Uplands Labour councillors are concerned many residents have been receiving a misleading political leaflet over Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs).
The Uplands Party has targeted households accusing the City and County of Swansea of trying to “split the city into two parts”, in an act of “discrimination”, leaving Uplands under a “blight” of HMOs.
Uplands Party Cllr May’s leaflet claims: “If you don’t object, the government inspector will nod this unfair policy through unchallenged.”
He also suggests the council is: “trying to pass a policy to increase the number of HMOs in our area”.
But Cllr Hopkins, cabinet member for delivery, described Cllr May’s claims as manipulative and misleading.
“Inspectors spent a long time examining this policy and considering the evidence put forward by our officers, and by Cllr May. They found our policy to be sound, and they dismissed his idea of a 10% limit city wide,” revealed Cllr Hopkins.
“It’s really shocking that people have been told we’re trying to increase the number of HMOs. We’re trying to do the exact opposite. Not only that, but the emotional language in this letter is really something else.”
“We can’t risk a weak policy that keeps getting overruled. The past year has been devastating for areas like St Helens Avenue and St Alban’s Road, where concentrations are around 50%, and climbing. It’s unbelievable that Peter May prevented the policy being adopted a year ago – to think of all the HMOs we could have avoided. Talk about an own goal.”
“May’s attempts to delay and disrupt it are unforgivable and I hope the public see through him.”
Council leader Rob Stewart insisted Cllr May knows exactly what he is doing.
“Let’s be very clear about why Peter May is making all this noise,” said Cllr Stewart.
“He hopes to distract residents from the inconvenient truth that Uplands saw a shocking increase in HMOs from 2004 to 2012.
“In that failing coalition of Lib Dems and Independents, he was cabinet member for housing. He did nothing to prevent HMO over-concentration. He doesn’t want us doing anything about it either. He’s worried that once Labour adopts a tough policy on HMO numbers, he’ll be out of business.”
Cllr David Hopkins said: “One of the first things we did in 2012, when Labour won control of Swansea council, was to ask Welsh Government for help with our problem with too many HMOs.
“They had to change planning rules so that councils could set their own limits.”
Research says that 10% is a healthy limit for HMOs which keeps neighbourhoods balanced. But planning law and policy says you cannot introduce a low limit into a neighbourhood that is already far beyond that.
“Planning is about shaping how things move forward. You can’t set a limit on development that has already happened,” said Cllr Hopkins.
“In other parts of the UK we have seen councils fail when they try to do that. HMO applications are often allowed on appeal, when a planning inspector says that a council’s policy does not reflect the high-HMO character of the area.”
In all 35 HMOs have been approved outright, and three HMOs allowed on appeal, since last July when Cllr May led a protest against a draft Supplementary Planning Guidance. That aimed to refuse any application for a new HMO if, within a 50 metre radius, the new application would take the proportion of HMOs over 25%.
With no policy in place, the Council’s planning committee has had no option but to approve, and has been overruled by appeals when it did not.
“The committee did vote to refuse a few HMOs, in extremely highly concentrated parts of Uplands,” says planning committee chair, Cllr Paul Lloyd.
“The hope was that the Inspector would agree that they would cause unacceptable harm to the neighbourhood. Sadly they didn’t see it that way, saying yet again that we need to set a clear policy.”
Added Cllr Lloyd: “It’s heartbreaking. People get angry when we approve things, but it’s only because we know planning law. Until we get a clear policy, we can’t say no.”
Labour councillors in Uplands are frustrated. Cllr Nick Davies said: “Uplands Party councillors cannot ‘demand’ an unrealistic policy any more than they can ‘demand’ a pint for £1 in the Uplands Tavern.
“There are laws, national policies and processes which, whether we like it or not, we have to work with. Opposition politics is easy – you can take no interest in the big, difficult issues like education, social care, and combatting the effects of austerity … you can promise people the moon on a stick, and simply blame the council when they don’t deliver it.”
Cllr Mary Sherwood added: “It’s unfortunate but not surprising, really, to see our policies misrepresented and people’s emotions manipulated. It’s very clever, to block workable solutions while winning popularity by chasing fantasies, but it’s really not very nice. It’s better to be straight with people.”
“People in Uplands have had it with HMOs” added Cllr Davies. “Not knowing your neighbours from one year to the next, problems with parking, noisy parties, broken communities. I’ve been working on this for six years and I won’t stop until we get a solution.
“The first step is to get a policy in place so we can stop the endless increase. Then we can look at improving problems with litter, parking and noise.
“It would be good if opposition parties worked with us rather than playing politics, especially as planning is meant to be non-political, but given that the Uplands Party appears to be principally a vehicle for blaming HMO density in Uplands on Labour it may be naïve to expect anything else.”
Labour councillors have invited anyone who remains confused and upset by the Uplands party’s letter to get in touch.
“We’re happy to have a chat with anyone who needs their mind put to rest,” added Cllr Hopkins.
It is hoped that a policy setting a 25% limit will finally enable the planning committee to refuse further HMO development in the Uplands area, which already has an average concentration of over 35%.
Cllr Hopkins conceded that more HMOs could possibly appear in the few small pockets still below 25%.
“Hopefully nobody will want to create HMOs in those spots,” he added. “If they do, their application will be considered, and we may have to let it through. But this may never happen.
Inspectors have already examined the policy, which, if agreed by Welsh Government, will form part of Swansea Council’s Local Development Plan. Having found it satisfactory, they are now consulting the public until December 14.