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Belfast council rejects lawyer’s accusation of a “blanket ban” on student houses

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HMOs have proved divisive around Belfast. Picture: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press

HMOs have proved divisive around Belfast. Picture: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press

HMOs have proved divisive around Belfast. Picture: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press

Belfast City Council has firmly rejected an accusation from a lawyer representing landlords that it has a “blanket ban” on student-type houses in South Belfast.

The allegation came at this week’s meeting of the council’s Licensing Committee, when elected representatives overwhelmingly voted not to give new HMO licences to three properties in the Holyland and Stranmillis.

Councillors turned down new applications for HMO status for two flats at 3 Ireton Street, for 20 Stranmillis Gardens, and for 19 Sandymount Street. In each case the reason for refusal was because HMO provision in those streets already exceeded the 30 per cent limit allowed by council policy.

All the properties had previously been HMOs but the landlords had failed to renew the licence, and as such had to apply for a new licence.

The lawyer representing the applicants, Pearse McDermott, argued that there “was a need for HMOs” in the Stranmillis area and told the council to “stop using a blanket ban.”

He said: “The purpose of the legislation was to give councillors the power to decide whether or not HMOs should be granted. If it was a situation where it was a mathematical exercise in saying there is overprovision because there are more than 30 percent, then you wouldn’t need councillors to do anything. It would be pointless, they would have no discretion.

“There is a discretion for councillors to consider each application in the context of the legislation. Councillors embarking on a blanket ban on every single HMO application that comes before them would be in fact unlawful.

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“The councillors have a duty and a responsibility to consider every single application on its own merits and the circumstances of each case. Look at the factual background of the applications, look at the legislation regarding due criteria.” 

HMOs, which landlords lease out to three or more tenants from different addresses, have become increasingly controversial, with some arguing they have negatively affected communities and led to anti-social behaviour, in places like the Holylands and Stranmillis in South Belfast where landlords rent houses to undergraduates.

HMO licence renewal cannot be refused on the basis of overprovision of such properties in an area, but a new licence can be refused on these grounds. Licences are issued for a five year period, and where it is considered necessary to do so, the committee can also impose special conditions.

At the committee, the council’s legal representative Nora Largey firmly rejected the solicitor’s accusation of a “blanket ban.” She said: “This council is obliged to have regard to the legislation, which officers do, when preparing case reports that come before this committee.”

She said: “I think it is important to put a marker down and say this committee does not operate a blanket ban, that you take into account all information, and that it is a matter for this committee to decide what weight to attach to those.”

Recent meetings of the Belfast council committee have seen refusals for HMO licences after landlords forgot to renew their licence, in areas with overprovision.

While the council policy is that HMO’s should not account for more than 30 percent of any area, in reality many streets well exceed this, with some in the Holylands reaching over 90 percent.

Alliance Councillor Micky Murray told the Licensing Committee: “There is not a want from local residents for more HMOs in this area, especially from the long term residents.”

Billy Hutchinson, PUP Councillor for the Court area in West Belfast, was the only elected representative to indicate support for the landlords.

He was the only councillor to vote against the proposal to reject the HMO at Stranmillis Gardens – the other 14 councillors in the committee voted to reject the HMO application.

Councillor Hutchinson said: “If we [want to] turn down every case that comes in here, then what is the point. I think we need to take a step back if the case stands out. It’s got to the stage if you’re not paying your taxes, you wouldn’t get hammered like this.

“We need to put this in perspective. I think we are going down the wrong road here and saying in every case, no, no, no.”

The committee this week did grant a new HMO licence for a property at Melrose Street, off Lisburn Road. It had previously been a HMO, but there had been failure to renew the licence, due to the death of the landlord. Council legal representative Ms Largey said the decision “just demonstrates we are flexible where we can be”. 


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