Houses in Multiple Occupation

An HMO, or House in Multiple Occupation, is a property rented by at least 3 people who are not from the same household or family, and share common facilities such as the kitchen and bathroom.

While Royal Holloway’s plan is to increase student numbers to 15,000, the college has no plan to provide accommodation for them all and so many private landlords have seen this as an opportunity to also make money out of the college’s students by buying up homes intended for families and converting them into HMOs.  Understandably, this has led to a number of problems for the local community:

Unkempt student lets in Egham and Englefield Green
  • There is anecdotal evidence that incidents of anti-social behaviour (ASB) by students are tightly correlated to the proliferation of HMOs.  When you house 4, 5 or even 6 students in a property built to house a conventional family then it should come as no surprise that the living habits of that HMO household are likely to result in conflict with neighbouring households living a more conventional lifestyle.
  • Virtually all HMO landlords are absent and many don’t even live in Egham or Englefield Green.  While ensuring that the rent has been paid is always a prime concern, the condition of the property is often not so important and so many of these properties take on an unkempt appearance which can be a cause of concern for neighbours and the community at large.
  • Buying up large numbers family houses for investment can create ‘student ghettos’, reduce the housing stock for families and damage the socio demographics.  There is an argument then, that the type of expansion planned by Royal Holloway is simply not appropriate for a host community the size of Egham and Englefield Green.

There is a general cost issue too.  Neither the students nor the landlords are liable for council tax for a property that is occupied by tenants that are all students – the property qualifies for an exemption.  The borough council does get the money back from central government but that of course, is funded by the taxpayer.  So, if you pay any tax, then you are probably helping to fund the council tax for the student properties as well as paying your own council tax.

So what can be done?

In general terms, there are two main approaches to dealing with the issues associated with HMOs: restricting the numbers of HMOs through the planning regime and managing existing HMOs through the regulations that apply to such properties.

Controlling HMOs through planning
It’s important to recognise that, in planning jargon, there are two types of HMO: a ‘C4’ is a small shared property housing up to 6 unrelated individuals and a ‘Large HMO’ that houses more than 6 unrelated individuals.  What most of us would recognise as a ‘normal’ property housing a family or single person is classed as a ‘C3’.

The main problem seen in Egham and Englefield Green is the conversion of properties originally intended for a single family into an HMO for students and because of the physical size of those properties, they can normally accommodate a maximum of 6 students so these are conversions from a C3 to a C4.

Now while a landlord requires a licence from Runnymede Borough Council (RBC) to be able to rent out an HMO if it is occupied by 5 or more persons, the granting of a licence is a fairly straight forward case of ensuring that the property meets the minimum standards for a number of conditions mainly related to the safety of the occupants and, of course, paying the licence fee to the council.

However, while planning permission is required for a Large HMO, a landlord doesn’t need planning permission to convert a property to a C4.  This is because converting a property into a C4 HMO is regarded as ‘permitted development’ under the General Property Development Order (GPDO) of the Town and Country Planning Act.

Many other local borough councils have already recognised that the proliferation of HMOs can have a detrimental effect on communities leading of many of the issues now seen here in Egham and Englefield Green including:

  • loss of local character
  • increase in noise complaints
  • increase in anti-social behaviour
  • loss of single family dwelling houses
  • increased pressure on local services
  • increased pressure on car parking
  • changes to local retail provision

and have removed the automatic right to change a C3 property to a C4 HMO by introducing an ‘Article 4 direction’.  The effect of this is that landlords now have to seek planning permission before converting a property.  Although the Article 4 Direction does not necessarily stop planning permission from being granted, it means that the merits of every HMO can be properly considered and allows the council to monitor the location of all new HMOs and assess the cumulative impact of such uses in a particular area.  Runnymede Borough Council has not done this however, although the Planning Policy department did produce a report on the prevalence of HMOs in Runnymede which was presented to the Planning Committee on 22nd March 2023 when it voted overwhelmingly in favour of gathering further evidence of the impact of these HMOs with a view to introducing such a Direction in Runnymede.

Unfortunately, the same committee subsequently agreed to suspend further work on this until the national direction of planning policy was clarified although this may not be for some years yet.

What was clear though, was that any decisions had to be evidence based and so it’s really important that any issues with HMOs are reported to RBC so that a picture of the problems can be built up over time.

Controlling HMOs through regulations
As explained in the planning section above, there are three basic types of HMO in Runnymede depending on the number of occupants:

3-4 occupantsThese properties do not need planning permission or a licence in Runnymede and are thus hard to identify formally.  RBC has made some attempts to identify them through claims for council tax exemption submitted by the occupants of such properties.
5-6 occupantsThese properties require a licence from RBC and are subject to any conditions set out in that licence.  The council maintains a register of these properties and an abbreviated, online version may be accessed here.
6 or more occupantsThese properties require planning permission which, if granted, would mean that the property would need a licence from RBC as well. These properties are also included in RBC’s register of HMOs.

While only properties with 5 or more occupants are subject to licence conditions, all HMOs are subject to The Management of Houses in Multiple Occupation (England) Regulations 2006 and responsibility for compliance with these lies with the landlord or manager of the property.  Further, the landlord or manager of licenced HMOs must comply not only with RBC’s specific licence conditions but also the general HMO licence conditions set out in the Housing Act 2004.

HMO licence conditions typically relate to health and safety aspects of the building itself and include terms concerning, for example, minimum floor areas in rooms, provision of smoke & carbon monoxide alarms, gas safety certificates and the safety of electrical installations.  The management regulations on the other hand, include obligations relating to the on-going maintenance of the property and these regulations include maintaining and repairing such things as stairs, windows, fences, forecourts and gardens.  The management regulations also include an obligation for the manager of the HMO to provide sufficient bins and to make arrangements for the disposal of refuse and litter.   The regulations also include a specific requirement for the manager to ensure that ‘any garden belonging to the HMO is kept in a safe and tidy condition’.

Runnymede Borough Council provides a guide for landlords to both the licence conditions and management regulations and a copy of this is available on the RBC website.

Reporting HMOs
Common complaints that we hear about HMOs relate to the condition of the property and usually concern the unkempt appearance of the property – particularly gardens – or issues with rubbish and bins on the property.

A registered HMO occupied by Royal Holloway students

Whether occupied by Royal Holloway students or not though, the responsibility for complying with the regulations rests with the landlord or managing agent and Runnymede Borough Council – as the appropriate Housing Authority – has the obligation of enforcing those regulations.  So, if you experience a problem related to the condition of an HMO, please report it to Runnymede Borough Council and to help you with this, we’ve but together some more detailed guidance and a sample e-mail on each of these topics:

We’ve also heard many complaints about the number of estate agent signs left on rented properties for a seemingly indefinite period.  These, too, are covered by regulations although, in this case, the regulations are dealt with by the Planning department at Runnymede Borough Council and so further guidance on reporting this problem has been included here:

Finally, please remember that while the primary purpose of submitting a report about an incident that is concerning you is to get that incident resolved for you as quickly as possible, all reports help the council to build up a picture of the damage being done to the community by the cumulative effect of these HMOs, and this could help with any future consideration of introducing an Article 4 Direction.