Plans to drive up standards and improve conditions for all of Oxford’s private tenants are set for approval following strong backing from tenants and residents in public consultation last year.
On Wednesday (10 March), cabinet members will decide whether to renew an ‘additional’ licensing scheme for houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) and bring in a new ‘selective licensing’ scheme covering all privately rented homes in the city.
Both proposed schemes would require private landlords to show that they are complying with the law by meeting safety and management standards, being a ‘fit and proper person’ and meeting council waste storage and disposal requirements.
During consultation, nearly two thirds (64%) of Oxford tenants and residents agreed that additional HMO licensing had been effective in improving conditions in shared housing, with 72% of them supporting the renewal of the scheme. More than two thirds (68%) agreed with the introduction of selective licensing. The plans were also strongly backed by stakeholder organisations.
Half (49.3%) of all Oxford’s homes are now privately rented. Last year, an independent review of housing conditions by Metastreet found that a fifth (6,200) of the 30,500 homes in Oxford’s private rented sector could have a serious housing hazard.
In the last five years the council received 3,360 complaints from private renters about 2,990 properties – around one in 10 of all privately rented homes. During this time the council served 2,451 housing and public health notices and carried out 4,058 investigations into anti-social behaviour related to private rented housing.
In 2011 Oxford was the first English council to bring in a citywide additional licensing scheme requiring all HMOs to be licensed. The adoption of selective licensing would mark the biggest change to Oxford’s private rented sector since additional HMO licensing.
Any selective licensing scheme would need to be confirmed by central government. Currently only one other council has a selective licensing scheme that covers the whole area of the local authority.
If agreed by the council and the government, a selective licensing scheme could be put in place for five years in early 2022.
The consultation was carried out independently on behalf of the council by Opinion Research Services (ORS). Consultation on the two proposed schemes began on 10 September and was originally due to end on 3 December. However, this was extended until the end of last year to allow as many people as possible to respond in the wake of the second national lockdown.
There were 1,987 responses to an open consultation questionnaire, with another 53 letters and email submissions from stakeholders choosing to provide their views in writing.
ORS used a range of methods to seek the views of all stakeholders – including landlords, agents, industry associations, residents and resident’s groups, private tenants, third sector organisations, advice agencies, registered housing providers, councillors, businesses and neighbouring councils.
These included four Zoom events for landlords and letting agents, an online focus group for local tenants and residents from across Oxford, and in-depth interviews with representatives of 11 stakeholder organisations.
Regarding the renewal of the HMO licensing scheme, the consultation found:
- 64% of Oxford tenants and residents and 71% of those responding from an organisation felt that additional HMO licensing had been effective in addressing issues in the private rented sector
- nearly three quarters of tenants and residents backed the renewal of additional HMO licensing, with 58% strongly agreeing and 14% tending to agree. By way of contrast, 18% strongly disagreed, 6% tended to disagree and 3% neither agreed nor disagreed
- support for additional HMO licensing was even stronger among organisational representatives, with 75% agreeing or tending to agree with renewal and 25% strongly or tending to disagree
- 45% of landlords and 50% of agents agreed that the additional HMO licensing scheme had been effective. A similar proportion endorsed renewal of the scheme, with 49% of landlords and 44% of agents agreed with this proposal, compared to 35% and 45% respectively who disagreed.
On a new selective licensing scheme, the consultation found:
- more than two thirds (68%) of tenants and residents agreed with the introduction of selective licensing, with 56% strongly agreeing and 12% tending to agree. Under a quarter (23%) strongly disagreed with the principle, with another 6% tending to disagree and 3% neither agreeing or disagreeing
- nearly three quarters (73%) of organisation representatives endorsed selective licensing, with 58% strongly agreeing and 15% tending to agree. Under a quarter (23%) disagreed, with 15% strongly disagreeing and 8% tending to disagree. Another 5% neither agreed nor disagreed
- a third of landlords (35%) and agents (31%) agreed with the principle of bringing in selective licensing, with more than half (55%) of landlords and nearly two thirds (62%) of agents disagreeing
More than half (54%) of questionnaire responses were from landlords and agents. ORS analysed questionnaire responses by stakeholder groups, an approach which helped to identify and understand the perspectives of different stakeholders.
A number of changes were made to the council’s proposals as a result of consultation feedback. These include a simplified fee structure, and the proposed cost of a new standard five year licence applied for within the first three months of selective licensing would be £400 – equivalent to £80 a year. Renewal for up to five years will cost £131. The Office for National Statistics reports a median private rent of £1,500 a month for a three-bedroom home in Oxford.
Feedback from consultation also means the council will increase the number of landlord accreditation schemes eligible for longer licences and develop an online application and renewal system.
“Half of homes in Oxford are now privately rented, so bringing in licensing across the whole sector will help us to deliver on our plans to protect tenants, drive up standards and crack down on rogue landlords. A clear majority of tenants and residents agree with our approach and back our plans.
“But licensing isn’t just good for tenants and residents generally. Renewing additional HMO and licensing all privately rented homes will protect the majority of landlords and agents who do a good job. Tenants will have the confidence that they are responsible landlords and agents as rogue operators are driven out of the market.
“We recognise there are strong differences of opinion between landlords and agents on the one hand, and tenants, residents and organisational representatives on the other. However there is broad consensus that there are issues in the private rented sector which do need addressing and we believe that licensing is the best way of doing this.”
Councillor Alex Hollingsworth, cabinet member for planning and housing delivery
HMOs are homes rented out to three or more people who are not from the same family and who share facilities.
The licence ensures:
- the HMO meets the government’s minimum safety standards for homes, including the amount of space per person, the heating of the property, fire and electrical safety, and that the property has suitable kitchen, toilet and washing facilities for all the tenants
- the landlord, or their property manager, is a ‘fit and proper’ person – i.e. that they have not committed any housing-related offences or crimes involving fraud, violence, drugs and certain sexual offences
- the landlord, or their property manager, complies with the council’s waste collection scheme for the storage and disposal of household waste at the HMO
Under the previous licensing scheme which ran for five years from January 2015, the council processed 12,236 licences in relation to 3,850 HMOs. The council worked with landlords and agents to improve compliance with the scheme, yet despite this less than half (49%) of HMOs were fully compliant.
The council took stepped approach to enforcing non-compliance with HMO licensing and this ranged from higher renewal fees for minor breaches to financial penalties for repeated or major breaches.
In five years there were 2,460 investigations into unlicensed HMOs. These resulted in 25 financial penalties being served for operating an unlicensed HMO and 22 penalties for non-compliance with the scheme or related legislation. The council also took over management of three unlicensed HMOs.
Selective licensing would allow the council to extend existing licensing powers to cover all privately rented homes in Oxford and ensure a level playing field for all private tenants and landlords.
As with HMOs, landlords will have to complete an application and provide the council with evidence that the property they rent out has the legally required gas, electrical and fire safety certificates. Providing landlords have all the paperwork, the application will take about half an hour to complete.
Government rules allow councils to introduce selective licensing if 20% of homes in an area are privately rented. This is true of all 24 wards in Oxford.