The tension between town and gown is as old as the existence of universities themselves. The appropriately named St Scholastica’s Day Riot of 1355 was an actual battle between the students of the University of Oxford and the residents of the town. It broke out over the quality of some wine, and only ended when almost a hundred were dead.
Nowadays, the tension may be less deadly, but it remains, nonetheless. The total number of students in Britain has shot up 400,000 in the last 17 years – and they all need somewhere to live.
The grottiness of student life has been almost mythologised, with all the noise, rubbish and midweek parties that spill out into the street. The growth of the student population can even affect the very fabric of an area as the local economy starts to cater to their needs (more student bars, fewer primary schools). Local families are priced out as landlords see the benefits of buy-to-lets for students.
In true modern fashion we’ve even come up with a neologism, to help us get our head around this phenomenon. We call it “studentification”.
At the root of all this is Houses in Multiple Occupation, or HMOs. Defined as houses where at least three tenants live, they are perfect place for young professionals and students to live for a few years.
In the vast majority of UK cities between half and three quarters of students live in HMOs or similar types of accommodation. Usually focused on areas close to universities, the concentration of student HMOs in certain areas has led to them derogatorily being called ‘student ghettos’.
By way of example: student accommodation now makes up 75 per cent of the Green Lane area of Durham, two-thirds of Headingley in Leeds and as high as 90 per cent in certain areas of Nottingham. The remaining permanent residents have to put up with all the chaos of student life, as well as neighbours who change on a yearly basis.
Studentification can have political repercussions, too. In last year’s General Election, the constituency of Canterbury voted Labour for the first time in 100 years. Many attributed this to the student vote.
Local government is taking steps to combat the massive change student concentration cause. Councils have sought extra powers to limit the numbers of HMOs in Oxford, Durham, Nottingham, Birmingham, Worcester and Leeds. In Exeter, the City Council has set a target that 75 per cent of all increases in the student population should be housed in what is known as Purpose Built Student Accommodation (PBSA) – more colloquially, halls of residence.
PBSAs do combat the effect of students living in HMOs, but can’t resolve the ‘ghetto’ effect of concentrated student areas. The disruption to local communities can only be resolved by city planners working with PBSA providers to figure out the best place to build new student accommodation.
Students can bring great advantages to an area: an increased range of goods and services, development of social/cultural spaces and a vibrant population. But these need to be harnessed and planned for. If ex-industrial land and other brownfield sites were to be used for PBSA developments they could be part of the revitalisation of the area.
Otherwise, students will spill out into the private HMO sector which, left unchecked, can seriously damage local communities. And we don’t want another St Scholastica’s Day Riot on our hands, do we?