Debating the Council's Plans to Counter Studentification

“They need to grow up, frankly. There’s a lot of talk about rights – a student’s right to live wherever and in what way they choose – but with rights come responsibilities. If you claim you’re an adult then act like one.”

Maya Fletcher, of Nottingham Action Group, has strong views on the high concentration of students in Lenton. Over the past few years new legislation has been introduced concerning Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs), largely to tackle the effects of students on areas in many university cities.

Her words may seem harsh, but the facts are on Ms. Fletcher’s side. Students are undeniably locust-like; we have all but destroyed respectable neighbourhoods by driving out families, forcing the closure of local shops in favour of takeaways, bringing with us a wake of burglars in pursuit of our laptops and iPods. The flitting nature of our tenancies has led to residents finding themselves in an area with rising costs, priced out of the housing market, with their schools and churches closing through under-use. Alan Simpson, MP for Nottingham South, pointed to the school closures in Lenton and Radford as evidence of how badly the communities are being affected. “If a family with three children move out and are replaced by five students the impact is immediately obvious on the school – with less per capita payments they eventually can’t fund a proper curriculum.” Once schools start closing down the area becomes even less appealing to new families.

The student population of Lenton expanded when the number of Nottingham University students increased at a rate that outstripped the provision of accommodation. Now, we’re comfortably established here, and by most accounts, don’t intend to leave. Clearly we need to live close to the University and for years Lenton has been the most popular choice, with Dunkirk and Beeston in close pursuit.

For the residents of Lenton, an area whose origin goes all the way back to the Domesday Book, the influx of students has been a real concern. As the student population has increased Lenton has undergone vast changes. News of the World’s charming 2006 description of Kimbolton Avenue ran: “The rows of rundown red-brick Victorian houses in a road strewn with rubbish and burnt- out cars are a stark and embarrassing image of Blair's Britain today.”

Over the past few years, there has been considerable local response to what Lenton has become. Ms. Fletcher, a Lenton resident since 1978, is a prime mover of the Nottingham Action Group which was founded over concerns about the high concentration of HMOs in the area. “NAG was started because residents needed a voice. We weren’t being listened to by the University or the Council, and we certainly weren’t being listened to by students”.

NAG’s aim was to decrease the amount of HMOs in order to rebalance the community. “We aim for Lenton to be a place where people and families want to live and work, rather than the doss-house of Nottingham.” Ms. Fletcher denies that NAG is anti-student, pointing out that the organisation has brought many benefits to students over the past few years. Bad landlords were often more to blame than students for the problems faced by Lenton, and Unipol was established partially due to the campaigning of NAG.

It is our absence as much as our presence that causes problems for locals. Caroline Flint MP said, “It is not acceptable that current rental practices allow unplanned student enclaves to evolve to such an extent that local communities are left living as ghost towns following the summer student exodus”. Anyone who has stayed in Lenton during the holidays will have seen the effect of this. Streets on which every available parking space is usually filled stand empty; the shops are eerily quiet and at times you feel as if you’ve strayed onto a Nottingham-based version of 28 Days Later.

But change is on the horizon. In other university cities in Britain an SHRA (Student Housing Restriction Act) has been introduced, limiting the areas and volume in which students are permitted to dwell. In Nottingham, the City Council has used existing policy to limit additional student accommodation in some areas. This also aims to restrict additional pubs, bars and takeaways. Since 2006, landlords have been legally required to register HMOs with the Council. This is to help them assess and maintain a threshold of 25% HMOs per neighbourhood.

Practically, what does this mean for us? In areas such as Lenton, where the population of students already makes up far more than the 25% threshold, new HMO conversions will not be permitted. The legislation is clearly being enforced; Tariq Hussain, of Graduates Property Management, has now been fined twice (to a total of over £4,000), most recently after failing to apply for an HMO licence in April 2009. Also, tenants living in an HMO that should have been licensed but was not can apply to the Residential Property Tribunal to claim back up to 12 months rent for the period in which the home was unlicensed.

As a slight aside (before everyone rushes off to reclaim their rent), at present the legal definition of an HMO requiring a license must have three or more floors and five or more tenants. Clearly this does not apply to all student homes. Alan Simpson, MP for Nottingham South, described this definition as “a loophole in the law”, which requires alteration from central government as it cannot be changed by the Council.

While the threshold will theoretically stop other areas from becoming as student-dominated as Lenton, the legislation itself will not alter the fact that the proportion of HMOs in Lenton already stands at well above 25%. Different tactics are needed in order to relocate the student population to elsewhere in the city. The City Council is encouraging greater provision of purpose-built accommodation (generally self-catering flats), to exceed the growth in student numbers. They are only granting planning permission either on campuses or in areas without an existing high concentration of students. Between 2004 and 2005 the number of new bed spaces first exceeded the number of students, and the surplus has continued to increase faster than the student population. Guy Welton, accommodation bureau manager of Unipol, commented that it’s hard to tell exactly how big the surplus is as Unipol only advertise University-accredited properties. However he was certain that the surplus would remain throughout the next year even if the number of students increases. Currently there are over 8,000 bed spaces still being advertised on Unipol, over half of them for large developments.

This sounds like a lot of empty beds. The Council anticipates that the shift of students into purpose built accommodation should accelerate as new schemes become available over the next few years. The fast increase in the construction of purpose-built student accommodation has been taken as a demonstration of their potential. However critics have pointed to new city-centre flats standing empty as a result of developers who are interrested only in selling flats to amateur landlords, rather than meeting real housing requirements.

In Leeds, building halls of residence in other parts of the city in order to regenerate areas in need has proved successful. The new location – next to the river and close to the city centre – is apparently proving popular with the students. The pre-existing residents have no complaints, in part due to the now more frequent bus services to and from the area.

There are various proposals as to where Nottingham students should go if we are to be ousted from Lenton. The Council stated that further provision of purpose-built accommodation would be encouraged in sites close to university campuses which require regeneration, such as Chettles Yard in Radford. It is also encouraged in specified ‘regeneration zones’. Particularly recommended for potential student accommodation are the Eastside (St. Ann’s and Sneinton) and Southside (The Meadows’ Gateway) zones.

This idea has been objected to by some students, who claim it is unfair to use students as a ‘cash injection’ to an area in need of redevelopment. The general consensus is, “I don’t care how nice the flats are, if I’m likely to get shot it’s not my cup of tea.” However, student accommodation usually has much better security than private housing, and the ability of students to create local business (albeit largely off-licenses and takeaways) is huge. Perhaps more importantly public transport is likely to become more efficient in an area of high student demand. The crime rate in some of these regeneration areas is because they’re run down, not why they’re run down. A boost to the economic health of the area would be likely to assist a reduction in crime.

However it seems that these developments have been impressive master plans followed by inactivity. There were concrete plans for a new community of 2,000 homes to be built on Waterside, another redevelopment zone; they have been shelved, largely due to the recession.

The real question is how the Council intends to discourage existing students from living in Lenton and similar areas. Mr. Welton of Unipol commented, “It’s impossible to determine whether students will go live somewhere just because there are properties there, or if developers will want to build student flats just because it’s possible to get planning permission. It’s entirely market- driven.”

Alan Simpson MP believes a “rigorous routing out” of badly managed student properties will happen through the new licensing and planning requirements. The restriction of HMO licenses will become even more effective when stricter rules around energy efficiency ratings are introduced, combined with the current environmental health requirements. This “will squeeze out the poorer landlords and the poorer properties; faced with the choices, [the students] will be much more likely to take the properties that offer them something more.”

He defends the current property surplus as “helpful and healthy”, and hopes the new legislation will challenge “the myth that students only like to live in decrepit, derelict properties”. He pointed out that the greater security offered by the city apartment blocks is an important factor to consider.

A pertinent objection many have voiced is that students are concentrated only in areas that are conveniently close to University. Mr. Simpson argues that: “The convenience for the universities is clear, yet there is no real student social focus [in student areas] like there is in the city centre apartment blocks or on-campus accommodation”.

He believes that “the market for buy-to-let student housing is drying up... [Houses] are going to have to be re- sold and I suspect it will slowly encourage more families into the area”. Looking around Lenton now, there seems to be little evidence for a market on the decline, but one point everyone is agreed upon is that this will be a gradual change, not a student exodus.

There are, of course, objections to these proposals from students. Lillian Greenwood, Labour parliamentary candidate for Nottingham South, partially agrees: “You can’t characterise all students as inconsiderate neighbours”. She acknowledges the efforts of the Students’ Union to promote involvement in local community action and impress on students the importance of being considerate neighbours. However she pointed out, “The expectation here that you live in [halls] in your first year and then you move out isn’t the case in all the universities... Whilst the idea of having more students living in university-owned property may seem unfair to current students, over a period of time I think it’s possible without people feeling they’re being contained.”

Aside from the accusation that we are bad neighbours, some students have argued against the other charges that we face. Our lifestyles can’t be driving prices up. Many of us have reached that point in our overdraft where we realise weeks of nothing but Sainsbury’s Basics Baked Beans stretch bleakly ahead of us. The local demand for caviar is, if not non-existent, at least extremely low.

However there is a majority preference for ‘convenience’ stores such as Tesco Extra and Sainsbury’s Local, which offer higher priced basics. Local shops have shut down to make way for a huge variety of takeaways, limiting the residents’ choice. On a larger scale, the demand among landlords for easily rentable properties has pushed house prices up, as has the trend among parents of students to buy-to-let in the Lenton area. And in all honesty, the stereotypical ‘impoverished student’ is only hard-up because of shockingly bad financial management. While there are a few students who genuinely struggle to make ends meet through no fault of their own, these are very much in the minority.

The strongest argument against the suggestion of student accommodation rather than HMOs is that students want an ‘adult’ experience. Staying in halls right up until graduation makes university seem like glorified boarding school. But look at Lenton: with entire streets made up of student houses, it has become nothing more than an un- planned hall of residence. Living in a self-catered flat would afford the same degree of independence, without the detrimental effects on the wider community.

Mr. Simpson pointed out, “I would say that students will still have an opportunity to gain that adult experience – the threshold is 25%, which could still be 1 in 4 student houses... The arguments around this are often about respecting the individual liberties of students; living in a balanced community is what that’s about, not about living in a student enclave”. Lenton would not be completely lost to students, just significantly different to how it is today.

He emphasised that these new legislations should not be viewed as restrictive, but a collective process which would give students access to better properties and ensure that there are genuine communities in which students will be able to gain a proper experience of adult life.

Whilst I love living in Lenton, the overwhelming evidence points to the fact that the students of tomorrow should not shy away from purpose-built student flats. We need to admit that the majority of students will continue to act loudly, immaturely and messily (and I don’t doubt that they will enjoy it). It seems a little unfair to inflict this on other city residents, at least on the scale in which we currently do.

However, with the present lull in redevelopment and perhaps more crucially the average student’s current preference for private housing, it is hard to say when Lenton might noticeably change. If the Council are to effectively enforce the changes they are trying to make, they should work in tandem with University accommodation bureaus to promote purpose-built accommodation over private housing. As it stands, it is too late to defend the possibility of students living in such large groupings as they do now. Changes are in motion which will balance the demographics of future communities, and Lenton as it is now will remain only in memory. We should be open to the idea that this may not be a bad thing.

[Lucy Hayes, TransNAG, Midwinter 2009-2010. p.29, first published in Impact  magazine, June 2009]