HMOs – some myths and misconceptions

There has been a lot of misinformation recently about the decision by councillors at the North East Fife Area Committee to recommend no increase in the number of HMOs in St Andrews. This is not a ban on HMOs – the Committee doesn’t have this power – but a reasoned argument why their continued proliferation should be checked.

This is not only in the interests of ensuring St Andrews remains a balanced and sustainable community, but also in the interests of students themselves, who are often ill-served by private accommodation, which can be poor in quality and managed by unscrupulous landlords.

By contrast, the University of St Andrews is a responsible landlord whose accommodation is of a decent standard. If it is too expensive for some students, or too little of the independent, shared, self-catering accommodation is available which students seek in the HMO market, then these are issues of availability and affordability which the University is not only well-placed to address, but which I think it has a responsibility and duty to do so. Expanding student numbers without ensuring approriate and affordable accommodation is available is not the way a responsible institution which cares about the welfare of its students and which values its community relations should be acting.

I’m republishing here a piece by Councillor Brian Thomson, who proposed the motion to maintain the status quo on HMO numbers at the Area Committee, wrote for The Saint. It expresses decisively why limiting the number of HMOs isn’t just the best policy for St Andrews and for its non-student population, but for students too.

Fife Councillor Brian Thomson defends new HMO motion

Fife Councillor Brian Thomson explains his position on the current dispute over HMO licensing.

The recent decision taken by Fife Council’s North East Fife Area Committee to recommend the introduction of an HMO overprovision policy for St Andrews, has resulted in an angry reaction from many students in the press and social media. Given that some of the reporting of the matter – particularly on social media – has either ignored, or failed to understand the reasons why such a policy is being proposed, such a reaction is not surprising, and I therefore welcome the opportunity to provide an explanation for the position that I’ve taken on the matter.

Before doing so, I stress that I fully recognise that the University is hugely important to the town, and the wider Fife and Tayside economy. St Andrews would not be the place it is without the University, and the students attending the University contribute hugely to the town, and make it such a vibrant, diverse and enjoyable town in which to live and work. Furthermore, some of the claims that I don’t care about or respect students are complete nonsense. Anyone who is aware of the work that I’ve done since being first elected as a councillor in 2012 will know that.

Whilst the University’s importance to the town is undisputed, a consequence of the University’s growth, over a number of years, has been intensified demand for HMO properties. There is now an extremely high provision of HMO properties in St Andrews, making up 9% of the total number of domestic dwellings, and it rises to 17% in the Central Conservation Area. In a number of streets, the percentage of HMO properties is over 50%. St Andrews has the highest percentage of HMO properties in Scotland, by a huge margin.

Looking beyond the headline figures, it’s essential to look at the remarkable change in the demographics of St Andrews over the last 30 years or so. In 1985, there were c. 3,500 students, and c. 9,500 permanent residents. In 2017, there were c. 9,000 students, and only c. 7,350 permanent residents. Over a period of 32 years, the resident population has declined by over 2,000 people – a period in which the town’s largest primary school, Langlands Primary School, had to close – and there are now more students than permanent residents.

Whilst HMO properties are an important element of the overall supply of student accommodation in the town, the Scottish Government has recognised a range of potential problems associated with high concentrations of HMO properties, including:

  • increased competition for private houses, consequential rises in house prices, and reduced availability for non-HMO residents; and
  • potential physical deterioration caused by lack of investment by absentee landlords (The Scottish Government, 2012, Circular 2 Houses in Multipole Occupation: Guidance on Planning Control and Licensing).

There is a significant shortage of affordable housing in St Andrews, with around 370 households currently registered for social housing having St Andrews as their first choice of location, and research has confirmed that 165 former local authority homes in St Andrews are now HMO properties.

With a capacity for significant rental income, HMO properties have clearly contributed to house prices in St Andrews being high – the average house price is around £360,000 – making many homes unaffordable to buy or rent, even for families with a median household income. Even people on salaries of £40,000-plus – which includes some University staff – can’t afford to buy or rent in the town, and have to seek accommodation in the surrounding towns and villages.

There is no shortage of student accommodation in St Andrews, and the University is to be commended on embarking on a build programme, to provide around 900 additional bed spaces. However, I fully recognise that high rents and poor quality accommodation are issues that many students are faced with. That needs to be addressed through the enforcement of HMO legislation, the reporting of any landlords who don’t comply with the legal obligation for properties to meet the required minimum physical standard – namely the Repairing Standard – and the setting of affordable rents for University accommodation.

I’m also aware that many students wish to have the freedom to choose to live in private rented accommodation, however, the town is simply too small to have the same level of choice that’s available in a larger town or city.

The HMO issue has been the subject of a lot of debate over recent years, and has been covered in a number of studies. The most recent, by Dr Ross Brown, Reader in Entrepreneurship and Small Business Finance, at the University of St Andrews’ School of Management, is heavily critical of Fife Council’s current HMO policy, concluding that “The laissez‐faire “marketised” strategy of indiscriminately approving virtually all private‐sector HMO in the town is a blatant case of “bad public policy”.”

Legislation and Scottish Government guidance provides the context for setting overprovision policies where there are high concentrations of HMO properties, and such a policy has been introduced by Stirling Council – with far lower thresholds than are proposed in St Andrews – and Glasgow City Council is also considering such a policy.

The overprovision policy that’s been proposed – it will now be subject to the approval of the Council’s Communities and Housing Services Committee and, if approved, a public consultation – will not reduce the number of existing HMO properties; rather, it would mean that there would be no more than the current percentage of HMO properties in the town, and purpose-built student residences could still be built (which would be needed if the University continues to grow).

I’m firmly of the view that any further increase in the number of HMO properties in St Andrews would further exacerbate the shortage of affordable housing, by reducing the ability of many families to purchase or rent open market family housing, and significantly threaten the viability of St Andrews continuing to be a sustainable, mixed community. It’s in the interest of all residents – students and permanent residents – to avoid that.

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