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.

 
 
 
 

The Adam Smith Institute thinks size doesn’t matter when housing young professionals. It’s wrong

A microhome, of sorts. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Adam Smith Institute has just published ‘Size Doesn’t Matter’, a report by Vera Kichanova, which argues that eliminating minimum space requirements for flats would help to solve the London housing crisis. The creation of so-called ‘micro-housing’ would allow those young professionals who value location over size to live inside the most economically-active areas of London, the report argues argues.

But the report’s premises are often mistaken – and its solutions sketchy and questionable.

To its credit, it does currently diagnose the roots of the housing crisis: London’s growing population isn’t matched by a growing housing stock. Kichanova is self-evidently right in stating that “those who manage to find accomodation [sic] in the UK capital have to compromise significantly on their living standards”, and that planning restrictions and the misnamed Green Belt are contributing to this growing crisis.

But the problems start on page 6, when Kichanova states that “the land in central, more densely populated areas, is also used in a highly inefficient way”, justifying this reasoning through an assertion that half of Londoners live in buildings up to two floors high. In doing so, she incorrectly equates high-rise with density: Kichanova, formerly a Libertarian Party councillor in Moscow, an extraordinarily spread-out city with more than its fair share of tall buildings, should know better.

Worse, the original source for this assertion refers to London as a whole: that means it includes the low-rise areas of outer London, rather than just the very centrally located Central Activities Zone (CAZ) – the City, West End, South Bank and so forth – with which the ASI report is concerned. A leisurely bike ride from Knightsbridge to Aldgate would reveal that single or two-storey buildings are almost completely absent from those parts of London that make up the CAZ.

Kichanova also argues that a young professional would find it difficult to rent a flat in the CAZ. This is correct, as the CAZ covers extremely upmarket areas like Mayfair, Westminster, and Kensington Gardens (!), as well as slightly more affordable parts of north London, such as King’s Cross.

Yet the report leaps from that quite uncontroversial assertion to stating that living outside the CAZ means a commute of an hour or more per day. This is a strawman: it’s perfectly possible to keep your commuting time down, even living far outside of the CAZ. I live in Archway and cycle to Bloomsbury in about twenty minutes; if you lived within walking distance of Seven Sisters and worked in Victoria, you would spend much less than an hour a day on the Tube.

Kichanova supports her case by apparently misstating research by some Swiss economists, according to whom a person with an hour commute to work has to earn 40 per cent more money to be as satisfied as someone who walks. An hour commute to work means two hours travelling per day – by any measure a different ballpark, which as a London commuter would mean living virtually out in the Home Counties.

Having misidentified the issue, the ASI’s solution is to allow the construction of so-called micro-homes, which in the UK refers to homes with less than the nationally-mandated minimum 37m2 of floor space. Anticipating criticism, the report disparages “emotionally charged epithets like ‘rabbit holes’ and ‘shoeboxes,” in the very same paragraph which describes commuting as “spending two hours a day in a packed train with barely enough air to breath”.


The report suggests browsing Dezeen’s examples of designer micro-flats in order to rid oneself of the preconception that tiny flats need mean horrible rabbit hutches. It uses weasel words – “it largely depends on design whether a flat looks like a decent place to live in” – to escape the obvious criticism that, nice-looking or not, tiny flats are few people’s ideal of decent living. An essay in the New York Times by a dweller of a micro-flat describes the tyranny of the humble laundry basket, which looms much larger than life because of its relative enormity in the author’s tiny flat; the smell of onion which lingers for weeks after cooking a single dish.

Labour London Assembly member Tom Copley has described being “appalled” after viewing a much-publicised scheme by development company U+I. In Hong Kong, already accustomed to some of the smallest micro-flats in the world, living spaces are shrinking further, leading Alice Wu to plead in an opinion column last year for the Hong Kong government to “regulate flat sizes for the sake of our mental health”.

Amusingly, the Dezeen page the ASI report urges a look at includes several examples directly contradicting its own argument. One micro-flat is 35 m2, barely under minimum space standards as they stand; another is named the Shoe Box, a title described by Dezeen as “apt”. So much for eliminating emotionally-charged epithets.

The ASI report readily admits that micro-housing is suitable only for a narrow segment of Londoners; it states that micro-housing will not become a mass phenomenon. But quite how the knock-on effects of a change in planning rules allowing for smaller flats will be managed, the report never makes clear. It is perfectly foreseeable that, rather than a niche phenomenon confined to Zone 1, these glorified student halls would become common for early-career professionals, as they have in Hong Kong, even well outside the CAZ.

There will always be a market for cheap flats, and many underpaid professionals would leap at the chance to save money on their rent, even if that doesn’t actually mean living more centrally. The reasoning implicit to the report is that young professionals would be willing to pay similar rents to normal-sized flats in Zones 2-4 in order to live in a smaller flat in Zone 1.

But the danger is that developers’ response is simply to build smaller flats outside Zone 1, with rent levels which are lower per flat but higher per square metre than under existing rules. As any private renter in London knows, it’s hardly uncommon for landlords to bend the rules in order to squeeze as much profit as possible out of their renters.

The ASI should be commended for correctly diagnosing the issues facing young professionals in London, even if the solution of living in a room not much bigger than a bed is no solution. A race to the bottom is not a desirable outcome. But to its credit, I did learn something from the report: I never knew the S in ASI stood for “Slum”.