How housing policy is making our job harder

Commonweal Housing’s mission, at its heart, is simply to do the right thing. It’s been a constant aim throughout our 14 years of work to combat social injustices through housing. The landscape of housing policy, however, hasn’t been quite as constant.

In recent years we’ve seen the rules tighten on houses in multiple occupation (HMOs), after calls for a crackdown on overcrowding and large student houses pushing families out of their local area.

Action to maintain communities and combat exploitative landlords is to be welcomed; but it is important to flag up that some changes around HMO planning and licencing are having unintended consequences for some charitable housing providers.

Article 4 Directions requiring formal planning consent for any change of use of a family house to shared housing – first introduced in 1995 – have been used with increasing frequency by local planning authorities in recent years. Individual local authorities also have the power to implement local selective licensing to smaller shared houses, including those with three or more sharers, as well as to implement new rules on minimum bedroom sizes.

There’s no doubt these plans have good intentions. But caught up in these good intentions are some very unfortunate unintended consequences.

At Commonweal Housing, we’ve been supporting the development and testing of new shared housing projects by charities for over 7 years.

These shared housing schemes provide good quality, safe, and more affordable homes to a range of different groups: from migrants and asylum-seekers, to young adult carers, and those otherwise facing homelessness and rough sleeping.

For charities like ours, shared housing can be a pragmatic way to make accommodation affordable for those on benefits or low incomes where self-contained housing, even if available to such marginalised groups, is simply too expensive. But more than that, we have also found that the sharing experience – including peer support, pro-social behaviour and group interaction – can be central to the progress that clients make through, and eventually out, of our services. Time and again, shared housing is being proven to have constructive prosocial value.

Because of the nature of the shared housing Commonweal provides, HMO licencing and planning may negatively impact almost all of our projects.

All of a sudden, a double bedroom in one of our properties, previously perfectly suitable for a migrant single mum and her small child, may now be judged too small.

And many of the single bedrooms – genuinely affordable options for a single person on low income, who may have no other options for accommodation –  have to stand empty and unused.

Meanwhile, the development of future shared housing projects are being stalled, and may be refused by local planning authorities.

There is no disputing that housing suitable for families in the local community must be protected, and overcrowding must be prevented. But we also need to prioritise those marginalised communities that are supported by charities like Commonweal – and often have nowhere else to go if these projects are made unworkable.

This is not about creating a loophole to be exploited by unscrupulous landlords. Charitable housing providers are home to some of the most impactful supportive housing projects in the country.

It’s clear that a flexible approach is possible. HMO licencing rules, for example, have an exemption for Registered Providers and co-operatives.

While Registered Providers are increasingly there to meet mainstream housing need, charitable housing providers often take pressure off pressed public services by housing some of the most vulnerable members of society in innovative and specialist ways.

We need to find a way to keep these vital projects from being crushed by a blunt instrument, or risk storing up problems for the future.

We want local councils to be able to extend the exemption to charitable housing providers, and take a more flexible approach to planning permission for these vital organisations.

Crucially, we need local authorities to understand nature of the support provided by specialist housing charities, recognise the needs they serve, and refrain from implementing blanket restrictions that will lead to adverse consequences for some of the most vulnerable groups.

Including some sort of ‘requirement to notify’ so that charities need to keep local councils informed and engage in constructive dialogue may be one way forward.

Local Authorities may be accustomed to seeing things in black and white, but we need collaborative working, understanding and imagination to find new ways of housing and supporting the people who need it the most.

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