’t cover all properties. 

Will this create a rogue landlord database?

Last year, a joint Labour-Green motion was passed which proposed a public database of enforcement notices given to landlords who break the rules – something the Cable previously reported on – if the government doesn’t bring in a national landlord register. 

The new landlord licensing schemes announced today will “effectively create a database”, Renhard says, “because landlords have to register”. But whether the public will have access to this resource in the future remains unclear. 

“The extent to which the public or others may be able to access it, that’s another matter,” he added. “I’m happy to continue to look at that, but what I’m hoping is that we don’t lose the ‘property portal’ from the Renters Reform work that’s happening nationally, which is essentially a landlord database. What we’re doing is essentially the same thing.” 

The Renters Reform Bill, if voted through in its current form, will allow renters to search for certain information about landlords before they decide to rent a property from them. 

There has been opposition from landlords about these new conditions, on both a national and local scale. Chris Norris, policy director at the National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA), says he doesn’t understand why new licensing schemes are necessary. 

“Given that the government’s property portal will, in future, allow councils to check landlords’ details, it’s unclear why some local authorities want to create or expand selective licensing schemes,” he says. “Aside from the costs associated with establishing them, licensing schemes often fall short when enforcing regulations.”

Some landlords have described the expansion of licensing in Bristol as nothing more than a “money-making scheme”, according to The Bristol Living Rent Commission. 

Renhard flatly rejects this criticism. “We’re not allowed to make money from it as a council,” he says. “You have to treat it as a ring-fenced fund, so money can only be spent on administering the licensing scheme and carrying out related activity.” 

Green councillors have previously suggested the expansion of landlord licensing could fund an improved private housing team at the council, an idea Renhard strongly supports. “It would allow us to increase the size of the [licensing] team by probably double,” he says. 

There are 35 officers who work in the council’s licensing team, potentially increasing to 70 with the increased funding. “The aspiration will be to inspect every property,” Renhard says. “That’s not to say that every property is in a really dire state, but there are some that are.”

The Cable has approached ACORN Bristol and Generation Rent for their thoughts on the new proposals. 

‘All rented properties should be licensed’

Tom Hathway, Green councillor for Clifton Down, says today’s announcement is “long overdue” but still a really positive step forward, which will help to “root out those rogue landlords that exploit the housing crisis and tenants lack of eviction security”. 

“We know these [schemes] drive up standards and offer better protection to private renters, which is why we’ve long called for the Labour administration to expand them,” Hathway says. “The next step should be to expand selective licensing further across the city too, so all rented properties are licensed”. 

Renhard says that this would be challenging, because the rules imposed by the government when considering selective schemes are very strict. 

“Licensing schemes are quite tightly regulated, there are a lot of processes that you have to go through. If you want to go over 20% of the stock or the geography, you’d have to get permission from the secretary of state to enact the scheme,” he says, adding that there are specific criteria that have to be met with regard to housing quality, anti-social behaviour and deprivation.

Even if further expansion were to be achieved, Hathway suggests landlord licensing is still only one part of the solution for Bristol’s wider housing crisis. “It does not address the wider affordability crisis in renting,” he says. “Until we get rent controls and more social housing built, that unfortunately will continue to spiral.” 

Renhard is certainly open to further suggestions in the future, but for now he’s focused on delivering the current plans. “We want to get something in place, subject to the outcome of the consultation, in the fastest time possible,” he says. 

The consultation will last for 10 weeks and closes on 7 November 2023.

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Comments

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  • Most of your comments are bang on, I’ve been complaining to Bcc. Planning for years about H.M.O.s
    In my area.(Horfield),the best is on the corner of muller Road and Filton avenue suppose to be a 2.5 development, it’s a 3 story block of rooms (H.M.O)with no parking facilities small room for bikes? and a bin store. But these sort of things are being passed with out planning being involved it seems, or someone is getting a back hander?
    It seems ever since council housing was scrapped the whole housing situation has gone down hill. But that’s just me ! (age76)

    Reply

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