The report presented set out the fees and charges in relation to services within the remit of the Housing Overview and Scrutiny Committee with charges taking effect from 1 April 2023, unless otherwise stated. In preparation the proposed fees and charges, directorates had worked within the charging framework and commercial principles set out in section three of this report. Also taken into account were the effect that the increase in interest rates and the cost-of-living crisis had on the local economy, our services and the continued implications from Covid. Further Director delegated authority would be sought via cabinet to allow fees and charges to be varied within financial year in response to changes in government legislation, all other changes in year would be brought back to Cabinet via the service director for transparency. Members were referred to the full list of proposed charges in Appendix 1, and the proposed removal of current fees and charges detailed in Appendix 2 to this report.
Councillor Redsell stated the general public would not necessarily understand the spreadsheets and that an explanation on how it worked would be a good idea. Dulal Ahmed thanked Councillor Redsell for the feedback and the format and structure had been looked at on how best to present the information. It was agreed that for next year’s report an explanation of the tables should be included. Councillor Mayes agreed this would be a good ideal going forward.
Councillor Hebb agreed the spreadsheets presented a lack of clarity on who the targeted audience would be and questioned whether the fees and charges set out on the two appendices were targeted towards landlords and not private housing users to which he was informed they were.
Councillor Hebb stated the report did not overly contextualise the volume of use and that it was not clear what the actual total income per fee line and what the total number of transactions per fee line were, as these had not been set out in any context. Dulal Ahmed stated he did not have the broken transaction lines to hand but in terms of HMO licence fees, £80,000 had been generated in 20/21, £31,000 in 21/22 and in 22/23 to date was £23,000. The average licence fee was just over £1300. What had been seen over the last three years was a decline in the number of licensed application forms. However, what we had seen was the number of landlords that were being detecting as unlicensed had increased therefore the CPN income had gone up as a result. Also, in terms of improvement notices, in 20/21 17 notices had been served, 21/22 36 notices and in 22/23 at the end of October only 10 had been served. In terms of housing enforcement, it had seen an increase in the number of complaints made to the team, therefore more education and more enforcement action had to be undertaken as a result of the number of landlords not carrying out works within specified times.
Councillor Hebb referred to paragraph 5.3 of the report and questioned what would not be reasonable to recover to which Dulal Ahmed stated this would be relation to the officer time that was unrelated to that activity, the council would not be able to generate extra income and charge unreasonable fees.
Councillor Worrall questioned whether there was a landlord group that would be consulted with on the increases as she had concerns that these costs would go straight to the people that were renting rooms in those HMOs. Dulal Ahmed stated a landlord forum event had taken place prior to the report being produced, the new charges were showcased during that event so there had been an element of discussion with the landlords that attended. In future, engagement will be made closely with the national resident landlord association which would cover a range of housing issues in relation to landlord engagement, fees and charges and HMO licencing. Councillor Worrell stated that probably then not a lot of landlords know the 11% increase would be coming their way. Dulal Ahmed stated a second event had been planned for December which would be aimed and designed at HMO landlords.
Councillor Worrall questioned how many unlicensed HMO there were to which she was informed approximately 630. Councillor Worrall stated at a previous meeting it had been agreed that officers were targeted to increase the number that were licensed and questioned what was being undertaken to sort this and was the council improving year on the year the amounts that were licensed. Dulal Ahmed stated that in terms of the last two years, there had been a decrease in the number of license application forms, part of that reason was there had been a decrease in the staffing who carried out the licensing function. There had been an increase in the number of unlicensed properties that had been detected and civil penalties had been served for failing to license voluntarily. That this was ongoing, but work was currently being undertaken to detect unlicensed HMOs through a programme that checked electoral records, council tax and housing waiting list application for those registered under shared accommodation. There was also a campaign of reported unlicensed HMOs.
Councillor Worrall questioned if the team were still short staffed to which she was informed the team were one officer short.
Councillor Worrall referred to recommendation 1.1 – including those no longer applicable – and questioned whether these were no longer applicable or had just been moved across. Dulal Ahmed stated the accredited landlord fee had been removed which was now one fee which was clearer to landlords and reduced any confusion.
Councillor Redsell stated members need to know where the HMOs were in their wards to which Dulal Ahmed stated there was a public register that contained the list of all HMOs and addresses and agreed to populate that information and send to all members. Members were informed that the unlicensed information could not be shared as these were currently under investigation by the team. Councillor Redsell stated having 630 unlicensed HMOs in Thurrock was worrying and staffing needed to be addressed within the team.
Councillor Redsell referred to the 3-year license and stated this was too long as a lot could happen within that time and questioned whether this figure had been set by the government or the council. Dulal Ahmed referred to the 630 unlicensed and stated that a number of those properties would be exempt from licensing because they fell under the support care environment. The plan was to work closely with supported housing to ensure those care homes were properly managed and had the proper property standards within the dwellings in place.
Councillor Redsell stated the 3-year license felt wrong to be left open for that length of time especially when you have young people living in them, she recommended a 1-year license should be provided. Dulal Ahmed noted Councillor Redsell’s comments and stated government recommended a 5-year license with Thurrock recommending a 3-year license. If a 1-year license was to be introduced, which was within Thurrock’s gift to do so, there would not be sufficient admin resource to manage that process.
Councillor Mayes agreed with the comments made and that discretion should be used if there were concerns. With the move to the 1-year license being looked into regardless of capacity for the safety of residents, this had to be a priority. Councillor Mayes recommended that a recommendation be added to have a 1-year option not necessarily used as default, but certainly have it there, not just a blanket 3-year because that was very concerning.
Councillor Hebb requested that a report on the HMO strategy be added to the work programme.
Councillor Hebb questioned how long it would take to process a single application to which he was informed the whole admin process would take approximately 10 hours. Councillor Hebb stated with the current trajectory it would take 102 weeks to get through the potential backlog. Dulal Ahmed stated there would be a program of inquiries, with follow ups as well as doing physical checks. There were a number of back-office checks that would need to be carried out to make sure that it was a licensable HMO, or it fitted under additional licensing schemes. Having officers undertake 630 visits was not a good use of staff time as there were other ways to eliminate a number of properties and that process which was already being undertaken.
Councillor Liddiard referred to the 630 unlicensed premises and questioned what that meant in terms of lost revenue. Dulal Ahmed stated that 630 x the cost of a licence fee would result in £800,000 of lost revenue. Councillor Liddiard questioned whether this was over three years to which he was informed the license fee had to be paid in advance with a two-part payment.
Councillor Worrall referred to the removed list and questioned why the sheltered housing visitor rooms had been removed. Ewelina Sorbjan stated this was HRA element that will go into the HRA rent setting report.
The chair thanked members for the comments.
1. That Housing Overview and Scrutiny Committee noted the revised fees, including those no longer applicable, and that Housing Overview and Scrutiny Committee commented on the proposals currently being considered within the remit of this committee.
2. That Housing Overview and Scrutiny Committee noted that Director delegated authority would be sought via Cabinet to allow fees and charges to be varied within a financial year in response to legal and regulatory requirements.
3. That Housing Overview and Scrutiny Committee noted in regard to HMO an additional recommendation to grant a 1-year licence option, not necessarily default, but to have in place.
4. A report on the HMO strategy be added to the work programme.