The Housing Act 2004 (s232)* requires councils to keep a register of all properties that have been granted a licence to be let privately. This includes Houses of Multiple Occupation (HMOs) under the mandatory licensing scheme, HMOs under any council-run additional licensing scheme and any property covered by a selective licensing scheme (so normally family/single lets).
Why do the public need access to licence registers?
The licensing regime in England is primarily to ensure minimum standards for occupants – its aim is safety and the protection of occupants from poor and dangerous conditions. Standards are established for properties to meet around:
This is for good reason: sub-standard, even dangerous housing is more common in the private rented sector. HMOs are more likely to be dangerous for occupants   and issues such as overcrowding are significantly more common in HMOs.
Transparency in public regulatory regimes is very important:
Flat Justice believes the public should be able to easily access public information without any avoidable obstacles.
Can the public access HMO registers?
The law requires the council to keep a register of HMO licences, and make this available at council offices for public inspection. The council must also supply a copy of the register to individuals who request it. Some councils will supply the HMO register free of charge via ‘Freedom Of Information (FOI)’ requests.
Some 80% of London councils give access to the register live on council websites, normally by having a spreadsheet or pdf file available for download and inspection.
(tenant tip: web search ‘<name of your council> + HMO’ to get to the page and then look for ‘view HMO register’ or similar)
Some councils do not enable public access via their websites to licensing registers
These councils do not have clear access to an HMO register on their websites:
Some of these councils also charge unreasonable fees to get a copy of the register by email such as Sutton which charges members of the public £25 to send an email! A high price for tenants of limited means, often the occupants of HMOs.
Especially given the COVID-19 pandemic but even prior to this – the requirement that councils want citizens to physically attend the council HQ to view the register is antiquated and impractical… and potentially discriminatory for those for whose mobility or travel is limited.
A member of the public may not be resident in the HMO themselves, for example, but still want to report a suspected unlicensed HMO to the council: they should not be charged for this helpful civic activity.
We believe in some instances lack of access to licensing registers has resulted in Rent Repayment Order applications being effectively suppressed. An example may be Sutton which does not share its HMO licence register on its website, has an excessive charge to receive it by email: no Sutton property RROs have been applied for since 2019 according to RRO FTT judgements uploaded to gov.uk.
Registers are often woefully out of date or inaccurate
Making the licensing register public is one thing: keeping it up to date is quite another!
Many licensing registers we looked at were so outdated as to be next to useless for tenants that need to check the status of their property. One of our early pro bono RRO case appeals centred on the inaccuracies in the licensing register at a London borough, that shall be nameless (Greenwich), which had led to false information being given about the date of a licence application and was a direct cause of the RRO application failing at the First-tier Tribunal Property Chamber (Residential Property) (FtT). The ensuing mess was a huge waste of time & resources: a travesty of justice for the hapless Applicant.
In our list below, for example, Kensington & Chelsea’s (RBKC) online HMO register was last updated on 1st September 2020: nearly one & half years ago. On the same register we see that there were only 157 HMOs registered in the whole of RBKC in the last 7 years.
In a survey in 2019 by London Property Licensing, RBKC estimated there were ‘over 200’ HMOs that were licensable. Whatever that means…
Neighbouring Brent, in the same survey, estimated there were 4831 licensable HMOs under the same Mandatory Licensing scheme in its borough. Clearly some boroughs have very little idea about (or interest in?) the number of unlicensed HMOs in their areas. The score of 157 licences on the RBKC register, compared to say Brent’s current 9,211, including 2600 Mandatory HMO licences, shows again that some boroughs are taking licensing and enforcement far more seriously than others.
Flat Justice believes councils should:
There appears to be no good reason why full online access to registers is not provided by some councils.
If you live in one of the boroughs where access to the register is not easily available we would invite you to write to the council to ask that they put their registers online.
Many thanks to Chris, a client who volunteers with us, who wrote most of this article and collected the data!
*The Housing Act 2004 s.232 requires council to keep a register of all licenses, temporary exemption notices and management orders of Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMO),
(4) The authority must ensure that the contents of the register are available at the authority’s head office for inspection by members of the public at all reasonable times.
(5) If requested by a person to do so and subject to payment of such reasonable fee (if any) as the authority may determine, a local housing authority must supply the person with a copy (certified to be true) of the register or of an extract from it.
 E.g. Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, Licensing of Houses in Multiple Occupation, April 1999: You are six times more likely to die in a fire if you live in any house in multiple
occupation (HMO), compared with a single family house. The risk increases to sixteen times more at risk of fatal injury if you live in an HMO which is 3 or more storeys high.