HMO regulation crucial to addressing Holylands problems

In News, SDLP by Donal Lyons

I proposed a motion to Belfast City Council tonight calling for the urgent commencement of the new mandatory licensing system for Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs).

A long overdue piece of legislation. Speech below

I propose this motion to allow us an opportunity not only to welcome the introduction of the new mandatory licensing system for Houses in Multiple Occupation but importantly to reiterate that we as a Council recognise that there is an urgent need to regulate and ensure balance in the provision of HMOs in certain parts of our city.

While legitimate concerns have been expressed about the process of the Bill and some of the finer details within its provisions, the Bill will provide a welcome foundation for the regulation and improvement of standards, spatial distribution and safety of HMOs.
This revised system means that regulation will now sit appropriately with other functions of the Council such as planning, building control and environmental health.

This new Bill also moves beyond criminal offences and will include the use of Fixed Penalties up to £5000 for non-compliance with the licensing conditions, allowing councils such as ours to ensure quick, affordable and proportionate enforcement.

I accept that there is a demand for this type of housing in the market, as distinct from properties rented to a single person or family unit, and it tends to be students, migrant workers and those on lower incomes that avail of it. As such it is a matter of social justice that we as a council do not allow standards of living to slip, safety to be compromised and health and other inequalities to grow.

For that reason I welcome the Bill’s provisions that landlords or their agents will have a legal responsibility to their tenants to keep flats and houses safe and well maintained.

With over 60% of HMOs in Northern Ireland being located in Belfast, the vast majority of these in south Belfast, I trust that this Council as the licensing authority will be doing our part to ensure that safety and other tests are met when it comes to a decision whether to grant, renew or revoke a HMO license.

And let us be in no doubt that this legislation is urgently required and that we are long past the point of debating whether a lack of regulation of HMOs is anything but damaging. We have seen time and time again that dense concentrations of HMOs, and the large numbers of people sharing individual units, attracts anti-social behaviour, places a huge strain on public services and has a detrimental impact on the standard of living and community comfort of residential areas. It isn’t just late night partying that drives an area down, but excessively neglected gardens and cartilages and failure to reasonably dispose of rubbish.

And of course it would be impossible to discuss this topic without mentioning the Holylands in South Belfast. In recent weeks we have once again seen the all too familiar scenes of vastly excessive levels of street drinking, residents feeling unsafe in their homes, which has all too frequently led to vandalism and violent disorder. And anyone who was in the Holylands on St Patricks Day, watching the crowds stumbling across the streets and then clambering about rooftops, could not help but be reminded of the terrible tragedy that took place in Berkley last summer where six young Irish students fell to their death after the balcony of their apartment collapsed.

Now I do not mean to attack all students and I know that the vast majority of students have little interest in spending St Patricks day wreaking havoc in the Holylands. I also recognise that a large number of those who do go to the Holylands are travelling from far and wide to the area specifically because of the reputation it has attained.

But there are a number of students and other young people who are tenants there and by the fact that they have taken a few months of a lease, feel they have the right to invite all and sundry to clamber onto roofs, pile into gardens and spill over onto the streets without a seconds thought for their neighbours or long term residents. Indeed, judging by comments given to the media, many don’t believe there is anyone other than students living here.

Student villages exist in this city and any others with a university, but unlike the Holylands behaviour is regulated and managed by a reasonable set of rules and expectations – you don’t see scenes like those in the Holylands playing out in the Queen’s Elms or other developments like it.
And year after year the long term residents, and ratepayers in this city, are left to pick up the pieces and pick up the bill for the chaos that ensues.
This is as clear an example as any would need as to why we need to progress this legislation urgently.

Because I know that this Council would never fail to do all within its powers to prevent such situations arising and would always ensure the safety of the public and its own staff. And we know too that Queens University and other institutions have their role to play and have extensive disciplinarily programmes in place and having met with senior police officers in the days after St Patrick’s I was left in no doubt as to their frustration at the restrictions they and other public bodies face in tackling this mayhem. And I use the word mayhem lord mayor because the term ‘anti-social behaviour’ does not seem to do a situation justice when there are 1000’s of people involved.

The universities of course cannot control what happens behind front doors and the police cannot confiscate alcohol from private premises. There are few options available to them to seek redress from private tenants who are on short term transitory leases. The landlords however, those who own the buildings should not be in any doubt that they too have a central role to play, and that failing to act in relation to this type of behaviour, that washing their hands of the mess their tenants make is not acceptable.

This licensing scheme will not be a silver bullet for reclaiming areas like the Holylands but it will be a useful tool to ensure that disturbances like we have seen do not happen again.