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.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.