Class Distinctions 2: Student Housing

Happy freshers’ week. 
I blogged recently about how the planning system struggles when it comes to housing for older people. But there are worse problems when it comes to student housing. Some recent press articles are at the end of this post, but first you need to get through some law I’m afraid (there may be an examination on it later). 
For a start, from a legal perspective there is a similarly poor fit with the Use Classes Order.
Shared student living in converted houses has since 2010 (in England, 2016 in Wales) been hived off from use class C3 (residential use) into use class C4, the HMO (“houses in multiple occupation”) use class: “small shared houses occupied by between three and six unrelated individuals, as their only or main residence, who share basic amenities such as a kitchen or bathroom”.
This definition excludes: 
– HMOs in blocks of flats (eg what seems to be the main model these days in relation to purpose built student accommodation blocks, with clusters of self-contained flats, each housing six students, sharing cooking and living accommodation) 

– Houses shared by more than six students.

The background to the creation of C4, which was not all about students, but in part a response to concerns about pressures being caused to communities by high concentrations of HMOs more generally, is well summarised in a House of Commons library briefing paper, Houses in multiple occupation & planning restrictions (14 July 2017). 
By virtue of Part L of the Town & Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015, unless the relevant local planning authority has made an article 4 direction to contrary effect, planning permission isn’t needed to change from C4 to C3 (residential use), or vice versa. Many university towns and cities have made article 4 directions, requiring planning permission to change from C3 to C4 use, for example Sheffield, Leeds, Loughborough, Leicester, Nottingham, Southampton and Durham to name but a few. 
Against the background of almost universal university expansion, this constraint on supply of converted accommodation, denying much of the already (in most areas at least) expensive PRS market to students, has surely played its part both in further increasing student housing costs and in giving students fewer practical alternatives to living in purpose-built student accommodation, often now built and operated by large specialist student housing providers. 
As far as the planning system is concerned, purpose built student housing blocks are generally treated as “sui generis” (outside any use class) and therefore specific planning policies are required at an individual local planning authority level to control them (or to impose standards in terms of unit size, daylighting and sound insulation). In some ways they now often more closely resemble clusters (stacked high) of quasi C4 HMO style accommodation, with bedrooms in self-contained clusters of six, each with its own kitchen and communal area. 
Planning permission is required to make a material change from a sui generis use. Whether there is a material change in the character of the use is for the decision maker to judge. As long as conditions or section 106 agreement planning obligations aren’t breached, change to, say, co-living may not require planning permission. 
Ensuring that purpose built student accommodation is affordable is a big issue. In recent years we have seen student rent strikes, supported by the NUS. In London, we wait to see what further controls will be proposed in the draft London Plan, now expected on 29 November. In the meantime, there was nothing in the Mayor’s draft housing strategy published on 6 September 2017 (in 236 pages I could only find one passing reference to students). To what extent will the policies set out in the previous Mayor’s March 2016 housing SPG remain? The SPG takes the following approach in relation to purpose built student accommodation (PBSA):

– “providers of PBSA are encouraged to develop models for delivery of PBSA in london which minimise rental costs, via its layout and location, for the majority of the bedrooms in the development and bring these rates nearer to the rate of a affordable student accommodation described below
– requirement for affordable student accommodation where a proposed provider does not have an undertaking with a specified academic institution(s) that specifies that the accommodation will be occupied by students of that institution(s)

– affordability determined by reference to a formula that equates to 55% of average student income. For the academic year 2016/2017 this equated to £5,886 or less and for a 38 week contract a weekly rent of £155. 

– the extent of affordable housing to be secured “should be the maximum reasonable amount subject to viability” (our old friend!)

– to enable PBSA providers to maximise the delivery of affordable student accommodation by increasing the profitability of the development, boroughs should consider allowing the temporary use of accommodation during vacation periods for ancillary uses and should consider setting nil CIL rates for affordable student accommodation. 

– eligibility for affordable student accommodation should be based on assessment of need. 

Now that reading list:

Oliver Wainwright, A new urban eyesore: Britain’s shamefully shoddy student housing (The Guardian, 11 September 2017)

Rhiannon Bury, Student housing may be a property bubble in waiting (Telegraph, 18 September 2017)

Could it be the end of the Newcastle student flat boom? Council set to vote on greater controls (Evening Chronicle? 15 January 2017)

Letter: Students vs Residents – this situation in Bath around housing is not students’ fault (Bath Chronicle, 5 September 2017)

Students in Wales taking out loans to afford ‘luxury’ flats (BBC website, 22 September 2017)

It seems to me that there are various issues to be unpacked here:
– the need for authorities properly to plan for the consequences of increases in student numbers

– competing needs as between between student and general needs housing

– often unjustified “there goes the neighbourhood” concerns about the impacts of students on an area. 

– affordability

– the extent to which universities should retain responsibility for housing their students, affordably and to appropriate quality standards.

Class, discuss. 
Simon Ricketts, 24.9.17
Personal views, et cetera

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