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Mr. John Baron (Billericay): The hon. Gentleman has, to put it mildly, misinterpreted my comments.

With regard to the composition of the private rented sector, the point that I made is that the vast majority of landlords are small landlords who own merely one or two properties. They are not quasi-corporate investors who own large swathes of property, or entire streets.

With regard to the licensing of HMOs in their present definition, my point is that councils and local authorities have plenty of opportunity to put right what is wrong with ''slum landlords''. The change of definition that is envisaged in the Bill as it stands, and in new clause 7, will encompass most, if not all, of the private rented sector. That will cause great inconvenience to landlords, and it will, perhaps, persuade them not to stay in the market, as has been the case in Scotland.

I am not against the licensing of HMOs in their present definition. On the contrary, I have a greater desire than most people to drive out slum landlords. However, the change in the definition of an HMO will suddenly bring into its ambit most of the private rented sector, and that would not be for the good of tenants.

Mr. Best: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and it causes me to reassert my observation that he seeks to maintain the status quo. I understand why he might want to do that, because he seems to have a close affinity with landlords.

I take on board the hon. Gentleman's point that there is a problem with regard to the accommodation of large numbers of students. I am pleased to say that Lord Falconer visited my constituency on Friday 15 February to examine the nature and effect of the degeneration that results from the kind of abusive use of traditional family housing stock that we are experiencing. He was surprised to see the detrimental effect that that had had on what was a highly desirable residential area, and how seriously damaging it is, because of the change of use. There is seasonal use of properties; it is like living in a seaside town. Local businesses benefit intermittently, depending on how many students are present at any given time. There is not a fixed number of people consistently living in the area. The student body is permanently changing at Leeds, as it is at other universities. At Leeds, one third of students roll over each year. Therefore, there is a constant change of tenancies inside buildings, which leads to degeneration of their interiors, and of the neighbourhood. That can also be extremely damaging to the health and safety of the tenants.

It is a measure of the desirability of these properties, and the profit margins that are available, that while the average price of properties in Leeds rose by 60 per cent. between 1995 and 2001—pretty much the average

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across the United Kingdom—in Headingley it went up by 90 per cent. That shows the healthy profit margin made from the grotesque misuse of housing stock for traditional family use. However, it is not that which brings me to my feet as much as the threat to the safety of those who live in those circumstances. Opposition Members may not believe me when I say that from my house I can see the bolts on the doors in the house opposite. I am happy to show them from my window. It would be bad enough if that were a unique example, but we know that it is not. The hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) agrees that there are some problems with the issue, and I have heard him say so before. I have to acknowledge that there are some first-class landlords in the area. They are brilliant. They have been in the family business for years or decades. They know how to take care of properties, and they do not allow that kind of practice.

4.45 pm

Mr. Bacon: Where there are separate dwellings, they will be classified as HMOs. It sounds to me as if the buildings that the hon. Gentleman describes would be classified as HMOs under the amendment. I shall give him two examples of the accommodation that I lived in when I was a student in London. The first was a house designed for traditional family dwelling. When one went through the front entrance, there were locked doors leading in different directions, to different dwellings. Some were small flats and some were bedsits. I should think that that would undoubtedly be categorised as an HMO under the amendment.

On another occasion I lived in a flat in which there was a communal living room, kitchen and bathroom but separate bedrooms, which did not have locks on the door. We were one household. Those types of dwellings and flats would not be classified as HMOs under the amendment or by the courts. My concern is that the second type would be classified as an HMO under new clause 7, and as a result, the total volume of the rental sector would decline. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a risk that the rental property sector could decline in volume? That would present a problem.

Mr. Best: I shall make a quick observation on that point. It may well be—no one could be certain until it became a reality—that there would be some decline. If that were so and it improved the living conditions of some of those in difficult circumstances whom I see daily, it might not be a bad thing. It might also have the beneficial effect of inducing those who plan to increase the numbers of students at universities without any preparation or taking any responsibility for their accommodation, to rethink their policies.

Before anyone suggests that I oppose the expansion of higher education, I state that that is not true. I support expanding higher education in a way that is manageable and tolerable to existing communities—but that needs planning. The fact that we have pursued policies that deny the appropriate planning for that kind of housing change is a measure of our collective failure. I consider new clause 7 a step in the right direction. I have suggested to Lord Falconer, for example, that we should freeze the number of students at Leeds university at the 2001 level until we have an

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appropriate mechanism that allows us to accommodate them in a safe and secure manner.

The hon. Member for Billericay spoke about returning to the previous position. He seems to believe that Barnes v. Sheffield was an unfortunate event, which might have been better dealt with in another way, but nevertheless represented the local position that we have learned to live with. Yes, it does. If I understand him correctly, he suggests that the lack of clarity in new clause 7 might lead us back to the courts. It might, yet clear intent has been expressed about definitions. The parliamentary process embraces clear intent, but the Barnes v. Sheffield scenario had much less clarity. The courts took that decision, which has hamstrung local authorities and good landlords, who are other victims of the process. I could tell the same horror stories about good landlords being victims of the system as about students being forced into such accommodation.

Attempts to change the status quo can be difficult when one has to legislate in a context where there are no precedents. It is difficult. I sympathise with the Opposition as well as the Minister. I understand the difficulties of changing the system when such complexities have evolved about the meaning and effects of property ownership up and down the chain. New clause 7 offers the hope of radical change—

Mr. Baron: The hon. Gentleman makes it sound as if the status quo is bad and we must advance from it, but I believe that the status quo should be changed only if there is a good reason. We have freed up the private rented sector, and far more houses are on the market and far more properties are available to rent. Local authorities have powers to intervene if necessary. One is not against the licensing of HMOs in their present definition and, broadly speaking, the system has worked.

May I take the hon. Gentleman back to his point about locks and bolts on doors? In that context and under the present definition of an HMO, to which it is proposed that we revert, that is an HMO.

Mr. Best: Would the hon. Gentleman repeat that?

Mr. Baron: The hon. Gentleman referred to bedroom doors being bolted and people living separate lives. Under the present definition of an HMO—before the Bill and associated amendments came into being—such a dwelling would be regarded as an HMO. Accordingly, the local authority would have the right to enter and serve either section 352 or overcrowding notices to put the situation right if it were deemed necessary. The hon. Gentleman's point is not therefore valid in the context of the amendment, which is not helpful in clarifying the ambiguity of prescribed relationships for more than two families. At least some clarity emerges from court decisions, and people know where they stand. We will be inviting the courts to intervene again to interpret the definitions and throw the market—certainly in the short term—into a state of flux as to their meaning.

To return to my central point, one should move on from the status quo only if—

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The Chairman: Order. This intervention is becoming too long.

Mr. Best: I see little point in rehearsing the arguments again. The hon. Gentleman holds one view and I hold another. One benefit that might accrue from market development is that properties previously occupied by family units of two, three or four could be occupied by five, six or eight students. I understand that argument. Any intrusion into the freedom to operate in that way will restrict the market.

There is another element of the market that must be borne in mind. I am surprised that landlords and others who support the free market do not talk about the devastating effect that such misuse of property has had on the first-time buyers market. The properties that I referred to are priced way out of the range of a first-time buyer. The asking price of my house, which I bought for £5,000 nearly 30 years ago in 1973, when I had a young family, is now £230,000. Which young family could get a mortgage on a house that cost nearly a quarter of million pounds? The first-time buyers market has been devastated.

There are other serious downside consequences for easily provided housing units for students. There has been an effect on the environment; large numbers of professional people who used to travel gently to work on public transport have been driven out of inner-city areas. We now have the second most polluted road in Leeds, according to the official roadside measuring device, with huge consequential damage to the environment. That is part of the price of the system, and I ask hon. Members to take it into consideration when making their case for a return to the status quo.

The state of security of the properties also says something about the status quo to which the hon. Member for Billericay wants to return. The local criminal fraternity see September and October, when most students are new to their properties, as heaven with its gates left open for them. The technique is simple: the burglar knocks on the door of a single housing unit, where everyone lives together, and says, ''I've come to see Darren.'' It is not complicated; the person who answers the door says, ''Do we have a Darren here? He may be on the third floor.'' The local villain goes upstairs with his plastic bag, knocking on every door he passes, and if there is no reply in he goes, taking the laptop computer and all the other bits and pieces.

We have the highest burglary rate anywhere in the United Kingdom, and the best season for burglaries is well understood. There are armed robberies on a scale that is difficult to imagine, because the targets are soft. That is the downside of the traditional solution recommended by the hon. Member for Billericay, and it is not the way forward for anyone who is concerned about housing for young people at university. Like Conservative Members, they too want security and decent standards of housing.

 
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Prepared 26 February 2002