TOWN v GOWN: IS THE STUDENT BOOM WRECKING COMMUNITIES?
In towns across the country, many locals fear the relentless expansion of universities threatens the fabric of their neighbourhoods
For some, they represent the very best of British, hubs of learning and commerce attracting the brightest and the best from around the world who bring huge wealth to spend. They can even breathe hope into rundown towns and cities, with the promise of jobs and cash to rejuvenate areas deserted by traditional industries.
But for others, Britain’s burgeoning universities are anything but a blessing, as the thousands of students they attract transform the neighbourhoods they move into, raising property prices, disrupting locals’ lives with their exuberant lifestyles, transforming areas that rush to cater for the tastes of their new young clientele. The process has even spawned its own, ugly term – studentification.
The historic Scottish university town of St Andrews is one place that has felt a huge impact from the expansion of higher education. Since the 1990s, the number of students has doubled to 9,000, while the resident population has shrunk by 40% to around 7,000. Families keep leaving and local primary schools are struggling, with a new intake each year now of around 400 four-year-olds compared to 1,000 in the 1980s.
Last May, local councillor Linda Holt – who later agreed that she had used inappropriate language – said the displacement of permanent residents by students was “a kind of social cleansing”.
David Middleton, chair of the Confederation of St Andrews Residents Associations, said: “If it carries on like this we’re not going to have a town left.”
These issues are being played out across Britain. Locals, upset at large numbers of students in their midst, recognise the economic boost they bring and stress their main gripe is with the universities and local authorities. The main complaint concerns accommodation, and specifically houses of multiple occupation (HMOs), the shared digs that have taken over town centres and neighbourhoods close to Britain’s 167 higher education institutions.
Fife council wants to ban new HMOs in St Andrews. Students say it is their “right” to live in HMOs and are fighting the ban which, after a period of consultation, will be voted on next February. It could be quite a battle: nearly 2,000 students have signed an anti-ban petition and many have registered to vote in St Andrews. A spokesman for the university said an HMO cap “may make affordable accommodation for local people even more scarce”. With a rapid rise in full-time student numbers in the UK – up 660,000 in the last 20 years – there is high demand for student HMOs, which is great news for landlords – some good, some not – but causes problems for locals.
According to the National HMO Lobby, a campaign group representing 50 residents’ groups in 30 university towns, it plays out like this: a proliferation of HMOs, which are popular with young professionals, as well as students, skews property prices, which become based on rental income. House extensions and conversions proliferate, often illegally, to squeeze in more bodies. Local authorities cannot afford to employ enough planning inspectors to keep check. Two-bedroom semis become five- and six-bed HMOs. Rubbish piles up, doctors’ surgeries become oversubscribed and shops close when areas become ghost towns out of term time.
The noise and partying drives local residents to desperation, prompting more families to move out. Properties in a sea of “To Let” signs look tatty, areas become blighted and ugly. Yet at the same time the houses are unaffordable unless you are an investor. Resident communities are broken, with neighbourhoods lost to studentification.
Yet the market changes so fast that in some areas we are already in an era of “destudentification”, as an over-supply of accommodation from new purpose-built blocks means students move on, leaving swathes of empty houses. This, say academics, can lead to “social, cultural, economic and physical decline”.
Richard Tyler, chair of the National HMO Lobby, said: “I don’t think the government and many of the universities care very much. Universities want bums on seats, and many don’t really care where those bums go once they’ve vacated the seats.”
The situation in Durham and parts of Manchester is extreme. In the past 30 years, the number of students at Durham University has grown from 6,000 to 17,400, and it plans to add another 4,000 by 2027.
Mike Costello, of Durham’s Crossgate Community Partnership, a residents group, says the lifestyle of students affects commerce. “Property prices are skewed by the HMO market,” he said. “The associated antisocial behaviour, and the financial incentive [to sell] has driven out families and changed the city.”
Most homes in the city centre, Costello said, are not participating in the economy for half of the year. “We have lost our local GP. We believe we are unique in having a Waitrose close for financial reasons.” Marks & Spencer, Café Rouge and Pret A Manger have also shut. “All corner shops have gone and our Tesco Metro sells more vodka than milk during term time,” he added.
People living in the south Manchester suburb of Fallowfield believe they have the highest density of students in Europe living in HMOs and halls of residence. It is “party central” for students, some of whom commute to Salford University. Social media allows students to advertise parties far more widely than ever happened before the mid-1990s higher education boom.
Two women who live in the area spoke to the Observer but asked not to be named for fear of reprisals from landlords and bar owners. They said their streets were now 90% student, whereas in the 1980s they were 90% residential.
One said: “You have to see it to believe it. Sometimes we come home and it’s like a festival on our street – hundreds of students on our road at two and three o’clock in the morning. In May, there was a party that went on for three days.
“The speakers were incredibly powerful so walls were vibrating in homes on the next street. This is just one house. This story is echoed all around here.”
In Brighton, hundreds of former council houses have become HMOs on estates in Moulsecoomb and Bevendean. Families are worried about the future of local primary schools, most recently in Coldean. They are exasperated by antisocial behaviour and furious with rogue developers and landlords.
“Some developers have turned three-bedroom family homes into nine-bed HMOs,” said campaigner Jenny Burtenshaw, who helps to run the local social media group Family Homes not HMOs. “The roofs look awful, the gardens are disgusting, there’s rubbish everywhere, left in bags for seagulls and foxes to rip open because nobody in the HMO will take responsibility for it. We can’t let it carry on.”
There was no stopping the spread of HMOs in Fallowfield, Durham, Brighton or anywhere else until legislation was enacted in 2010, by which time many neighbourhoods had already been lost to studentification. Until then, anyone could change a family home into an HMO without planning permission but the licensing of larger HMOs became mandatory eight years ago; the latest change in housing law means that from next week, thousands more HMOs will also need licences.
Local authorities can seek government permission to limit the effects of studentification by imposing stricter conditions on the planning and usage of homes. They can spread the load across the city. Local authorities in Manchester, Wolverhampton, Leeds, Nottingham, Brighton and some London boroughs have imposed tight controls, while others, including Durham, Bath and Chester, have not. Residents in parts of Birmingham are angry that, despite a student population of 70,000, there is no city-wide student housing policy. Overseas students – around 450,000 in the UK – usually prefer to live in purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA), the new “gold rush” for investors. In Coventry alone, there are 22 blocks of managed student rooms being built and more are planned. The rooms often cost more to rent than a house share – for example, an ensuite room in Manchester costs about £6,500 to £7,800 a year – but more British students are being tempted, which is expected to ease the demand for HMOs. The total value of student rentals in 2017 was £4.7bn, according to invest.com.
All student HMOs are exempt from council tax but nobody knows how many there are. Student HMOs do not exist in any planning legislation. “The data is really unclear,” said Professor Darren Smith, an associate dean at Loughborough University, who invented the word “studentification” and has researched its effects for more than 20 years. The problems started, Smith said, during the education boom under New Labour. Students in Britain, more than anywhere else in the world, love to move away from home to study; they also love to live close to other students.
“So you end up with big concentrations in certain areas. It happened so fast that universities couldn’t provide enough on-campus accommodation. So landlords cashed in. The economic conditions at the time were for cheap mortgages, buy to let, dipping into the retirement pot…”
The predicted fall in student numbers over the next four years will be followed by a renewed surge, said Smith. Resident groups want their councils to be able to control the effects when it happens. “Planning law doesn’t reflect student housing,” said Tracey Hill, lead councillor for private rented housing in Brighton. “It should be a separate category.” Brighton’s Labour councillors are making that point in a submission to the Labour party.
The National HMO Lobby wants more: a national register of all landlords, and landlords to pay business rates so that local authorities can invest in protecting communities from high concentrations of HMOs.
When the Observer sent a questionnaire to the National HMO Lobby, whose volunteers have been campaigning since 2000, the replies totalled 88,604 words, enough to fill a 350-page book.
While the main points of contention varied, the most common were about the uncontrolled spread of HMOs; a loss of community cohesion; shortage of planning enforcement officers; lack of university policing of off-campus behaviour by students; lack of investment by universities in accommodation; encouragement of massive university growth by some local authorities; “ghost towns” in the summer; and – again and again – antisocial behaviour, especially involving noise and rubbish.
Many respondents had themselves been students and pointed out the many benefits to towns and cities of having universities. Even in St Andrews, the residents’ submission on the HMO ban says that both the university and its students were “a great plus for the town”.
Will Hutton, an Observer columnist and principal of Hertford College, University of Oxford, said evidence showed the upsides of having a university in any town far outweigh the downsides.
“It is no accident that every town with a university is more economically, socially and culturally vibrant than those that do not. Students are sources of vitality, energy and lode–bearers of the new – and fun to be around. They may put upward pressure on rents but they start new businesses aplenty and provide demand for existing businesses ranging from 24/7 convenience stores to clothes shops.” He added: “University academics and their research are sources of inspiration and intellectual energy. As a result, universities are major sources of direct and indirect employment – they are the anchor institutions of the 21st-century economy, and most city councils are figuring out ways to keep their students once they graduate. Do without them at your peril.”
Residents who replied to the National HMO Lobby were more angry about bad landlords and the universities’ attitudes than individuals’ behaviour. In April, a court in Birmingham ordered an “unscrupulous” landlord (the court’s words) to pay £182,000 in fines and costs for 31 breaches of HMO regulations, many of them relating to fire and safety issues, and failing to apply for licences. Campaigners also said that if students feel ripped off by landlords it was human nature for them to have little regard for the property they live in and, by extension, the wider area.
Replies came in from St Andrews; Aberdeen (“it is all but impossible for most sorts of retail to thrive” in student areas); Bath (very disappointed with lack of controls imposed by the local authority); Birmingham (HMOs should be shared by students and young professionals); Bournemouth (where student-resident relations, with the help of the students union, are far better than elsewhere); Brighton (the council wants to impose the strictest conditions in Britain on HMOs); Canterbury (lowest rate of owner occupation in the UK at 43%); Chester (furious about lack of residents’ representation on the issue); Coventry (where the university has grown so fast it has campuses in London and, 160 miles away, in Scarborough); Durham (where residents feel so hard done by they “often quote St Andrews as our future”); Leamington Spa (a huge rise in student numbers); Leeds (residents outnumbered two to one by students in Headingley); Manchester (barely believable conditions for families in Fallowfield); Nottingham (campaigning, with some success, since 2004); Southampton (massive purpose-built accommodation going up but “it’s too late to repair the damage done”) and Swansea (persistent complaints about fly-tipping and rubbish).
Schools in high-density student HMO areas have closed in St Andrews, Leeds, Durham, Nottingham and Loughborough. Two primary schools in Brighton, in the areas close to the city’s two universities, started the new school year with two-thirds of their Year One places unfilled.
Brighton & Hove city council is using all the additional powers it can to counter HMOs in the worst-affected parts of the city, with more proposals in the pipeline. For example, there will be a limit on HMOs by street, no sandwiching of family homes by HMOs, and a limit of 20% HMOs in wider areas. If the plan goes ahead “it would be the most rigorous policy country-wide”, said Councillor Hill. The council’s evidence from current HMO licensing “shows that almost 90% of properties required improvements to ensure they were fit and safe for occupation”.
The Residential Landlords Association, which represents about 60,000 landlords, believes imposing restrictions on HMOs is too late. Policy manager John Stewart said priority should be given to educating landlords, and teaching prospective students about living away from home. “Students don’t know how to budget, how to cook, how to clean, how to look after a property. They need to be taught about social responsibility,” he said.
In 2004 Smith, who is writing a book on studentification, was commissioned by the prime minister’s office to write a guide on the subject. “It spelled out then that it was a national phenomenon,” he said. “It has become more deeply embedded since then. It is an international phenomenon. Students are now seen as discernible consumers. They have capital to spend, albeit debt capital. It’s a different world to when your tuition fees and rent were subsidised by the government, when you lived in grotty digs.”
Smith believes universities, slow to react in the 1990s, have tried to appease residents by “putting together community strategies” since the 2000s. “There’s a lot of goodwill around,” he said. “It’s a process of urban change. I’m sure some residents’ groups want more action. But those residents are not going to get their neighbourhoods back that were there before studentification – that’s a thing of the past.”
What the residents say
Residents in Fallowfield, Manchester, spoke to the Observer about the student influx but wanted to remain anonymous.
One woman said: “We get shouting at all hours. We have to wipe sick off the car windscreen, we have people peeing against the house wall. There was the party where a floor collapsed through to the basement. These are not normal parties – they sometimes have bouncers, guest lists, drug deliveries, DJs. It’s frightening if you live next door to that.
“We started to film the parties because the universities wouldn’t believe us. After that, the council and the universities tried to help but what they are doing is not nearly enough. I was a student myself but this is beyond anything I ever could have imagined.
“The street noise can be more anxiety-inducing than anything. If you go to bed thinking, ‘Is it going to be a bad night tonight?’ you’re already on edge.”
Drugs are also a problem. “At the beginning of the academic year there are new business cards dropped all over the area with someone’s first name, a number and a little sample of cannabis on them so you can call the dealer. My kids have been offered drugs from the age of 14.
“Local politicians won’t champion our cause because of the student vote. We’re in the minority. Despite all this, we have a strong community spirit. Why should we move out? We choose to stay and seek a sustainable neighbourhood for the good of all.”
Asked about its efforts to combat antisocial behaviour, the University of Manchester said that alongside Manchester Metropolitan University it had created a body that works with the police, the council and student unions to monitor and respond to off-campus issues. There is a landlord accreditation scheme, weekly community audits and a neighbourhood planning forum. The universities jointly created the UK Town and Gown Association to strengthen relations between students and residents.
[Brian Oliver, The Observer, Sunday 23 September 2018]
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