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NEWS ANALYSIS

Student housing: time for a reckoning?

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Fears over quality, design and over-expansion have dogged the student accommodation sector for years. Ella Jessel asks architects and students whether it is time for a new approach

In the past 10 years we have seen a glut of garish towers springing up in towns and cities across the UK. They are products of the student housing boom, which has seen developers scramble to meet a seemingly insatiable demand.

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Last year was no different. According to recent figures from Savills, investment in the purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) sector totalled £5.4 billion, reflecting a 69 per cent increase on the £3.2 billion invested the year before.

However, according to property industry tracker Glenigan, planning approvals show that after breakneck growth, the sector is beginning to flatline. In terms of planning consents, the numbers have dipped each year since 2017, with an almost 30 per cent decrease in approvals in the past 12 months.

Data like this, combined with reports of over-built university towns and tower blocks being ‘flipped’ to residential after being left unfilled, is stoking fears that the student bubble is about to burst. 

While fears of collapse might be overstated, there are clearly ‘saturation’ cities and towns struggling with oversupply. The picture across the UK is mixed, however, with many areas still unable to meet demand. Property experts remain optimistic about the student housing market’s future, but has the focus on its runaway success obscured some of the more negative consequences of the sector’s rapid growth?

Knock-on effects of the building boom include the so-called ‘town vs gown’ rows, where cities are pushing back against ‘studentification’ of local areas; and serious concerns over quality, both in terms of design and safety.  

The growth in the numbers of affluent international students coming to the UK has led to a new luxury student accommodation market, but affordability at the lower end of the market remains a huge problem.

Work is under way to tackle some of these problems. Design review panels are seeking to drive up design quality, and councils are toughening up planning policies to impose greater control over development. Meanwhile, architects are designing new models that challenge the homogeneity of large, purpose-built blocks.

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LaunchPad, a container-style student accomodation scheme in Bristol designed by Alec French Architects

Ebb and flow

In 2018, newly built Park Lane Student Living in Cardiff was converted into an ‘aparthotel’ after only managing to fill 65 per cent of its rooms. 

At the time, critics reacted angrily to the change of use, with one planning committee member arguing developers were using a ‘back door’ route to avoid affordable housing contributions. Because student housing is classed as ‘sui generis’ in planning terms, it does not have to provide Section 106 contributions.

The Welsh capital is one of the cities where student accommodation has peaked. A report by property consultants Cushman & Wakefield in December also identified ‘difficult’ spots in Belfast and Plymouth, and what it called ‘absorption markets’ in Newcastle, Sheffield and Liverpool, where a 50 per cent increase in bed provision since 2015 has ‘not been accompanied by commensurate student number growth’. 

Student accomodation

The 675-bedroom Zenith scheme in central Cardiff, built by student accommodation developer Fusion, was another scheme in Wales that faced criticism for applying to change its use to residential. Michael Lampard, group design director at the block’s architect, Corstorphine + Wright, explained that the building is now almost completely let, and the change of use at Zenith was only a temporary measure to fill voids in the first year.

Lampard said the practice had been approached to convert other student flats to housing in Cardiff but, while there was oversupply in some areas in the UK, other areas remained very strong. ‘We’re doing a scheme for Lincoln University and that’s 1,500 beds; they’ve got huge demand. But there are multiple bubbles in multiple areas.’

But some cities, including Bristol and Edinburgh, are struggling to meet demand for student housing. Manchester, which has more than 90,000 students at its five universities, recently revealed it was considering abandoning its moratorium on PBSA. Since 2017, the council used policies to restrict the amount of student beds to a pipeline of 4,324 beds, but it now plans to relax this strategy to meet demand. 

Town v Gown

In Bristol, the number of students at the city’s two main universities – the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England (UWE) – has risen from 45,600 students in 2001 to 52,400. As the universities take on more students than there are beds, many freshers have found themselves left in the lurch, with some even housed over the border in Wales, a 45-minute commute.

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Ruth Day, a Maths and Philosophy student at Bristol University, says the city is already struggling with a housing crisis, and is unable to cope with extra demand. She says: ‘This further impacts the local community, who are seeing their spaces gentrified and venues closed down or under threat due to the universities frantically building more housing to cater for the students they are taking in.’

The 20-year-old student, who is co-chair of Bristol Labour Students, says it is ‘disgraceful’ that universities are putting their profits above the living conditions of their students and the local community. She says: ‘Universities need to halt their rapid expansion plans, and instead focus on getting their housing stock up to scratch before they take in any more students.’ 

The education building boom has long been accused of damaging communities in Bristol. The blame is mostly pinned on the swathes of houses converted into student digs, or houses of multiple occupation (HMOs). The city council is now clamping down. Its new local plan has marked out zones where student flats can be built and implemented caps in those areas to ‘help create mixed and balanced communities’.

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Corstorphine + Wright’s Zenith Tower in Cardiff

One experimental scheme seeking to tackle both affordability and integration is LaunchPad in Fishponds, designed by local firm Alec French Architects for a three-way collaboration between a housing association, a charity and Bristol University Student Union. The concept was born out of the city’s inaugural housing festival and houses a mix of key workers, young people coming out of care and students, in 31 ‘container-style’ units. The initial plan was to convert shipping containers but it was decided these would be too restrictive.

The modular project, which opened in October, was built on council land in six weeks and was a ‘deliberate attempt’ to integrate the university more, explains Nigel Dyke, director at Alec French Architects. He says: ‘It’s also about cost. The university recognises the cost of the private student schemes are astronomical.’

The university is offering free access to its facilities for all the residents, an offer that seeks to overcome impacts of ‘studentification’. 

Dyke says the council’s new student housing policy is ‘better’ for the city and will limit schemes with ‘great monocultures of 400 rooms’. He also points out that the university is seeking to take control by building campus housing again through joint venture projects. 

A spokesperson for the University of Bristol said it took pride in the value its students brought to the city but it recognised the challenge of integrating students with the wider population. 

She says: ‘We will continue to work closely with the council and UWE Bristol to help ensure the construction of more balanced communities where possible, exploring new and innovative solutions.’

Poor quality

While some universities are seeking to take back some control over housing, the majority have been content to leave it to the private developers, with half of all student beds in the UK now owned by the private sector. 

This has led to fears over a lack of accountability over safety and repairs, an issue which came to the fore after a major fire at student halls in Bolton in November, which was clad in high-pressure laminate (HPL). According to latest figures, 11 student blocks are still clad in dangerous Grenfell-style ACM panels.  

In the wake of the Bolton blaze, the National Union of Students’ welfare officer, Eva Crossan Jory, wrote a piece in The Guardian calling for a wide-ranging review of PBSA, arguing that universities had largely ‘abdicated responsibility’ for ensuring an adequate supply of safe and affordable homes.

According to Crossan Jory, students are living in ‘appalling circumstances, in some of the worst housing stock in the country’. She adds that students living in halls from the lowest-income backgrounds can expect to pay, on average, 73 per cent of their income on rent alone.

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It’s not just safety that is the issue. Over the years, PBSA blocks have developed a reputation for being poorly designed. Like the residential housing market, there is quality at the top end with universities such as Cambridge commissioning the odd architectural gem like 6a’s ‘timber-built Brutalist’ Cowan Court and Níall McLaughlin Architects’ housing at Jesus College. The University of Roehampton’s student halls, designed by Henley Halebrown, was even nominated for the 2018 RIBA Stirling Prize. 

In the for-profit sector, meanwhile, there is also the new strain of hyper-luxury student flats, where rents reach an eye-watering £700 a week. Aimed at international students, schemes like Chapter in London’s King’s Cross, refurbished by architects Tigg + Coll, look more like co-working spaces or members’ clubs, with their large atriums, gyms and cinemas. 

But the mainstream PBSA sector has traditionally been more likely to be found scooping prizes in Building Design magazine’s now-defunct Carbuncle Cup, a booby prize for the UK’s worst-designed buildings. UCL’s £18 million halls by Stephen George & Partners won in 2013 for its ‘prison-like’ exterior. 

In Cardiff, the aesthetic of the student housing boom has been criticised by Elaine Davey from the Cardiff Civic Society, who told local press the buildings’ designs were ‘spoiling the city’. Even AHMM is not immune. The practice’s recent scheme for Bristol University in Temple Meads proved controversial, with Historic England describing the design as ‘monolithic’, though the local architecture centre disagreed.

Jen Heal, a design adviser at the Design Commission for Wales, says some of the challenges design teams face when designing student blocks include ‘the repetitive nature of student flats stacked on top of one another’ as well constrained inner-city sites and the need to achieve a certain number of units to be financially viable.

Heal says that, while tall buildings are often proposed for student schemes, these require high-quality materials, fenestration and consideration of how the building meets the ground. ‘However, the budget per square metre for many schemes often doesn’t allow for the desired quality or results in compromise,’ she adds.

Another issue Heal raises is how the bespoke nature of student accommodation and lack of external space restricts future alternative uses and diminishes their ‘contribution to long-term city-making’. Antidotes to some of the larger blocks could be emerging in the form of mixed-tenure projects. Similar in concept to LaunchPad, 3DReid’s Edinburgh office recently unveiled plans for an intergenerational scheme of student units (pictured top), assisted living homes and a dementia care centre in Craigmillar, in the south-east of the city.

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Fitzwilliam Street student accommodation in Sheffield, designed by Corstorphine + Wright 

3DReid director Chris Dobson echoes Heal’s point that the specialist design of student housing ‘villages’ means they have little in-built flexibility should demand suddenly drop. He says: ‘This could lead to some large, centrally located developments becoming blighted as reduced demand will drop rents, with only the best facilities remaining viable.’

Local planning authorities are taking action to prevent these problems. Examples include Bristol’s robust local plan and Leeds bringing in minimum space standards for student flats. In Liverpool, Lampard says council planners are fed up with Section 73 applications being submitted to change schemes to other uses after permission is granted. 

He says: ‘We’re doing a scheme in Liverpool and the first question was: “Are you actually going to deliver this?” They said: “We’re sick to death of developers seeking to flip the sites and sell them onto the highest bidder”.’

Meanwhile, Sheffield Council made it a requirement for architects to show how the 800 flats in Corstorphine + Wright’s scheme on Fitzwilliam Street could be turned into apartments. Lampard says: ‘In a lot of [student] schemes we have to prove we can turn them into flats. Architects should always be doing that, thinking what [the buildings] could become in the future.’

This combination of tougher local planning authorities and a new wave of mould-breaking projects signals that the sector is moving towards what Dobson describes as a ‘more holistic view’ of housing students. With the market finally showing signs of slowing, a reckoning on student housing is surely overdue. 

Comment: Adam Clark of Halliday Clark Architects

Is the traditional student housing bubble is about to burst? Not necessarily but the market is shifting in a different direction. Over the last five years the private sector has targeted a cost model that outputs a high level of studio accommodation moving away from cluster flats. This has brought with it a net reduction in the amount of good quality undergraduate accommodation available that is affordable. There needs to be an emphasis moving forward on affordability, ensuring that student outgoings for rent are within 50 per cent of their available financial limits. Research has shown that rent rise rates have exceeded RPI over recent years and is becoming more detached from the index with no mechanism currently for private landlords to peg their rents to specific levels. Unless there is an increase within the affordable section of the student accommodation market the potential of undergraduate students being only able to afford poor quality housing stock will remain.

There is still a stigma about student schemes

In terms of the quality of what has been built over the last decade, it is a mixed bag. In cities where rental levels are high and specification levels can follow suit, there are some good examples of quality schemes being developed. The concern is over the schemes which are set at affordable rents where site costs, planning constraints and developer profit margins squeeze the level of detail, materials and space standards to the bare minimum. Not enough schemes focus on the student experience and wellbeing rather than as a commodity to satisfy a development appraisal.

On an urban/city planning front, there is no reason why a student accommodation scheme should not be treated as if it were any other private residential apartment development. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma in certain areas that a student scheme brings with it certain issues. In reality students pay a national average of £147 to £150 a week with many of the studio schemes being in excess of £195 to £200 a week and as such this is not cheap accommodation. G

ood schemes can revitalise local economies and benefit townscape, but only if providers open up to better integration of areas of public realm within schemes creating better connectivity to activities and services.

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