The issue of HMOs in Bath
Updated: Feb 1, 2021
Do neighbourhoods targeted by HMO landlords need stronger measures to preserve family housing?
Twerton and Whiteway are seeing many new HMOs since Oldfield Park and Westmoreland reached saturation point. Photo: John Rawlings
A council webinar on the topic of the growing number of HMOs (houses in multiple occupation) in Bath was streamed live on 26th January.
Hosted by council leader Dine Romero, the webinar emphasised the value of HMOs as an affordable form of accommodation and a key part of the housing market. There will always be demand for the low-cost rooms offered by HMOs which are important to a range of people including workers in Bath's hospitality and tourism trades, the conversation made clear.
Planning Officer Kaoru Jacques pointed out that although HMOs in Bath are popular with students, about a third of occupants are non-students. The numbers are estimated by looking at Council Tax exemptions.
The main issue is the question of how many houses can be converted to HMOs while still balancing the needs of different groups of people. The webinar noted that HMOs are commonly associated with problems including noise nuisance, loss of family housing and effects on local communities.
Present and future strategies
In the webinar, council representatives answered questions from the public and outlined the current approach to HMOs and future options. They explained that the very high concentrations of HMOs at Oldfield Park and Westmoreland cannot be reversed, as these conversions had planning permission at the time.
The council is considering placing limits on the "intensification" of HMOs - the process in which an existing HMO is converted into a larger one. Another idea is to work with the universities to build reasonably priced student accommodation on campus to relieve the pressure on houses being turned into student lets. These options are up for public consultation.
There was also some talk about the Supplementary Planning Document which imposes a 10% limit on the number of houses that can be turned into HMOs. In theory, this threshold could be brought even lower in neighbourhoods that are prone to landlords concentrating HMOs there. However, the decision would not be made lightly. As Officer Jacques explained, no council in the UK has gone below the 10% cap before and there would have to be a robust case for doing so. Our council is gathering relevant evidence.
Most significantly, Councillor Tim Ball, cabinet member for Housing, Planning and Economic Development, said: "The balance isn't right; we must get the balance correct this time".
The hour-long webinar gave just two minutes to discussing whether new limits should be introduced to protect certain areas of Bath from bearing the brunt of the HMO trend.
One such area might be the Twerton Ward which includes the Whiteway estate. Here, the loss of family housing stock to HMOs is a bone of contention for many residents, with some using social media to express their feelings. Thus in a recent opinion poll on how the council is tackling empty houses, the conversation turned instead into a debate about HMOs.
The increase of HMOs in Twerton can be of benefit to key workers such as staff employed at the Royal United Hospital, as well as students who need to live on university bus routes. But the complaint by residents that the trend is also eroding family housing is a legitimate point.
On the one hand, the houses that get snapped up by landlords and turned into HMOs could only be purchased by well-off families anyway. On the other hand, those properties could be rented to families on more moderate incomes and possibly to low-income families where Housing Benefit is available.
A related issue is that HMOs in Twerton often fall within the vicinity of children's facilities, the Twerton Ward containing two schools and three pre-school nurseries. The Bath Preservation Trust has argued that in such spots it is better to retain family housing as it can be occupied by families who would benefit from living close to their child's school.
Twerton Infant School. Should family-sized housing be preserved when it sits close to schools and nurseries?
A controversial question is whether the expanding student population at Twerton may exacerbate poverty levels by increasing competition for part-time jobs. Many local parents with dependent children take on part-time manual jobs like cleaning, bar work or supermarket shelf-filling within practical reach of their homes. These are also jobs that a lot of students do. Whilst students have just as much right to earn a wage, efforts to create a more even spread of HMOs across the city would be a prudent step.
The positive and negative attributes of HMOs leave the council with some difficult decisions to make. But a tougher set of limits could at least be eased if necessary at a future date—whereas the experience at Oldfield Park and Westmoreland is a reminder that action sometimes comes too late.