Government is risking another fatal fire by deregulating HMO accommodation

Government is risking another fatal fire by deregulating HMO accommodation

The government wants to make landlords of accommodation contracted by the Home Office exempt from regulations that were designed to protect people from fatal fires.  

Today, landlords who let larger houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) legally require a licence, as a way to make sure the property is safe. What does HMO mean? An HMO is a property where three or more unrelated adults share accommodation. HMOs occupied by five or more people in two or more households require a licence

But Housing Minister Felicity Buchan is pushing regulations through Parliament to exempt landlords who are renting these HMOs to people seeking asylum from needing a licence from the end of this month (30 June).  

This risks another serious fatal fire.  

HMO licensing was won after a long campaign 

HMO licensing was introduced in 2004 following decades of campaigning by Shelter and private tenants’ groups. It was primarily introduced to protect people in HMOs from the much higher fire risks

The HMO licensing campaign started in earnest following the fatal fire in Clanricarde Gardens, Notting Hill (not far from Grenfell Tower). Eight people were killed and around 100 residents (living in a warren of 56 shoddily converted bedsits) lost their homes. Some residents were immigrants fleeing persecution, who were working in hotels and restaurants in London’s West End. 

The local Conservative MP,  Sir Brandon Rhys Williams, said in support of an unsuccessful 1983 attempt to licence HMOs:  ‘I saw people being rescued from the horrifying fire in Clanricarde Gardens in my constituency. We must not allow that horror to be repeated.’

But it took another 21 years of campaigning to finally get HMOs licensed. 

We successfully campaigned for accommodation offered to people seeking asylum to be included in the HMO licensing scheme and recommended Home Office procurement of accommodation must not undermine local authorities in improving housing conditions. 

This followed our investigation into HMOs used to accommodate people seeking asylum, which found a shocking 86% were unfit for the number of actual or intended occupants and households in over 80% of HMOs were exposed to unacceptable risks of fire. We provided this information to an inquest following a fatal fire in the late 1990s, where a mother died trying to save her children. They were a Roma family seeking asylum from violence in Eastern Europe. 

The government is now removing protections 

Now, as we prepare to mark the sixth anniversary of the catastrophic fire at Grenfell Tower, the government is intent on removing the protections for HMO residents we fought so hard to win.  

Indeed, just as the government is finally about to enact greater protections for social tenants, promised following the Grenfell Tower fire, they are removing the vital protection of HMO licensing for potentially thousands of individuals and families living in private HMOs contracted by the Home Office to accommodate people seeking asylum. 

Have no lessons been learned? 

Why is the government doing this? 

The government says it’s introducing the regulations ‘to temporarily remove barriers that cause a delay or challenge in acquiring sustainable and cost-effective contingency accommodation for asylum seekers’.  

Apparently, ‘the Home Office is concerned that asylum seekers accommodated at taxpayer expense should not be entitled to more spacious accommodation than the national standard that applies to everyone else’. It claims local HMO licensing standards (e.g. minimum room size standards) ‘limit supply by restricting the number of people that can be housed in each property and drive the cost to the taxpayer’. 

Put simply, vital housing health and safety legislation is being rolled back to allow the Home Office to cram more people into houses in multiple occupation, which will – in turn – bring down the cost of providing accommodation. Cost is considered more important than enforcement of safety standards. 

Again, have no lessons been learned since the Grenfell Tower fire? 

There is huge opposition to these regulations 

Two weeks ago, over 130 organisations, including Shelter, wrote to Housing Secretary Michael Gove and Home Secretary Suella Braverman urging them to abandon the regulations. The signatories represent housing professionals, tenants and people seeking asylum in this country. 

Members of Parliament could stop these regulations going ahead because they are ‘affirmative’ regulations which require a vote through both Houses. Following an initial vote by a Commons committee on 10 May and a vote in the Lords on 16 May, the regulations will have further consideration by MPs. Peers have also laid an amendment to the Illegal Immigration Bill to stop these regulations. 

We urge Parliament to stop these regulations. 

HMO licensing is a strong enforcement regime because it places a statutory requirement on: 

  • HMO landlords to make themselves known to the local authority, apply for a licence and meet its conditions, including being a ‘fit and proper landlord’ and fire safety standards. 
  • HMO landlords to pay licence fees to the local authority, which provides them with the resources to licence, inspect and enforce standards in HMOs. 
  • Local authority housing enforcement teams to licence, inspect and take enforcement action where HMO landlords fail to comply. 
  • HMO landlords who fail to comply to be given heavy fines, served with rent repayment orders and (ultimately) refused an HMO licence. 

Therefore, there are strong incentives for both HMO landlords and local authorities to make sure health and safety standards in HMOs are met. And local authorities, through licensing fees, have resources to do so.  

There are no such incentives for landlords to comply with the standards required in Home Office contracts. 

So, we’re very worried that the tough enforcement created by HMO licensing will no longer apply to people seeking asylum, who can be more vulnerable to fire risks due to: 

  • disabilities and health problems 
  • being unaware of what standards to expect 
  • language challenges 
  • being reluctant to complain or contact authorities and  
  • the risk of anti-immigrant arson attacks. 

Impact on the housing emergency 

However, the introduction of two-tier regulations could also make things much worse for other people. Some exempt HMOs might adjoin other residential or commercial buildings, to which a fire could spread. 

Plus, the higher rates per property that would be available by cramming people into a Home Office HMO could exacerbate the housing emergency by incentivising landlords to: 

  • Convert family homes into more lucrative Home Office HMOs, increasing the number of residents in some blocks or streets, and making it even more difficult for families in some areas to find an affordable home. 
  • Pull out of letting to people who need to claim local housing allowance to cover their rent. Local housing allowance has been frozen for over three years, resulting in growing homelessness, with over 100,000 households now homeless in temporary accommodation. 
  • Pull out of offering their properties to councils for use as temporary accommodation for homeless people. In November, the District Councils Network reported four-fifths of local housing authorities were struggling to procure enough temporary accommodation. 

The appalling fire at Grenfell Tower showed us what can happen without proactive enforcement of strong fire safety standards. Crowded HMOs can be death traps when fire takes hold. 

If you want to avoid another fatal fire, please contact your MP and ask them to oppose the regulations.