In recent decades, higher education has grown significantly – and local infrastructure has not always dealt well with the opportunity this provides for everyone. Growth in student numbers in the UK shows no sign of abating, reaching 2.66 million last academic year. Students need homes, and many live in HMOs, putting pressure on local housing availability for families. With HMOs in London containing an average of 2.5 people, a new 1,000-bed student accommodation scheme would potentially free up 400 homes. This is the scale of the problem that purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) could solve.
By Nick Hayes, Group Property Director, Unite Students
But just as local amenities have been slow to keep up, so too have the attitudes of some local communities. The prevailing cultural assumptions about students are often outdated, and a far cry from the studious, committed young people that one sees on any campus across the UK. Unfortunately, HMO landlords and PBSA providers alike sometimes face resident concerns, which are vital to address – even in the cases when complaints, particularly around noise or antisocial behaviour, are unjustified.
So how can PBSA providers generate the lasting goodwill of local communities? Simply put, the better the PBSA sector can communicate our genuine care for local communities and demonstrate our value to them through the provision of properly managed and integrated accommodation, the stronger our bonds with them will become. And with the advent of frameworks like the government’s ‘London Plan’, which look set to be mirrored by other city authorities, the relationship between community and developer is more important than ever.
We all need to work harder to communicate our role as true, long-term, embedded partners of local communities. While it is true that UK student spending supports more than £80bn of UK economic output (and generates £25bn of Gross Value Added), a local resident in Sheffield, Manchester or Liverpool, where students have a strong presence, is unlikely to consider that in the balance.
Part of the problem is the persistent fallacy that the student economic ecosystem is somehow split off from the towns and cities that host universities; the ‘town vs gown’ idea. In fact – as former students would agree – students develop incredibly strong ties to their communities. Many of us regard the coffee shops and bars where we made our first adult friends, and fuelled our inevitable essay crises, with a great deal of affection. When local residents assume that students are somehow not part of communities, they fail to recognise this emotional investment, which also leads students into volunteering or community work. For example, in Manchester alone, one volunteering programme, Manchester Leadership, contributed £266,611 into the local economy in just one year.
But on top of this, PBSA providers need to show how much we want to help local ecosystems thrive. Social integration is a vital piece of the puzzle for the success of the proposition up and down the country. As such, it needs to be factored into accommodation plans at the earliest stage.
Actions speak louder than words, and we need to demonstrate our positive impact in communities. For example, I’m proud that one of our properties in London, Stapleton House, hosts Maha Devi, a yoga therapy charity providing heavily subsidised therapy to children and adults with special needs. Not only is this providing a community service, but the tender was awarded by a committee of local stakeholders, including students and local community councillors. We helped the charity increase the number of sessions it delivered to the local community by 52% year-on-year. Alongside this they have become a hub for the local community with a new café opening within the premises offering work placements to young people with learning difficulties. It also shows how developers can maximise the impact of Section 106 regulations, which stipulates providing a community space to serve the local area. In addition, our new development at Hayloft Point in Aldgate East, London, opening in September, is providing 663m2 of community space at the heart of the building and we look forward to welcoming our new community tenants who will be announced this month.
Thankfully, student accommodation today is unrecognisable from the student house shares – with damp, mould and a broken boiler included in the rent – which characterised the student lives of yesteryear. High-quality, affordable accommodation is part of the world-leading higher education package which our nation has to offer. We are not simply accommodation providers: we need to become truly integrated partners and help put our students at the heart of local life.