(The Committee agreed to consider these two items simultaneously.)
The Chairperson reminded the Committee that it had initially considered the applications from Queens Quarter Housing (QQH, the applicant) at its meeting on 21st June, 2023, where it had agreed to defer their consideration in order to enable officers to explore the strategic context of the issues which had been raised in relation to the applications and the wider Hostel accommodation in Belfast.
The Houses in Multiple Occupation Manager reminded the Committee of the report which he had presented earlier in the meeting regarding hostel accommodation in the City and the relationship to HMO licensing.
The Committee was reminded that, prior to the meeting on 21st June, numerous items had been submitted by the legal representative of the applicant and officers had raised several concerns relating to those documents at the meeting.
Firstly, the Committee was advised that QQH Referral Policy and Procedure stated:
“QQH can accommodate up to four individuals who have an arson conviction. This agreement has been made following discussion with stakeholders and consultation with risk assessment consultant Willis Ltd. For risk management and insurance purposes, QQH ensure placements are available for these individuals in staffed accommodation”.
It was reported that the fire risk assessment, encompassing Flats 1, 2 and 3, 6 Sandhurst Road, submitted with the HMO licence application, dated 12th October, 2022, made no reference to individuals with arson convictions being housed in the accommodation.
The Houses in Multiple Occupation Manager explained that officers had written to the applicant on 26th June, 2023 stating that the fire risk assessment submitted as part of the application did not include any reference to the possibility of the accommodation housing persons with prior arson convictions and, as such, the Council was no longer satisfied as to the suitability of the fire risk assessments submitted and that new assessments, taking into account all material factors, would be required as an urgent priority. Furthermore, due to the vulnerability of the other users within the accommodation which the applicant’s legal team had highlighted as part of their presentation to the Committee, the Council required personal emergency evacuation plans (PEEPs) for each of the occupants in residence.
The Committee was advised that the Council, as the licensing authority, had not been consulted in relation to the accommodation potentially being occupied by persons with arson convictions and had also requested a copy of the consultation document or risk assessment produced by Willis Limited.
It was reported that, on 18th July, 2023, officers from the NIHMO Unit and the NI Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) had undertaken a joint inspection of the accommodation. The Committee was advised that verbal reassurances were provided by the applicant during the inspection that the accommodation was not occupied by persons with arson convictions and, although some deficiencies were noted and forwarded to the applicant for actioning, the NIFRS confirmed the outcome of the audit was “broadly compliant”.
The Houses in Multiple Occupation Manager pointed out that officers had received an updated fire risk assessment from the applicant earlier that day. He advised the Members that officers were content with it, on the basis that the minor works which were included within it were addressed, and that written confirmation be submitted from the applicant, that no persons with arson convictions would be housed within the property.
The Committee was advised that no Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEPs) had been submitted for the vulnerable residents within the properties. Furthermore, a copy of the fire risk assessment from Willis Ltd had not yet been provided.
QQH Referral Policy and Procedure stated that:
“QQH can accommodate individuals with a history of violent offending. Any referral made for potential services users who have a history of these offences will be assessed as per availability of appropriate accommodation for risk management of staff and other service users.”
The Committee was advised that the PSNI had disclosed that there had been an incident where they had been called by staff due to a service user being aggressive and an incident of assault by one tenant on another tenant.
At the Committee meeting on 21st June, 2023, Legal Counsel, on behalf of the applicant, had made reference to and indicated that the Members should take comfort from the fact that QQH was unable to provide accommodation for service users whose circumstances changed during their stay to “court bail” or “criminal charges”, that would change the risk to residents or the local community. The PSNI had confirmed that they did not conduct bail checks at the premises and, furthermore, if there were persons who were placed on bail after they had been housed in the premises, those persons were moved to suitable alternative accommodation.
QQH had also indicated that “pertinent background information” was sought through the Public Protection Unit and placements were approved by the PSNI, as per the Public Protection Arrangements Northern Ireland (PPANI) where applicable.
At the meeting on 21st June, Legal Counsel on behalf of the applicant had referred to a letter from the Director of Operations of the Probation Board for Northern Ireland, dated 17th May, expressing their support for “the renewal of the Licence at Queen’s Quarter Hostel IV Unit, to allow for their continued service delivery.” The Committee was advised that officers had since sought clarification from PBNI as to whether it was supporting the application for new HMO licences at 6 Sandhurst Road or if it was in support of the wider services provided by QQH.
The Members were advised that a response had been received from the Director of Operations of PBNI, on 18th September, 2023, clarifying that the letter was in support of the wider services provided by Queens Quarter Housing Limited, and not in support of the particular HMO licence applications per se.
At the 21st June meeting, the PSNI had drawn the Members’ attention to the incident log which provided detail of reported incidents linked to the properties. They had described the community impact of the accommodation being used as a HMO, together with the pressure on Policing to safeguard the area. It was reported that officers had received allegations of public nuisance associated with the premises which were deemed relevant to the licence application, from the owner of a licensed HMO situated near 6 Sandhurst Road. It was pointed out that those representations had been received outside of the statutory consultation period. The City Solicitor advised the Members that it was for the Committee to decide whether or not to exercise its discretion and consider those representations, and to consider what weight it would attach to such information. The Committee agreed that it would take the late representations into consideration.
The Houses in Multiple Occupation Manager outlined that, on 4th August, 2023, the applicant had written to Autonomie, a neighbour of the property and an objector to the two HMO licence applications, requesting a meeting to discuss their concerns. The Committee noted that the Chief Executive of Autonomie had responded to the applicant on the 29th August, 2023, stating that they would be open to meeting to discuss the matter further and requested a draft agenda and details of who was likely to attend the meeting from QQH. Autonomie had confirmed that no further correspondence had since been received from the applicant.
The Committee was advised that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive’s strategic action plan fortemporary accommodation 2022 – 2027, “Ending Homelessness Together - Homeless to Home”
· “demand for temporary accommodation will remain higher than pre-pandemic levels and will outstrip supply,
· single person households will remain the largest cohort presenting for temporary accommodation, and also with the greatest support needs,
· young people who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, will continue to need accommodation and support,
· Belfast and Derry/Londonderry will continue to have the highest gap between supply and demand,
· levels of support needs will continue to grow, particularly related to mental health and addictions,
· there will be increased demand from those losing private rented accommodation,
· it is anticipated that there will be increased demand from victims of domestic abuse.”
The Houses in Multiple Occupation Manager explained that, although the housing need in the relevant locality and the extent to which HMO accommodation was required to meet that need was something that the Council must have regard to, officers were not proposing the refusal of the two HMO licence applications on the grounds of overprovision.
He highlighted that the proposed grounds for refusal of both applications solely related to section 8(2)(e), as read with section 13, which stated that the Council may only grant a licence if it was satisfied that the accommodation was suitable for use as an HMO for the specified maximum number of persons or could be made so by including conditions in the licence, and, in coming to the decision, the Council must have regard to:
· the accommodation's location;
· the type and number of persons likely to occupy it;
· the safety and security of persons likely to occupy it; and
· the possibility of undue public nuisance.
The Chairperson welcomed Ms. L. Morrison, Chief Executive of Autonomie, a charity which provided support for complex needs persons and which operated out of the neighbouring property to the application site. The charity had objected to the applications for the two HMO licences and had spoken at the previous Committee meeting in June, 2023.
She advised the Committee that the difficulties still continued and that the young people who used the Autonomie building remained very unsettled. She reiterated that she was happy to enter into mediation with Queens Quarter Housing but that she would wish to know who would be attending such a meeting and the items for discussion in advance.
The Committee then welcomed Ms. L. Smyth, legal representative for the applicant to the meeting. She advised the Committee that the reason for deferral at the last meeting had been in order to receive further information on hostel accommodation throughout the City and that the report which had since been presented to it had, in fact, bolstered the applicants case to receive the two HMO licences. She advised the Committee that it was plain that that type of accommodation was certainly needed and would only prove to be more necessary in the coming years. She asserted that single person households would remain the largest cohort presenting for temporary accommodation and with the greatest support needs. She highlighted that, if the Committee was to refuse the licences, those people currently residing in the properties would be homeless until alternative accommodation could be found.
She confirmed to the Committee that no one with an arson conviction, nor an allegation of arson, would be housed in the application sites. She added that the applicant was content that it could be confirmed by condition as part of any HMO licence. She advised the Committee that it was her understanding that PEEPs could be issued as and when required, and that those could be conditioned, and apologised that no response had been submitted in respect of the Council’s request but explained that it had been received during a holiday period.
She highlighted to the Committee that Autonomie was not a residential property and that their work with vulnerable young people occurred during the day. The application sites were, in contrast, a place for people to stay and sleep at night.
She pointed out that the applications had been listed as new applications for an HMO licence and that was incorrect. She clarified that they had been operating as HMOs for a number of years and that it was just that QQH had recently taken them over.
In response to Ms. Smyth’s last point, the Manager clarified that the previous HMO at the site had been managed by an estate agent and had been a residence for students and young professionals. Before the date of transfer of the property, QQH had submitted an application so, pursuant to Section 28 of the Act, it was deemed a new licence application, however, for the purposes of overprovision, it would be treated as a transfer of a licence.
A number of Members acknowledged that there was certainly a need for temporary accommodation across the City and that organisations were providing a vital service to a wide range of vulnerable individuals. They stated that it was also important that the Committee considered the context and circumstances in which each application existed.
A Member stated that a better spread of temporary accommodation was needed across the City, given that 56% of it was currently located within 3 postcode areas.
Mr. C. Toland, QQH, stated that there was an inaccuracy within the report, where it stated that there had been an increase in the crime rate in the local area since QQH had taken ownership of the premises. He advised the Committee that PSNI statistics, as found on their own website, illustrated that the rate had, in fact, gone down.
Accordingly, it was
Moved by Alderman McCullough
Seconded by Councillor McCabe and
Resolved – that the Committee agrees to refuse the applications for Flats 1 and 2, 6 Sandhurst Road, on the basis that it is not satisfied that the living accommodation is suitable for use as an HMO pursuant to section 8(2)(e) and section 13 of the 2016 Act.