Students are often blamed for pushing locals out of university towns. That’s unfair

St. Andrews. Image: James McMahon/Wikimedia Commons.

The small Scottish town of St Andrews is home to one of the UK’s oldest and most highly regarded universities. The University of St Andrews has grown very rapidly in recent years, witnessing a threefold expansion in student numbers between 2002 and 2017. Today, there are 9,000 full-time students matriculated in a town with a permanent population of 16,800. There is no doubt that St Andrews is undergoing a process of “studentification”.

Studentification occurs when there’s a major influx of students into specific areas of cities, towns and neighbourhoods. At the crux of the phenomenon in the UK is a rise in the number of houses in multiple occupation, or HMO, where three or more unrelated tenants live together in the same residence.

In recent years, this has become a topic of heated debate within local communities across the UK. There are competing views over whether greater numbers of student abodes – particularly off campus – triggers a process of urban renewal or sets in motion a process of deterioration and “urban blight”.

Although studentification can be a good thing, the term is typically used in a negative sense, to denote a neighbourhood in decline. Local councils have sought extra powers to break up so-called “student ghettos” in cities such as Nottingham, Birmingham, Worcester, Durham and Leeds.

So, we decided to investigate the effect it is having in our own town, St Andrews – affectionately known as the “bubble”, owing to its highly insular community.

Growing pains

We found a massive increase in the number of student-occupied HMOs across St Andrews. Over the last five years, the number of HMO licenses granted to private sector landlords has risen by one fifth again. There are now nearly 1,000 HMOs in the town.

In some parts of St Andrews, estimates suggest that students make up between 80 per cent and 85 per cent of the population – especially in the centre, where they prefer to live. But since a partial ban on student dwellings was placed on the town’s central areas in 2011, more and more HMOs have spilled into neighbouring residential areas, causing even greater concern among local residents.

In some cases, flags indicate multiple HMOs on the street. Image: Ross Brown/University of St Andrews/author provided.

Our study found that creeping studentification is having a significant, and in many cases, negative effect on key residential areas of the town’s housing market. There are fewer owner-occupied properties and fewer opportunities for university staff to live locally.

There are also greater restrictions on affordable housing for local residents: the amount of socially rented accommodation within the town has halved over the last ten years, while the average house price in St Andrews is almost double the Scottish average.

Failing the community

We noted growing tensions between local residents and the university. While the university has benefited the town, it was felt that the university had grown too fast, given the impact it was having on housing. Many locals felt like they have little power to change what’s been happening to their town, meaning that there’s a growing sense of community disempowerment.

The number of local residents being replaced by childless students housed in HMOs has also raised fears that local services such as primary schools could be under long-term threat of closure. Parts of the town are also visibly displaying the “scarring” effects associated with studentification; such as the downgrading of the physical environment, uncollected bins, litter, vandalism and noisy (often drink-related) anti-social behaviour.

Foam fight! St Andrews students cause a ruckus. Image: Sarah Ross Photography/Flickr/creative commons.

The situation is bad for students, too. They often face extremely high rent, with monthly fees often exceeding £500 to £700 for poorly-maintained properties, owned by absentee landlords or “slumlords”.

Of course, the university brings substantial benefits to the local economy, especially in terms of job creation, supporting some 8,000 full-time equivalent jobs in Fife and Tayside. The institution also brings a degree of cultural dynamism to the town, which it might otherwise lack. Not all students can be tarred with the same “studentification” brush. Indeed, many students interviewed also complained about the anti-social behaviour of their fellow students.


The bubble bursts?

Some resident groups claimed that HMO-led studentification has “hollowed out” the town, and even local councillors said the situation is now “out of hand”. The consternation felt within the local community has reached such heights that there could be calls for action to restrict the growth of student numbers at the university.

It’s encouraging that the university is currently expanding its halls of residence, adding another 1,000 spaces to help alleviate this problem. The representatives we spoke to from the local authority, on the other hand, are relying on the market to resolve matters.

Yet by indiscriminately approving private sector HMO licenses in the town without proper planning, Fife Council has overseen a reduction in affordable housing, inflation in house prices and the degradation of the local environment. A review of current policy is being undertaken by the local authority which will hopefully seek to redress these complex processes and provide longer terms solutions to the housing problem in the town.

The ConversationThe relationships between universities and local authorities – or town and gown – are often fraught, and St Andrews University and Fife Council are no exception. But there are workable solutions. The development of a student housing campus to the west of the town would help ease the pressure on the local housing market. And future issues can be allayed, if the university and local authority work together to develop a long-term plan for housing, which takes into account the growing number of students at the university.

Ross Brown, Reader in Entrepreneurship and Small Business Finance, University of St Andrews.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.


There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.