The introduction next month of a new planning policy for Selly Oak has seen an acceleration in building activity as landlords, under a mistaken assumption, try to get their house extensions finished.
This policy, called an Article 4 direction, places restrictions on the numbers of family houses which can be converted into houses of multiple occupation – usually filled with students.
It will not control the size of extensions beyond the existing planning controls, just the use of the property.
There have also been concerns raised it will relocate the problem outside the control zone and that other areas should be considered for Article 4 controls.
Of course the integration of the annual student intake and settled residential population has been a cause of concern in Selly Oak for many years.
But this has increased with the relaxation of rules around the size of household extensions. The doubling of extensions allowed was famously introduced by Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles under the claim that it is every Englishman’s right to extend their home if they wish.
But what has in fact happened is that “pile ‘em high and pack ‘em in” landlords have taken full advantage.
With students paying up to £95 per week each for a room close to the University of Birmingham they worked out that going from five or six in a house to eight or ten can increase the return on a property by £2,000 per month, easily covering the cost of extensions. The worst cases have created what look like battery farms for students, while upsetting neighbours.
I’ve seen community meeting rooms smaller than the, admittedly illegal, 30ft extension to a terraced house in Tiverton Road.
Water run off is damaging neighbour James O’Callaghan’s house, there has been constant nuisance from the development and he has had to fight tooth and nail to get the extension brought down to size.
And enforcement notice means that owner Ikhlaq Hussain, who has not responded to my attempts to contact him, has been given until next spring to severely reduce the extension. I have been inundated with accounts from residents of Gristhorpe Road where a developer called Britannia is currently extending properties with what look like those portable offices on building sites, stacked two storeys high on the back of some nice Victorian semis.
I understand the city council is investigating these as they do not yet have planning permission and there is some prospect that they will be found to contravene what would be permitted.
But even though the council is cracking down – enforcement is often halted by a retrospective planning application – which can hold action up for months.
This and further delays with the planning processes such as appeals and fresh applications mean it can take years before enforcement delivers and, in the meantime, the landlord has made a killing.
It seems to be that some of these landlords are as greedy and have as scant regard for the rules as the investment bankers who gambled with clients’ money in the great crash.
At planning committee last week, when considering a reduced extension to the Tiverton Road house, Coun Peter Douglas Osborn said perhaps it is about time to send in the JCBs.
He said many landlords were serial offenders and knew they were pushing the department to the very limit, and often beyond.
Residents are also convinced rooms listed on plans as saunas and gymnasiums are quickly converted into a further student bedsit as soon as the planning process is completed and the attention of the department shifted elsewhere.
What is also striking is that there is this haste to expand houses despite the streets of Selly Oak being littered with ‘To Let’ signs – in any other area this would be seen as an indication of a slump in the rental market, but judging by the level of development of both HMOs and purpose-built student apartment blocks, the market is growing.
A couple of years ago the planning committee heard calls for a thorough investigation of the student housing market amid concerns over the number of student halls being built.
I have been told this is on the ‘things to do’ list, but not yet under way
Unless the scale of development is severely curtailed, given the degree of misery this is causing and the pace of development I would suggest this is brought forward.
It was indeed a surprise to hear Cabinet member for children’s services Brigid Jones use what some would describe as ‘industrial language’ at the cabinet meeting this week.
And refreshing that days of ‘The Filth and the Fury’ style headlines are long behind us. Her comment was a succinct summing up of the state of children’s services.
But I am still unsure as to whether the off-guard comment was more a sign of frustration at the line of criticism and or sheer scale of the problem facing the city council.