Claire Rizos

Director

Author Bio ▼

Claire is Director of Clarity Safety Solutions Ltd., an Oban-based health and safety consultancy. She has more than 17 years of health and safety experience advising organisations and is a Chartered Member of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, an OSHCR registered consultant, and an IFE registered life safety assessor. Since attempting to leave the rat race in 2008, and moving to the West Coast of Scotland, Claire has written hundreds of articles, reports, policies, papers, newsletters, and training courses. Nevertheless, she continues to help clients directly with their health, safety, and fire safety arrangements both within the UK and abroad.
April 24, 2013

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Houses in Multiple Occupation: Fire Risk & Regulation in England

The Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMO) sectors have a particularly bad reputation for poor fire safety.

These houses, in which individuals have their own room, but generally share all the other facilities, are becoming the only option for many people. Since January 2012, single people aged 25 to 34 have only been entitled to a level of housing benefit known as the “shared accommodation rate”.

Statistics show that residents are six times more likely to die in a house fire if they live in an HMO. And if the HMO is three or more storeys high, the probability increases to 16 times more likely. It’s clear why legislation has been targeted at this disproportionately high-risk sector.

What’s an HMO?
The definitions applying within England and Wales are set out within the Housing Act 2004. It’s complex but as a general rule an HMO is a building occupied by three or more occupants in more than one household and who share some amenities such as a bathroom, toilet, or cooking facilities.

A common arrangement is a house that is let as separate rooms with shared bathroom, kitchen, and living room. There are also some older buildings converted into self-contained flats that count as HMOs.

What’s the significance?
If a premises is an HMO it means that the person managing it has to comply with HMO Management Regulations and local HMO standards which cover overcrowding, amenities, and fire safety. In addition, certain “shared” and bedsit HMOs require a licence.

If you’ve ever felt confused about the topic, it’s hardly surprising. In addition to the national legislation, which sets out categories of HMOs for “mandatory licensing”, the local authorities can pass their own bylaws requiring that other categories of HMO need to be licensed, i.e., “additional licensing”.

From the landlord’s perspective, having a licensable HMO is expensive. Fees are typically between GB pound 1000 and GB pound 1500 for a five-year licence. On top of this, there are the costs of improvements needed to meet the standards — detection systems, sounders, fire doors, etc.

Recent case law
Given what’s at stake, it’s not surprising that a very large landlord was prepared to fight in court over whether certain properties were “licensable”.

The flats in the test case, London Borough of Islington v. The Unite Group PLC , are “cluster flats” within Charles Morton Court in Islington, a purpose-built block of self-contained flats of five storeys. The ground floor consists of a shop. Each cluster flat contains a shared living room and kitchen plus four to six bedrooms, each of which has its own en-suite bathroom and lockable door.

Both parties agreed that each cluster flat was an HMO within the meaning of Part 2 of the Housing Act 2004. The contested issue was whether they fell within licencing criteria.

The London Borough of Islington said that they did. It was relying on Article 3 of the Licensing of Houses in Multiple Occupation (Prescribed Description) (England) Order 2006. This states that mandatory licencing applies if the HMO, or any part of it, comprises three storeys or more, is occupied by five or more persons, and is occupied by persons living in two or more single households. The legislation makes clear that floors used for business purposes are to be counted as if they’re part of the premises. But the council contended that the wording of Article 3 ought to be interpreted as inclusive of other residential storeys. That would mean in this case, that as the block was five storeys high, each flat had to be licenced.

But the judge disagreed, concluding “It is the HMO that must comprise the three storeys and not the building in which an HMO happens to be found.” The storeys used for business purposes counted but in this case that only added one storey, totalling two. If the council wanted to make the situation licensable it would need to introduce its own “additional licensing” criteria.

What can we learn?
What’s shown is that there is already plentiful legislation out there to control standards in the HMO sector, but local authorities need to put in the ground work. It’s a prize worth fighting for though, because improvements in fire safety within HMOs are likely to pay dividends when it comes to reductions in numbers of deaths and injuries.

I wonder what our international colleagues’ experiences are of this sector?

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4 Comments on "Houses in Multiple Occupation: Fire Risk & Regulation in England"

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Circlefire
Guest

Claire 
your article refers to Statistics:

‘Statistics show that residents are six times more likely to die in a house fire if they live in an HMO. And if the HMO is three or more storeys high, the probability increases to 16 times more likely. It’s clear why legislation has been targeted at this disproportionately high-risk sector.’

Could you explain were these figures come from and expand on them further? 
Statistics have more value, if you can look at the detail behind them
Thanks Gary

Claire Rizos
Guest

The statistics originate from a report by ENTEC Ltd for the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, Licensing of Houses in Multiple Occupation, April 1999 and is referred to within a Parliamentary briefing paper: Houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) – Parliament It appears that mandatory licensing within the Act is restricted to the higher risk groups on the basis of these statistics. The two main findings I have quoted are widely repeated on local authority websites as the justification for HMO licensing.

Simon Ince
Guest
There are some advanced plans to identify those HMO providers who take fire safety seriously and who can demonstrate that they meet current fire safety standards. This will allow those who are looking for accommodation to select on a fire safety basis. The issue of HMO fire deaths is on the fire services agenda and hopefully this new initiative will help signpost the good from the bad and ugly and will hopefully stimulate the sector to improve. One thing I would say is that agents have a big role to play in this. They should make sure the property they… Read more »
Rob Ratcliff
Guest

Interesting about the agents. I’m sceptical as to how many agents would take an interest in the scheme, given their main priority of profit, but it may be that shaming those who don’t take it up is the best way — in the same way that tax evaders are ‘shamed’ by protests.
A clear way of indicating letting agents who take an interest in fire safe properties would be helpful. I’m thinking now of the Gas Safe logo — if you could get that kind of widespread exposure for a ‘Fire Safe Agent’ logo it would make a huge difference.