The story of property owner Mark James’s attempts to turn a house into an HMO gives a fascinating – but frustrating – insight into how and why some councils make their decisions.

Landlords are being warned that they can’t rely on informal legal advice from local councils when fighting court battles.

Worcester landlord Mark James saw his appeal thrown out by planning inspectors, after the city council rejected his plan to convert a three-bedroom detached house into a six-bed HMO.

The property, in Comer Road, had been on the market for nearly 12 months but hadn’t had a single offer, so Mr James decided to apply to convert it.

He told the appeal he had been advised by council planners that converting the home would not exceed its 10% limit on the number of HMOs within a given area, but the government inspector said the council was not bound by informal advice.

“You might assume that you’re getting correct advice from a statutory body but if they’re only giving you informal advice there’s no legal obligation,” says Gavin Dick, local authority policy officer for the National Landlords Association.

Mr James had also argued the council could ignore its policy in “exceptional circumstances” and approve plans if it could be shown the home had gathered little interest when put up for sale as a normal home.

Ironically, Platinum Property Agents confirmed that a significant factor in its failure to sell was the proliferation of student HMOs in the immediate vicinity.

Councils usually charge for formal legal advice. But even this might not be enough as the highly political nature of HMOs for many councils mean local councillors can be swayed by vocal opponents and neighbours of proposed plans, despite applications meeting legal conditions, says Dick.

In this case, several neighbours had objected to the plan when it was put forward last year.

“Councillors will often vote against them,” he says. “Councils create market distortion and it will be hard to sell a house where there are other HMOs because families don’t want to move into an area of HMOs, which is why landlords want to convert them.”

Mr James’s plea to be awarded full costs was also rejected because it could not be shown that the council had behaved unreasonably.

LandlordZONE has approached Mark James for comment but not received a response yet.

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