Over the past few years, we’ve had a real flurry of queries concerning HMO developments (Houses in Multiple Occupation), including an illuminating appeal experience in Bristol very recently. Whilst they often (and sometimes deservedly) get bad press, HMO’s represent a very valid component of the housing market when managed professionally and effectively. Where else can we expect our young singles/couples/friends to live when it’s so cripplingly expensive to access private home ownership or to shoulder exorbitant fuel bills? Shared living is simply sustainable on so many levels. 

We’ve had to learn some lessons – fundamentally these applications are not easy – so if you’re a developer/property owner or even a prospective tenant, here’s our key pointers about the HMO planning landscape:

  • The legals – the full definition of a HMO is given under Sections 254, 257 and 258 of the Housing Act 2004. Essentially, a HMO is a dwelling which is occupied by three or more unrelated persons, who do not form a single household and share amenities such as bathrooms. A household can be a separate individual, couple or a family. Types of HMO accommodation can include a house, a self-contained flat, a converted building where new accommodation has been created that is not a self-contained flat/s (but occupied by more than one household) and a converted building into self-contained flats where the conversion works did not comply with 1991 Building Regs and more than one third of the flats are not owner-occupied. Types of accommodation that are not HMOs include properties occupied by the owner and up to 2 lodgers, higher education halls of residence, or other types of student accommodation and properties occupied by religious communities;
  • What class? – in 2010, a new planning class was created for dwellings occupied as HMOs by up to 6 residents (Use Class C4). However, HMO’s with over 6 occupants do not fall within any specific use class, and are known as Sui Generis uses;
  • Do I need permission? – the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015 permits the change of use from a dwellinghouse (Class C3), to a C4 use, so ordinarily planning permission would not be required to create a small HMO for between 3 and 6 persons. However, if an Article 4 Direction is in place removing this permitted development right (as many Local Planning Authorities have imposed – check with your LPA and the local ward area), then you would need an application. In any event, Planning permission would always be required to create a larger HMO for 7 persons+ ;
  • Remember licences are separate – you might also be required to obtain a licence for your HMO, which falls under an entirely separate regime to planning. First principles, a HMO must have a licence if it is occupied by 5 or more people, but even if your property is smaller/rented to fewer people, you might still need one depending on the area – check with your Council; 
  • Quality counts – if your HMO does require consent, the starting point for any application should be to provide a good standard of accommodation. This means giving due consideration to layout, internal living space, external amenity space, outlook, privacy, adaptability, security, cycle and car parking, and refuse/recycling storage. LPA’s may have their own standards for some/all of the above, so do scrutinise any policy or other requirements to make sure your scheme complies before submission;
  • Harmful concentrations – high numbers of HMO’s in any one area can have damaging effects on local communities (reduced housing choice and social cohesion, noise and disturbance, pressure on car parking, refuse management and property maintenance). Whilst some of these concerns might be misplaced (and a little presumptuous), you should expect any planning application to be assessed against them, and many development plans will specifically feature policies which resist harmful concentrations; 
  • Further policy controls – some LPA’s will also have supplementary guidance to elaborate on development plan policies. By way of example, Bristol City Council has an adopted SPD which enshrines specific tests for assessing harmful concentrations of HMO’s. The Sandwiching Test means that a new HMO will be resisted if it results in any existing residential property (Class C3) being sandwiched by HMO’s on both sides (including adjacent, opposite or rear). The Threshold Test dictates that a new HMO would be refused if it resulted in more than 10% of the total dwelling stock being occupied as HMO’s within a 100 metre radius of the application property. These tests are predicated on Council-held datasets of existing HMO’s (which include all HMO’s with licenses and/or planning, as well as any purpose-built student accommodation in an area). Word of warning however – such datasets may be updated during the lifetime of your application, to your detriment (our recent appeal case was Sandwiching/Threshold compliant on submission, but not by the time the Inspector made his decision);
  • Also on datasets – some LPA on-line mapping tools may enable you to make your own calculations on HMO numbers (such that you can assess whether you’re policy compliant before submission). However the BCC system only allows officers to do this (so this might be worth a quick pre-app alone, if you’re unsure of your chances);
  • Application content – given all the above, aim to submit the most robust application possible up-front, to best address the likely issues. Ensure you include maximum occupant numbers, as well as existing and proposed floor plans showing room sizes and uses, cycle parking facilities and refuse/recycling storage, and details of collection arrangements. You might consider submitting a Management Statement explaining your approach to property maintenance/supervision along with any other landlord credentials. If car parking is likely to be an issue, you should also anticipate a request for a parking survey to demonstrate capacity/demand in the area – this needs to follow a recognised methodology (check with your LPA), and ideally should be carried out by an impartial party; 
  • Go the extra mile – whilst not compulsory (and in some circumstances covered separately by Building Regs),  you might also consider incorporating some sound reduction measures which could help allay concerns over potential noise disturbance. Relatively easy wins might include the use of soft-closers on internal/external doors, replacement of door knockers with doorbells/keyless systems, installing sound deadening material on stair treads, locating bathroom sanitary ware away from party walls to avoid noise transmission, avoiding positioning communal rooms opposite bedrooms in adjoining properties and restricting access to elevated external areas. None of these measures are necessarily policy-critical, but they do demonstrate that you’re taking the issue seriously; and finally, 
  • Anticipate resistance – HMO’s are almost always contentious applications, there’s no escaping it, so you should anticipate some degree of local objection. Make sure you put your most professional and comprehensive case together, and be ready to robustly defend your proposals. There may not be benefit in wholesale public consultation in this instance, but there’s never any harm in giving your neighbours the heads-up and providing them with some assurance of your intentions from the outset. 

So, a brief flavour of our HMO application experience, and no doubt others will have fared better/worse with different LPA’s (send us your stories/good practice tips). Yet aside from the policy hoops and inevitable neighbour objections, we still maintain that there is a vital role for well managed HMO’s in the housing market, so please persevere with your proposals. Or do give us a shout if we can help – we’re always happy to talk strategy and share best approaches.