British cities are moving to reduce the impact of “studentification”

Those were the days: the cast of The Young Ones, c1982. Image: BBC.

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?

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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