National HMO Lobby
BALANCED COMMUNITIES
A Discussion document 

 

1. Community The idea of ‘community’ has figured large in government policy, at least since the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister was founded in 2002 with the motto Creating Sustainable Communities. Even before, a key principle in the Housing Green Paper Quality & Choice (DETR, 2000) was ‘Promoting sustainable development that supports thriving, balanced communities.’ PPS1 Delivering Sustainable Development (ODPM, 2005) states ‘Development plans should promote development that creates socially inclusive communities, including suitable mixes of housing.’ Locally, the Inspector’s Report (2005) on Leeds UDP Review notes, with regard to student HMOs in Headingley, ‘the population overall is out of balance and action is needed to ensure a sustainable community.’ Other local authority plans refer to ‘balanced communities’, for instance, Belfast (Issues Paper on HMOs: ‘3 Balanced Communities’), Coleraine (Balanced Communities Review Group), Durham (Planning for Housing: ‘8 Provision of Balanced Communities’), Loughborough (Student Housing Provision: ‘In search of a balanced community’) and Nottingham (Building Balanced Communities). The idea of the ‘balanced community’ therefore is prominent in national and local policy, frequently combined with ‘sustainable community’. The relation between the two however is not made clear. The National HMO Lobby proposes that balance is a necessary pre-requisite for sustainability.

2. Balance In fact the meaning of ‘balance’ is also not made clear. The ODPM explains ‘sustainable communities’ as ‘places where people want to live and work, now and in the future. They meet the diverse needs of existing and future residents, are sensitive to their environment, and contribute to a high quality of life. They are safe and inclusive, well planned, built and run, and offer equality of opportunity and good services for all.’ ODPM identifies eight components – sustainable communities are active, inclusive and safe, well run, environmentally sensitive, well designed and built, well connected, thriving, well served and fair for everyone. But no mention is made of the need for stability – for which balance is essential. And further, no attempt is made to define what is meant by ‘a balanced community’. It is nowhere defined in national policies, and rarely in local policies. One of the few instances is the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan Issues Paper on HMOs, which defines a balanced community as ‘one that is not dominated by one particular household type, size or tenure.’ (This would imply a community made up, for instance, of equal shares of the three main housing tenures - owner-occupation, social renting and private renting. But this would be a very odd community, quite at odds with normal experience, where owner-occupation dominates.)

3. Definition The National HMO Lobby is concerned to define ‘balanced community’. The key problem identified by the members of the Lobby is demographic imbalance in their neighbourhoods, which leads to rising problems and declining community, in short, to unsustainability. (The imbalance arises from concentrations of HMOs, whose distinctive demographic destabilises the local community [the HMO demographic is young, high-density, transient, unstructured: see the Lobby’s ‘What is a HMO?’].) The members of the Lobby seek to restore balance to their communities, in order to restore their sustainability. Belfast’s effort shows that equal proportions in the mix are not the answer. As an alternative, the Lobby proposes reference to normal proportions, that is, the mix or balance which is experienced by most people. A balanced community therefore is a community which approximates national demographic norms. A number of points must be made. First of all, this definition is not prescriptive: it is not intended to specify that all communities should match these norms (rather, it provides guidance to those communities who feel that they have become imbalanced). Secondly, it is descriptive: that is, it is based on the norms as they are, here and now (they were different in the past and will change in the future, they are different in other countries) – the point being that they reflect contemporary experience. Thirdly, the reference is to approximations, not tight criteria. Finally, the definition is variable – different norms will be relevant in different circumstances.

4. Norm A whole range of norms might be invoked in different situations. The latest Census provides a variety of statistics, such as the five main age bands of the population – children (up to 15 years) comprise 20%, ‘young adults’ (16-29) comprise 17.5%, adults (30-44 and 45-59) comprise 41.5% together, and older people (60 plus) comprise 21%. The current Survey of English Housing gives the proportions of different forms of housing (which is the special interest of the Lobby), such as – Housing Tenure: 71% are owner-occupied, 18% social rented, and 12% private rented (Table 1); Household Type: 66% are families, 28% one-person, and 7% HMO (Table 5); and Accommodation Type: 82% are houses, and 17% flats (1% other) (Table 13). The Lobby’s concern is with the sustainability of communities – the most relevant balance therefore is between household types (since families in general have a stronger commitment to permanence than single people or multiple households [indeed, private rented housing which includes HMOs has an average tenancy of only eighteen months]). Allowing for a degree of deviation from the norm [see below] the Lobby’s particular criteria for a balanced community are (a) not less than 60% families(b) not more than 33% one-person households, and (c) not more than 10% HMOs. (It is important to note that household proportions and population proportions are not the same, as households vary in size. One-person households are single of course, while the average family household comprises about two-and-a-half persons, and the average HMO at least five persons. On this basis, the normal population balance is 72% in families, 12% single people and 15% in HMOs.)

5. Approximation What degree of deviation from the norm remains acceptable? A standard deviation could be adopted (10%, 20%, 25%, 33%, 50%). But a low figure is clearly inappropriate if the norm is low (for instance, a 10% deviation from a 7% norm allows for a range of 6-8% only) – while a high figure is equally inappropriate for a high norm (a 50% deviation from 66% allows for a range from 33-99%!). The answer evidently is a variable deviation – that is, a deviation which varies from low for a high norm, rising to a high deviation for a low norm. (Thus, the Lobby’s criteria in 4 above are based on a 10% deviation for family households [norm 66%], a 20% deviation for single persons [norm 28%] and a 50% deviation for HMOs [norm 7%].)

6. Application How large should the area covered be? There is a range of possibilities. (a) Street or block (which is the basis for Glasgow’s policy on HMOs – not more than 5% per street generally, or 10% in certain areas). (b)Neighbourhood, comprising several streets (the basis for Loughborough’s ‘Threshold Approach’ to student housing – using Small Output Areas from the Census, a neighbourhood is understood as the Home Output Area plus all other Small Output Areas sharing a boundary with that area). (c) Community, comprising several neighbourhoods (Leeds City Council defines Community Areas for the purpose of allocating Section 106 funds – they correspond to areas recognised as communities by local residents [for a variation, based on Output Areas, see R Unsworth & J Stillwell, Twenty-First Century Leeds, University of Leeds, 2004, pp18-20]). It is likely that different-sized areas are appropriate for different purposes.

7. Tipping Point The tipping-point is the threshold at which a deviation departs so far from the norm that a community tips from balance to un-balance. With regard to HMOs, the tipping-point can be expressed in terms both of population (20%) and of properties (10%).
(1) The HMO tipping-point occurs when HMO occupants exceed 20% of the population. Normally, HMO occupants account for about 15% of the population – the tipping-point represents a 33% deviation. It also significantly exceeds the whole of the ‘young adult’ band of the population (16-29 year-olds are 17.5%). (Any community begins to seem unbalanced when any of the five main age-bands exceeds one-in-five of the population.)
(2) The HMO tipping-point also occurs when HMOs exceed 10% of the properties. Normally, HMOs account for 7% of households – the tipping-point represents a 50% deviation. At the same time, given the comparatively large numbers in HMO households, if HMOs are 10% of households, then their occupants account for about 20% of the whole population (depending on the local balance of families and one-person households).

Note: HMOs are here defined as in housing legislation throughout the UK (see the Lobby’s ‘What is a HMO?’)

[National HMO Lobby, April 2006. See www.hmolobby.org.uk]