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The Big Student Con

Kaitlin Dryburgh

Last month, three days before Christmas to be precise, I attended a community meeting held by the local MP. Even though it was three days before Christmas and a busy period for most people there was high attendance and a lot of disgruntled attendees. The source of annoyance was the proposed development of private student accommodation.

Although I live in Edinburgh and there is a high student population, this is a regular occurrence in all cities throughout Scotland. Private student accommodation is popping up everywhere, their soulless boxy beige exteriors plastered in logos, sucking the student population dry and offering little to the community.

The meeting was an eye opener as there was a planning permission expert speaking. The meeting had to be held three days before Christmas as the deadline for comments ended on Boxing Day. It was obvious that the developer had planned it in such a way that the deadline would fall in a very busy period in which it could easily fly below the radar, knowing fine well that deadlines aren’t extended even if they fall on a holiday period. This is something that needs to change, extended response times that consider holidays should be common sense. The community needs ample time to respond, and developers should not use Christmas as a way of getting their way. Additionally, there was scepticism in the air as just a mere 10-minute walk away another community campaign had successfully stopped a private accommodation block popping up, only for the developer to appeal and win. Can the community appeal, no. Something has to be said for the fact that developers have a right to overturn a decision, but the community don’t really have any option. Now they have 191 student rooms waiting to be built.

These feelings weren’t coming from an anti-student standpoint, as many attendees pointed out, but from a practical point of view. If anything, it is not in students’ best interests to continue approving these private accommodations. They are extortionate with their prices, sometimes more than double that of university owned accommodation. They are not built to a high spec, energy ratings are usually low, with developers choosing to scrape past on the minimum requirements. Their increased existence takes the heat off universities to provide accommodation, and as most universities have washed their hands of investing in anymore, they rarely speak up against them. Why have universities got free rein to increase overseas spaces yet have no obligation to secure housing for the increased number of students?

The proposed development not far from my flat is also situated in an awful location for students. If I was a student I would not want to live there. Poor bus links to any universities, no amenities close by, and not walkable to anything a student would really want. It shows the extremes developers will go to extract any value from land, as they are the only people who will really benefit. It is one of the finest examples of capitalistic development. This developer had previous plans approved, but they were flats, with a certain number of affordable housing as is the regulation. Of course that regulation doesn’t apply to student accommodation. However, after reconsideration those plans were pulled and now we have the current situation on our hands.

There are some areas in Edinburgh that have more planning permission granted for student accommodation than residential housing, it currently makes up over a quarter of all current developments in the city. Yet in November of last year Edinburgh Council officially declared a housing emergency. Stating one of the reasons as private rents, this most definitely includes student accommodation. Not only do they help to cause it, but they prey on the housing crisis. They can charge higher prices, they can validate their existence and they allow other private landlords to charge higher rents. It’s an endless cycle unfortunately, the more that are built, the less space for residential housing. For every private student accommodation that is built, that’s less social housing. It’s an excuse for other landlords to hike their prices up to meet the high demand, which in turn usually prices out students making them turn to private student accommodation once again.

Although I’m referencing Edinburgh, this is the case in other areas of Scotland as well as other parts of the UK. Perhaps more specific to Edinburgh is the Council’s work on regulating the amount of short term lets in the city, as this all contributes to the poor housing. The high concentration of short term lets has contributed to the housing crisis, they were left unregulated for too long. Although the legalities of introducing a licence are still being determined as the first draft was deemed to be unlawful, it seems that something is being done. Yet, it is confusing that no lessons have been learnt. Why are private student accommodations being left to get out of hand, why are we considering private non-residential accommodation on a case-to-case basis. It would be more productive to tackle them as a whole, if we are indeed serious about combating the current housing crisis. If anything is contributing to the housing crisis, then it must be regulated to some extent to allow or encourage more actual housing to be built.

Some of those who are building and running private student accommodations are faceless corporations, with the majority ownership ending up in some private pension pot. They don’t care that child homelessness is on the rise, that many families are facing over a year in temporary accommodation and those numbers are increasing. Yet it seems that councils and planning committees are allowing this to develop. However, during our mini crash course in planning applications, this is no grounds to reject a development. Our strongest case to get this rejected was the lack of transport links available to students. It seems nonsensical that applying a bigger picture to planning applications and referencing community cohesion is of no importance. It’s rather disheartening actually.

There are some great community groups and organisations trying to put a stop to this, such as Living Rent. I would highly encourage anyone who is facing one of these popping up in their community to get in contact, as there is always power in numbers.

4 thoughts on “The Big Student Con”

  1. If we accept that students have as much right to live in Edinburgh as anyone, then they have to live somewhere. If there is no purpose built student accommodation available, their only choice will be to compete for general residential accommodation around the city. Developments that increase the housing stock available for rent help address housing pressures and help average rents be lower than they would otherwise be without the additional housing stock – basic supply and demand.

    The bigger question that needs to be addressed is who should have priority to live in any particular locality? Capitalism allows that decision to be largely made by market forces, with those willing and able to pay more being the ones who secure accommodation in the area. If we reject a market forces model, we have to prioritise accommodation demands in a different way. Do we, for example, give priority to those who work or study in the locality? If so, does that imply less priority in that locality for those who don’t work or study in the area? Perhaps those who don’t work or study in the city should be allocated social housing outwith Edinburgh, so that those who work or study in Edinburgh can be given priority? If we wish an alternative to capitalism, we need to discuss what that alternative could look.

  2. Excellent article.Glasgow is probably worse for this I would say unregulated development ,in the sense that Glasgow University’s massive income stream relies on overseas students contributing to developer fatcats and G.U.vice(advisidly) chancellor’s half million paycheck.Historic areas of Glasgow are being trashed and producing very ugly hotpotch
    flying panneled skylines and,as with Edinburgh ,Councils’ massive housing deficits.Seems brown envelops from developers to councillors and planners continues……

  3. Janet Moxley

    As a frequent responder to planning applications, I would say that every local authority I’ve ever sent a response to has always accepted late submission of comments (usually up until a day or so before they are determined), especially if the application is large or controversial. They don’t legally have to consider late responses by as far as I can see they inevitably do. That said there is a definite trend for developers to submit applications just before major holiday periods (Christmas Eve is particular popular, but also the last week in June just before the school holidays). Not saying that developers don’t play the system, they certainly do, but please don’t give the impression that just because the statutory deadline for submitting response to planners has passed it’s too late to do anything. That’s exactly what the developers want you to think, and it almost certainly not the case.

  4. For all things planning I’d definitely recommend becoming a community councillor.

    Community councils can have considerable influence over planning outcomes. They are a statutory consultee, have a statutory power to escalate a planning application to a committee of councillors rather than just being decided by the planning officers, can often generate significant publicity and often have the ear of the councillors too.

    While clearly community councils are quite good at objecting there’s also a real strand of positive planning emerging, notably in the local place plans. If you can get it written in to the local place plan that these horrible developments should not be part of the local place, planning officers are required to take that into account.

    Also it’s a bit easier for community councils to manage shennanigans like them trying to slip things in over the holidays.

    Here’s an article I wrote on them https://commonweal.scot/why-community-councils-are-awesome/

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