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‘Alarm bells ring’ as councillors examine ‘understaffed’ privately rented HMO licensing

A councillor has described how ‘alarm bells are ringing’ after considering a report on the ‘pressures’ in respect of licensing the private rented HMO sector by Wrexham Council.

The Homes and Environment Scrutiny Committee were examining this report that details the reduction in staff available to regulate housing standards in privately rented houses of multiple occupancy – known as HMO’s.

The staffing reduction over the years is detailed, with 6.9 full time equivalent staff (FTE) dealing with the licensing workload, which is now at 3.15 FTE. The report notes that there is no additional administrative support or an extra Environmental Health Officer post as there was previously.

The recent ‘Difficult Decision’ savings programme is referenced in the report, saying it “…has identified that the Public Protection Service is lean and that any future savings is only likely to be achieved via a shared service with other Local Authorities in a regional or sub-regional model. This in reality will provide additional resilience, but is likely to lead to a reduction in officers.”

Despite the staff cuts, the report states: “The workload for licensing has increased from the last additional licensing scheme.”

Detail was given to the meeting over the five year inspection periods, with an officer explaining that although the five years is the maximum mandatory inspection period, HMOs that are of concern could be inspected much more regularly such as six monthly.

Lead Member for Housing, Cllr D J Griffiths, did point out that it was a chicken and egg situation at times as without investigating properties the council would not know of any issues to deal with, but without the staff to do so then investigations may not be as frequent.

Officers explained how data is being used, such the energy efficiency certificates that are now issued, cross referenced against registered HMO’s to then deduce which could be the coldest properties. Such data is then referenced with possible high risk occupants, and therefore a priority list is created. Council officers were very careful not to criticise the staffing levels, however were clearly uneasy at definitively saying they had enough resources to deal with the possible issues in HMOs.

Cllr Benbow-Jones raised the issue of properties being rented on domestic mortgages: “These would not appear on buy to let lists, do we have an audit of all the homes in the borough?”

The council officer replied: “If anyone is renting a property is needs to be registered. If there is a property being managed or sub managed, they need to have a licence.

“At the moment the last statistics shows 105% of properties registered, which is clearly wrong, but is based on the census of 2011.”

More detail was given on work done to locate unregistered HMOs, including: “There are probably more HMOs than are legally registered, but it is finding them is the challenge. We look at various sources, council tax bills, housing benefit information, or even looking on the internet to see what is to let locally.”

Cllr Griffiths said: “If you know of people abusing the system, then let us know.”

Cllr Alun Jenkins thanked officers for a ‘very honest report’, adding: “The picture presented has set alarm bells ringing. I knew there were problems but did not know the extent. The bottom end of the private rented sector is dire.”

Comparisons were made about the huge Housing Revenue Account budget inside Wrexham Council that is managed by a sizeable team, and looks after around 11,000 council houses. Cllr Jenkins pointed out that with data given ‘there is a small team that works their socks off on the private rented sector’ looking after 11,000 houses.

“It is a dire story in the decline of the staff numbers. We have to do it because of austerity, but we are asking too much of the officers there. They can’t cope with the size of the problem.

“There are so many properties that are privately rented operating below the radar. We are working on percentages, but we do not know the total numbers, and we can’t find out. The small team simply does not have the resources to locate all the private rented property in Wrexham.”

Cllr Jenkins gave anecdotal evidence on how private rental issues are brought forward to the council with a response of “it was not registered therefore we didn’t know about it” being given as a reply.

Cllr Griffiths said: “I won’t disagree with what Cllr Jenkins has said.”

Cllr Skelland briefly spoke to say he was unaware of any HMO’s in Bronington (his ward) ‘thank goodness’, adding such issues “must be demoralising.”

Cllr Graham Rogers enquired about enforcement methods, and what actions are taken against landlords. In a detailed answer a council officer explained the various levels of intervention, adding an overview of a recent case where a landlord who was in prison had a property with a broken boiler – padlocked away so unfixable. The meeting was told the landlord in question has got a Christmas present from the council, a large bill.

Chairman of the meeting Cllr Paul Pemberton voiced his concern at the ‘understaffing’, and said: “With the under the radar properties, do you feel if you had more staff you could investigate that further?

“My concern is if you have properties under the radar we could have major health and safety issues, problems with flues, carbon monoxide and the like and we would not know.”

“I applaud what you are doing, and do not envy the department. I feel a machete has been put on offices and the department to cut rather than a stanley knife. This could be a major health and safety issue.”

The officer replied: “If there was more staff we would have more resources to identify properties.”

Councillors then shared various snippets of information from either what they had encountered on planning committees or in their wards. Cllr Rodgers observed: “We get registered social landlords not bringing their properties up to standard, then they have the audacity to submit more planning applications.”

Cllr Jenkins told the meeting there were ‘a number of HMOs in the town centre with no licence for more than three months, they are amongst the worst we have’.

Councillors looked to form a recommendation, led by Cllr Jenkins, settling on thanking officers for the report, with additional recommendations to restore staffing to two years ago and oppose any moves to share the service with another authority to save money. These recommendations were unanimously approved.

Interestingly in the meeting the council officer pointed to the Rent Smart Wales website as it has a public register that you can pop an address in and see if it is registered, and who the agent is (if there is one) – you can find the form here.

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