Joint pledge on tackling Houses of Multiple Occupation issues

A NEW data sharing system will help coordinate action with closures enforced only as last resort

Better intelligence gathering and shared information is the key to ensuring that all the many houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) in Wisbech are safe and properly managed.

That was the main conclusion to a meeting of all the main agencies responsible for monitoring such properties held this week.

The meeting was organised by Fenland District Council following concerns raised by NE Cambs MP Steven Barclay.

It brought together representatives from FDC, the police, the fire service and the Luminus housing group to discuss the issues with Alan Brace, Mr Barclay’s senior parliamentary assistant.

There are estimated to be about 600 HMOs in Wisbech but not all are known. The number has risen sharply over the past 12 years, largely as a result of the high demand for accommodation for migrant workers from Eastern Europe.

Mr Brace said Mr Barclay received many complaints about them. “The issue is not one of those HMOs that we know about, it’s the ones that we don’t know about,” he said. “That’s what we need to tackle.”

All the organisations committed themselves to working even more closely together.

Councillor Kit Owen, FDC’s portfolio holder responsible for housing, said: “Close collaboration is the key. That is the most efficient and effective way to prevent duplication of effort and waste of resources.

“This is a team game and our officers already work very closely with the police and fire service and with landlords, agents, tenants and neighbours. We already share a great deal of information but we recognise that we can do more and we now have the tools and technology to do that.”

A new data sharing system called ECINS, is already being used successfully to help tackle antisocial behaviour. It is now being extended to make it much quicker and easier to access pooled information about HMOs.

A new mediation service is also being established to help resolve any issues or misunderstandings between neighbours.

Cllr Owen said that calls for many HMOs to be closed were misguided. “Closure is only taken as a last resort when we haven’t been able to make a property safe through other kinds of action,” he said. “If we have to do it, we will – and over the past three years we have closed 13 HMOs. But if we can mitigate any existing problems to make a property safe, that is the far better option.

“You have to bear in mind the continuing pressure on the housing market and the impact that precipitate closure could have on homelessness and rough sleeping, as well as on the local economy. HMOs are vital in providing homes for many migrant workers who we rely on as part of our workforce.

“Closure and the resulting increase in empty properties can also lead to an increase in crime, as we saw with the spate of arson attacks on empty properties last year.”

The partnership already worked very well, Cllr Owen said. The challenge was to build on its success.

Last year 200 investigations were carried out at HMOs, resulting in action being taken in 55 cases where serious hazards were found such as gas and electrical faults and other fire risks or intensive overcrowding; in another 111 cases more minor issues were addressed. 

Enforcement action ranged from ordering landlords to fit smoke alarms to the closure of several high-risk premises where multiple hazards were found. Advice leaflets were also developed in various languages.

As a result, safety and health risks were much reduced, living conditions improved and better relations with neighbours established. The number of complaints received over the year fell sharply from the previous one – down seven per cent on noise, 24 per cent on antisocial behaviour and 41 per cent on domestic waste.

More than half the households surveyed said the project had made them more aware both of their rights and their responsibilities.