Placements in micro-flats in your Borough

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Dear Sir/Madam

Placements in micro-flats: Freedom of Information Act 2000, section 8

This request for information relates to houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) that have been converted and let using the so-called “lockdown” letting method.

The Council will no doubt be aware that in or around 2015 the Department of Communities and Local Government funded the London Lockdown Project (“the project”). The project involves 12 local authorities in London and the Association of London Environmental Health Managers (the coordinating group is chaired by the London Borough of Lambeth). The project resulted in a report to the DCLG in September 2016 (available online at: http://www.hanworth.org/wp-content/uploa...).

This followed widespread concern about a new letting phenomenon being operated by certain landlords in London whereby millions of pounds are being obtained in housing benefit by charging exorbitant rents for tiny rooms in houses which are passed off as self-contained flats. The housing benefit payable for a self-contained flat can be nearly double the rate for a room in a shared house. By exploiting this differential landlords can make £56,000 per annum via housing benefit in respect of a single house.

Typically the Lockdown method involves two storey houses being converted into six single-room dwellings with very basic, often portable, cooking facilities. It is then claimed that the units are ‘self-contained’. The rooms are not classed as HMOs for planning purposes as they come within the post-2010 permitted development rules whereby change of use from Class 3 to Class 4 does not require planning permission, unless an Article 4 Direction is in place. Sidestepping the planning regime has the practical effect of not having to comply with room size standards.

Neither are the rooms subject to mandatory licensing under Part 2 of the Housing Act 2004 as the properties used have less than three storeys. Some landlords also register as social landlords for the purpose of avoiding any additional (‘selective’) licensing scheme brought in by the local authority.

By employing the Lockdown method landlords seek to exploit loopholes in planning, housing enforcement and housing benefits legislation to house homeless and vulnerable individuals in substandard dwellings, specifically for the purpose of attracting the higher rate of housing benefit payable for self-contained dwellings.

This despite the fact that the floor space provided by the bed-sitting rooms is very much less than customarily provided, and wholly inadequate for ordinary living. The floor space of rooms is commonly between 10m2 and 12m2.

The landlords typically provide the following:
• One-room accommodation with a separate bathroom for each tenant.
• ‘Cooking facilities’ within the room that actually only consist of only a single pot plug-in Breville mini-hob and kettle.
• A shared kitchen for all persons occupying the HMO that is inadequate in size, often with a floor area of under 4m2.
• In addition to poor space standards and ergonomics, the project has identified various problems commonly encountered when dwellings are converted, including:
• Unreliable certification from private Building Control companies.
• Excessive demand on electrical circuits and sub-standard electrical installations, causing a fire risk.
• Inadequate fire safety provision.
• Hazards in kitchens, e.g. risk of burns and scalds from number of residents using the small kitchens.
• High demand on plumbing systems.
• Excessive waste, e.g. overflowing refuse bins
• Adverse impact on streets and neighbourhoods due to the high occupancy rate, and a tendency for a domino effect as landlords buy more than one property for conversion on the same street.
• Poor value for money given the significantly higher rate of housing benefit payable.
• The project confirmed that the ‘lockdown landlords’:
o “…market properties to Local Authority Homelessness Teams who are often desperate for accommodation and whose clients will usually qualify for Housing Benefit.”
• In the following request I have used the term ‘micro-flat’, which I define as:
• “A living area with a floor area of less than 16m2 or below a specified minimum employed by the local authority” (see question 1 below).

Request for information: I request the following information:

1. When securing accommodation or otherwise facilitating the acquiring of accommodation in the private sector for a person in housing need (for example when referring a person enquiring about housing to a homelessness charity), does the local authority have any policy, guidance for authority staff or established practice concerning the minimum amount of floor space area that is required for accommodation to be considered suitable?

2. If so, please forward a copy of that policy or guidance, or if merely established practice provide a comprehensive summary.

3. When securing or facilitating the provision of accommodation for persons who have applied for assistance under Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996, does the local authority have a policy, guidance for authority staff, or established practice concerning the minimum amount of floor space area that is required for accommodation to be considered suitable?

4. If so, please forward a copy of that policy or guidance, or if merely established practice provide a comprehensive summary.

5. How many persons who sought advice or assistance from the authority in relation to obtaining housing accommodation (including those advised under section 179 of the Housing Act 1996) resulted in the person obtaining micro-flat accommodation (whether or not the authority themselves directly secured that accommodation) in the following years:
a. 1 April 2015 to 31 March 2016;
b. 2016 to 2017; and
c. 1 April 2017 to 31 December 2017.

6. How many persons who applied to the authority for accommodation or assistance where the authority had reason to believe they may be homeless or threatened with homelessness (i.e. homeless applicants within the meaning of section 183(1) of the Housing Act 1996) were provided with advice or assistance that resulted in the person obtaining micro-flat accommodation or were otherwise secured micro-flat accommodation as a result of their homeless application (whether or not the authority themselves directly secured that accommodation) in the following years:
a. 1 April 2015 to 31 March 2016;
b. 2016 to 2017; and
c. 2017 to 31 December 2017.

7. How many homeless applicants were secured or were provided with advice or assistance which resulted in them obtaining privately rented accommodation in the following years:
a. 1 April 2015 to 31 March 2016;
b. 2016 to 2017; and
c. 2017 to 31 December 2017.

8. How many homeless applicants who were single person households aged 35 years or over were secured or were provided with advice or assistance which resulted in them obtaining privately rented accommodation in the following years:
a. 1 April 2015 to 31 March 2016;
b. 2016 to 2017; and
c. 2017 to 31 December 2017.

9. In respect of each of the periods referred to at (5), (6), (7) and (8), the number of cases in which the accommodation unit was inspected by the local authority before the tenancy was obtained for the purpose of evaluating the suitability of the accommodation.

10. In respect of each of the periods referred to at (5), (6), (7) and (8), the number of cases in which the homelessness/housing options service obtained a copy of the Energy Performance certificate for the property before the person obtained the tenancy.

Please be advised that I may forward a copy of this request to Elected Members in light of the adverse impact of the Lockdown model on the living conditions and welfare of homeless and vulnerable persons, the impact on the borough’s residents, and the provision of residential accommodation generally in the borough.

Many thanks for your help.

Yours faithfully

Jon Knowles

Freedom of Information Act, Barnet Borough Council

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Freedom of Information Act, Barnet Borough Council

Thank you for your information request.

Housing services (including homelessness, allocations, housing repairs and so forth) are provided by Barnet Homes who are an Arm’s Length Management Organisation (ALMO) who manage the council’s housing stock and associated services on the council’s behalf. They are a public authority under Freedom of Information Act 2000 and so you may make a FOI request to them. Their contact details are:

Email: [email address]

Post: The Data Controller
Barnet Homes
Barnet House
1255 High Road
London N20 0EJ.

Nick Taylor
Information Management Officer
Information Management Team (IMT), Building 2 NLBP

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To whom It May Concern,

On 19/01/2018 I wrote to your office requesting information under FoI.

You have failed to respond within the statutory timeframe.

I am now requesting an internal review and an explanation for this delay.

If necessary I shall appeal to the ICO.

Yours sincerely,

Jon Knowles

Freedom of Information Act, Barnet Borough Council

This is an automated message.

Thank you for contacting Barnet Council's FOI team. If you have submitted an FOI request someone will be in touch with you shortly with your case number so that you know who in the council is dealing with your enquiry.

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Freedom of Information Act, Barnet Borough Council

Dear Mr. Knowles,

I cannot see your original request in this mail so I do not know if it was answered correctly or not. However I can see that you were referred to Barnet Homes in the information you have included below, which if they hold the information would be the correct action to take as they are public authority in their own right and we would not hold their information. Please forward the original email that you sent so that I can assess better if there is any more assistance that we can provide.

Kind regards

Chris Lloyd
Information Management Officer
Information Management Team (IMT), Building 2 North London Business Park, N11 1GN

Barnet Online: www.barnet.gov.uk

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