License landlords or resort to Asbos?

This month Newham will become the first council in England to require private landlords to be registered. Meanwhile, Camden has already served the country’s first landlord asbo to a West Hampstead landlady and has sought this week to extend it in court. Over at City Hall, Boris is proposing a “new housing covenant“, which puts forward some changes to tenancy agreements in the favour of tenants under a London Rental Standard.

The idea of licensing is to root out and stiffly penalise rogue landlords – the sort of people who exploit tenants by cramming lots of people into poorly maintained houses and then charge them an extortionate amount of rent. It also means that people who decide to rent their property out for lifestyle reasons rather than for pure profit must also register – there are a lot of these people. Many in the industry think that the licence requirement is overkill and that there are more cost-effective ways of protecting tenants from rogue landlords.

Last year, Camden opted for a different approach. It served a two-year anti-social behaviour order on Catherine Boyle of 14 Iverson Road back in January 2011, and sought to extend it at the end of 2012 after she failed to comply with some of the court’s requirements.

Google Street View catches a pest control
vehicle parked outside 14 Iverson Road

Catherine Boyle lives in and rents out rooms at the property, at the Kilburn end of Iverson Road. It qualifies as an HMO (house of multiple occupancy). She has been banned from causing harassment, alarm or distress to her tenants, entering their rooms without their consent, and cutting off their gas and electricity supply. She was also fined £8,000 for failing to comply with fire regulations despite having been given more than six months to meet the requirements (more than half of this was to pay the council’s court costs). In August 2010, she was cautioned for assault against one of her tenants.

Asbos seem like a pretty drastic solution to tackle problem landlords. They remain practically unheard of – the only other example that comes up is in Plymouth, where the council is appyling for an asbo against a landlord that would prevent him from letting to anyone on housing benefit. Councils do already have considerable powers to fine landlords heavily, especially those letting HMO properties, and jail sentences are not unheard of. The council can also takeover the running of the property.

In Ms Boyle’s case, I understand that there was both bad behaviour, as well as non-compliance with regulation, which may have been why the order was sought.

What is not clear to me is why a licensing policy such as Newham’s need to be applied to all landlords. Reserving it for HMO landlords, or even those with multiple properties would save time and money for both the council and plenty of ordinary landlords. This might be combined with a compulsory training program.

The Mayor certainly argues against any additional regulation in his private rented sector (PRS) report:

The Mayor does not support top-down regulation as a way of achieving better management or more choice for tenants, not least because the GLA does not possess formal powers in this area. In any case, regulation is damaging for investment into the PRS and it should always be a last resort. The sector’s capacity for voluntary self-regulation has not yet been exhausted – indeed, with the support of the Mayor, boroughs and landlord organisations, voluntary accreditation can deliver the step change in standards that tenants are rightly seeking. It is also unfair to penalise the majority of law-abiding landlords because of the actions of a small minority.”

It does seem that the system of landlord accreditation could do with some consolidation.

What do you think? Should councils use the powers they already have to deal with rogue landlords or are licensing or asbos the way forward?

187-199 West End Lane: the Mayor’s report

It’s been a month now since the dust settled on the 187-199 West End Lane development. You may recall that the plans had to go to City Hall where the Mayor would take a decision on them. His decision, or at least that of Sir Edward Lister, deputy Mayor and Chief of Staff, was to allow Camden to determine the case itself. In other words, City Hall saw no reason to intervene.

Building is scheduled to start in the spring of 2013, although it is unclear when the site is likely to be cleared – which is of specific interest to the businesses on the site, some of whom have commented on a previous post.

Below is the relevant planning report from the Greater London Authority from March 27th, with some paragraphs highlighted by me.
GLA Planning Report 27.3.12 187-199 West End Lane

City Hall gives the go ahead for 187-199 West End Lane

It was the news many residents feared. On Tuesday, City Hall decided not to raise any objections to the proposed development of 198 flats, including a 12-storey tower, in West Hampstead. Here’s the relevant extract from an e-mail sent by the public liaison team:

“On 27 March 2012, Sir Edward Lister, the Deputy Mayor and Chief of Staff, acting under delegated authority, considered a further report on the matter (PDU/2832/02) and decided that he was content to allow Camden Council to determine the application itself, subject to any action the Secretary of State may wish to take and therefore did not wish to direct refusal.”

Camden has already approved the plans, so it rather seems as if that is that. The developers had previously stated that work would start in spring 2013 and it’s a two-year build. It will be interesting to see whether the height and scale of this development prompts other developers to be more ambitious with their own plans for other sites as and when they come up. Are we entering an era of high-rise West Hampstead?

187-199: Focus shifts to City Hall

A group of West Hampstead residents unhappy with Camden council’s decision to approve the plans for 187-199 West End Lane have written to City Hall (and David Cameron!) to express their views. The Mayor’s Office will be deciding the next steps with all outcomes still on the table. The full text of the letter is below.

I’ve followed up with a couple of the councillors who voted in favour to find out their reasoning in light of the strength of objection to the scale of the development. The response has been much the same as Cllr Hayward’s comment on the night: “given the other benefits I think we should approve it.”

Cllr Jonathan Simpson said, “There didn’t seem a policy reason to vote against,” while Cllr Andrew Marshall tweeted: “on [a] scheme like this it’s overall balance, but housing volume, the section 106, the square, plus I’m not so anti tall buildings!”.

Given the complexity of planning decisions, there is a view that if the planning officer who has worked with the developer feels it should get the go ahead, it is hard for the committee to object. 

The more I dig into all this, the less convinced I am that some of the emotive language in this objection letter, such as “It will have a chilling impact on the local community,” is especially helpful. As someone whose main objections are the height/scale of the development, the siting of the affordable housing, and what I see as a lack of rigor in the analysis of the traffic/parking situation, I’d rather see less “chilling impact” (although such rhetoric might appeal to Boris), and more of the dull sentences like:

“The height, bulk and density of the development is far above the existing historical, mainly Edwardian and Victorian dwellings and contravenes Camden’s Core strategy CS14.” 

That is, fewer subjective issues and more policy reasons for a committee to demand some reduction in scale.

What’s CS14? This refers to the section in the council’s Core Strategy document on “Promoting high quality places and conserving our heritage”

“The Council will ensure that Camden’s places and buildings are attractive, safe and easy to use by: a) requiring development of the highest standard of design that respects local context and character;”

Paragraph 14.2 states:

“Our overall strategy is to sustainably manage growth in Camden so it meets our needs for homes, jobs and services in a way that conserves and enhances the features that make the borough such an attractive place to live, work and visit. Policy CS14 plays a key part in achieving this by setting out our approach to conserving and, where possible, enhancing our heritage and valued places, and to ensuring that development is of the highest standard and reflects, and where possible improves, its local area.”

When I raised this “context and character” point with one of the councillors, the response was that it didn’t apply to this development because it wasn’t in a conservation area, but conservation areas are dealt with separately; this is a borough wide strategy.

Clearly it’s possible – indeed correct – to argue that this site is not a “valued place”, but this local context and character is more interesting. This is partly about architecture, and the developers would argue that the choice of colours and building materials does broadly fit in with the local area. But what about the scale? Paragraph 14.8:

“While tall buildings offer the opportunity for intensive use, their siting and design should be carefully considered in order to not detract from the nature of surrounding places and the quality of life for living and working around them. Applications for tall buildings will be considered against policy CS14, and policies DP24 Securing high quality design and DP25 Conserving Camden’s heritage in Camden Development Policies, along with the full range of policies on mixed use, sustainability, amenity and microclimate. Effect on views and provision of communal and private amenity space will also be important considerations.”

And what’s DP24? That’s from Camden’s Development Policies document. It says:

“The Council will require all developments, including alterations and extensions to existing buildings, to be of the highest standard of design and will expect developments to consider: a) character, setting, context and the form and scale of neighbouring buildings;”

One might argue that being twice the height of existing buildings, is not considering the character or scale of neighbouring buildings. The full text of DP24 is worth reading (the entire DP document is on Camden’s website).

West Hampstead is mentioned specifically in the Core Strategy docment, under CS7 “Promoting Camden’s centres and shops”. Here are some of the relevant bullet points:

“The Council… will …

  • seek to improve the street environment south of West End Green, in particular, to enhance the street scene around the transport interchange area between Broadhurst Gardens and the Thameslink station;
  • ensure that development around the interchange provides an appropriate mix of uses and contributes towards improved interchange facilities and a high quality street environment.”

The development does tick these boxes – whether you think it’s the best way of achieving these aims is another matter, but it will help improve the interchange area.

So, anyway, those of you that want to carry on the fight to make this development more reflective of West Hampstead’s “local context and character”, should get your objections in. Our London Assembly member is Brian Coleman. If you’re a glutton for reading, then here’s the document that explains the Mayor’s role in strategic planning, alternatively, there’s a brief overview. Or you may feel that, given development on this site is inevitable, this proposal could be worse. It’s all the Ocado drivers delivering groceries to 200 flats down one narrow access road that I feel sorry for!

187-199 Objection Letter