National HMO Lobby


National HMO

What is a HMO?
Local HMO Plans
Ten Point Plan


Leeds HMO Lobby
Nottingham Action Group

National Developments
Sustainable Communities
Use Classes Order
HMO Licensing
Taxation of HMOs
Students & Community

National HMO Lobby



What is a HMO?
Briefing Paper

What is a ‘HMO’? When the National HMO Lobby began lobbying in 2000, we said, "There is a short answer, and a long answer. The short answer is that ‘HMO’ (sometimes ‘HIMO’) stands for ‘house in multiple occupation’. The long answer is that there is no short answer, it all depends on your perspective, on where you stand (in some respects, this is quite literally the case, as different parts of the UK give different answers)."

After ten years of lobbying, however, a consensus has been achieved. The common-sense answer is that a HMO is a house shared by a number of unrelated people (like a shared student house). But all three components are debatable – what constitutes a house? what qualifies as a single household, in contrast to multiple? what counts as occupation? (For instance, in the notorious Barnes versus Sheffield case of 1995 the court ruled that a house shared by five students was deemed not to be a HMO as they were living as a single household.) However, throughout the UK, there is now basic agreement, and the debatable components have been clarified. Broadly, a HMO is 'a dwelling shared by three or more unrelated people.'

In housing terms, the concept of HMO was introduced by the Housing Act 1985, where Section 345 identifies HMO as a house occupied by persons who do not form a single household. But the Act did not define this term. The Housing Act 1996 (Part II) enabled local authorities to register HMOs – but it still failed to define what they were. The new government of 1997 was elected on a manifesto commitment to license HMOs, and in 1999 a Consultation Paper was published on Licensing HMOs in England & Wales. Finally, the Housing Act 2004 provided for licensing, and introduced a lengthy definition – effectively, any house (or flat) which is the main occupation of three or more people who are not a single household (i.e. family) sharing amenities. (There are certain qualifications and exceptions: see Sections 77 and 254-259 and Schedule 14 of the Act.) (Only larger HMOs are subject to mandatory licensing. Local authorities currently have to apply to the government for additional licensing of other HMOs in designated areas; but the government is consulting on giving councils a general consent to do so.) The Act applies in England & Wales, from 6 April 2006. [The National HMO Lobby has produced a Notification Form for residents to notify their local authority of HMOs liable to licensing.]

In the mean time, HMO licensing was introduced in Scotland by the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 (Licensing of Houses in Multiple Occupation) Order 2000 (Scottish Statutory Instrument 2000 No. 177). Here, HMO is defined as “a house (or flat) occupied by more than two persons, who are not all members either of the same family or of one or other of two families.” All HMOs are subject to licensing. (Part 5 of the Housing (Scotland) Act 2006 consolidates the definition and licensing in primary legislation; implementation is anticipated in 2007.) In Northern Ireland, HMOs were defined in the Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 (SI 2003 412) as “a house occupied by more than two persons, who are not all members of the same family.” (The following year, the Statutory Registration Scheme for Houses in Multiple Occupation in Northern Ireland 2004 came into effect, wherein all HMOs in five designated HMO Action Areas must be registered, as well as all HMOs with more than ten occupants.) In 2012, a Fundamental Review of the Regulation of Houses in Multiple Occupation was begun.

There is therefore now a clear (though not identical) definition of HMO in housing legislation in all parts of the UK. (All make it clear that the definition includes student houses.) And all parts of the UK have a licensing or registration scheme, whose purpose is to protect the interests of occupants of HMOs.

In planning terms, until recently, the situation was much less clear. Planning legislation in the UK did not explicitly recognise HMOs. The way land and property is used is classified by Use Class Orders (one Order for each part of the UK). Change of use from one class to another usually requires planning permission. England & Wales were covered by the Town & Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987 (SI 1987 764). Residential uses were grouped in Class C, comprising C1 (Hotels), C2 (Residential Institutions) and C3, Dwelling Houses – meaning six or less residents, unless living together as a family. So planning permission was needed only for houses with more than six residents, who were not living as a family – by default, this was the planning definition of HMO (what counts as living together as a family remained debatable) [see footnote 1].

Scotland is covered by the Town & Country Planning (Use Classes) (Scotland) Order 1997 (SI 1997 3061 [S.195]), and the situation is similar, except that the threshold is five residents. Class 9 covers Houses occupied by a family or not more than five residents living together [and also small B&Bs]; again therefore, by default, a HMO is a house with more than five residents not living together. (Flats are excepted: local authorities therefore have the discretion to decide what constitutes development; most concur with the Order, but there are exceptions.)

The exception in planning terms was Northern Ireland. A new Use Class Order came into effect in 2004 (The Planning [Use Classes] Order [Northern Ireland] 2004, Statutory Rule 2004 458). This Order adopted the definition of HMO from housing legislation, the Housing Order of 2003: ‘house in multiple occupation’ means a house occupied by more than two persons who are not all members of the same family. Furthermore, HMOs were specifically excluded from Class C, Residential Uses (meaning that any change of use to HMO requires planning permission).

However, on 27 January 2010, John Healey MP, Minister for Planning, announced that the Use Class Order in England would be amended, to define HMOs and subject them to planning permission. Statutory Instrument 2010 No. 653 The Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) (Amendment) (England) Order 2010 was made on 8 March: first of all, Class C3 adopted the definition in the Housing Act 2004 of 'single household' (a couple and/or immediate relatives); secondly, a new Class C4 HMOs was introduced; and finally, this Class adopted the definition in the Housing Act of 'HMO' (three or more unrelated people sharing a dwelling). The new Order came into force on 6 April 2010. Any change of use to HMO required planning permission. However, on 1 October, the new government made change of use to HMO permitted development, with Statutory Instrument 2010 No. 2134 The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (Amendment) (no 2) (England) Order 2010. (This permitted development right may be withdrawn by means of an Article 4 Direction.)

Wales followed suit in 2016: on 25 February, Welsh Statutory Instrument 2016 No. 28 (W. 10), The Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) (Amendment) (Wales) Order 2016 came into force, excluding small HMOs fron Use Class C3, creating a new Use Class C4 for small HMOs, and adopting the definitions of both from the Housing Act 2004. Thus, change of use from C3 to C4 requires planning permission in Wales. On the same date, Welsh Statutory Instrument 2016 No. 29 (W. 11), The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (Amendment) (Wales) Order 2016, also came into force: this made conversion of HMO (C4) to dwelling (C3) permitted development - but it did not make change of use from C3 to C4 into permitted development in Wales (unlike England).

In most of the UK therefore there is now an identical definition of HMO in both housing and planning legislation. Scotland awaits alignment.

Regardless of the legislation, in terms of actual use, a HMO is a unique class of property (as is now largely recognised). The use of HMOs is distinctive in four different ways.
· Occupancy: the occupation of HMOs is intensive, higher than an ordinary dwelling house, and equal to a high-season hotel. (This entails high levels of noise, traffic and waste.)
· Occupants: typically, the occupants of a HMO are from one narrow age range (young adults), unlike the wider mix in most other residential uses (two or even three generations). (This has lifestyle implications, with higher than usual levels of noise, traffic and waste.)
· Occupiers: by the very fact of multiple occupation, HMOs lack the internal structure of a single household (or the management of a residential institution). (This makes harder the management of noise, traffic and waste.)
· Occupation: typically, tenancies in HMOs (like the private rented sector in general) are short-term. (This necessarily entails a lower level of engagement with the neighbourhood.)
A HMO therefore is a very different dwelling from any other form of residential accommodation. If change-of-use from a house to a hotel or a residential institution needs planning permission (as is required by all the Use Class Orders in the UK), then so too should change-of-use to HMO – in order to protect the interests of neighbours of HMOs.

In market terms, HMOs are the quintessence of the private rented sector (PRS) of housing. Tenancies are short-term, and this is typical of private renting as a whole. In Britain, the private rented sector is largely used for temporary accommodation – in 2003, over half of all moves were to, in or from the PRS; 45% of all new households were in the PRS; and the average length of stay was eighteen months. (Social renting and owner-occupation is much more permanent.) So, the PRS in general, and HMOs in particular, give rise to transience. Furthermore, all markets tend towards concentrations of supply and demand, and the housing market is no exception. Concentrations of claimant HMOs were noted in the DETR’s Consultation Paper on HMOs in 1999. Concentrations of student HMOs in university towns have led the ODPM to set up a research project into the problems which arise [the report on Studentification was published in January 2006; the Lobby's own proposal is the Ten Point Plan]. (Similar problems have developed in USA and Canada.) Concentrations of transient populations are detrimental to the sustainability of communities. In the interests of neighbourhoods as a whole, therefore, controls on proportions of HMOs are necessary (Glasgow has a policy of no more than 5% HMOs in any one street) – but such policies in turn rely on planning control of individual HMOs. [See also footnote 2.]

All these issues raise questions about HMOs in policy terms. The Consultation Paper Licensing in the Private Rented Sector: Consultation on the Implementation of HMO Licensing (ODPM, 2004) asserts “HMOs ... provide affordable housing options for some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups in society, including benefit claimants or those on low incomes, students and asylum seekers ... We therefore recognise the vital importance of this sector in providing housing for these groups and in particular to meet the growing demand for student accommodation. We want to see this sector continue to play its valuable role ...” (p18). The Paper notes three main markets for the PRS in general, and for HMOs in particular, “those who would otherwise be homeless ... students ... and young professionals” (p11). However, it is debatable whether HMOs are the best response to these demands. Should vulnerable people, who would otherwise be homeless, be dependant on the private sector (rather than social housing)? HMOs are almost entirely conversions of former family homes. In an era of housing shortage, is this the best way to accommodate students (rather than in purpose-built accommodation)? Again, is the young professional market best served by conversions, or by new housing development? Are HMOs the best policy option at all?

The question then is not only 'What is a HMO?' but also 'Why HMOs?'

Footnote 1: In 2002, DTLR undertook a consultation on the Use Classes Order in England & Wales, and an amended Order was made on 21 January 2005 (Statutory Instrument 2005 No. 84, The Town and Country Planning [Use Classes] [Amendment] [England] Order 2005). Despite much lobbying, the Order made no change to Class C. ODPM has published guidance to the amended Order in Circular 03/2005 Changes of Use of Buildings & Land (paragraphs 74-77 refer to HMOs).

Footnote 2: The social impacts of HMOs have been recognised by a number of government publications, including -
- Housing Research Summary 228 Dealing with 'Problem' Private Rented Housing DCLG 2006
- House of Commons, Communities & Local Government Committee Coastal Towns (HC 351) The Stationery Office, London, 2007
- CLG, Evaluating the impact of HMO and Selective Licencing: the baseline before licencing in April 2006. August, 2007
- CLG, Evidence Gathering - Housing in Multiple Occupation and possible planning responses, September 2008

- CLG, Introducing a definition of houses in multiple occupation into the Use Classes Order: Impact assessment, March 2010


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