Student residential accommodation – bucking the trend?

Thursday 26 January 2012

London has a keen and growing appetite for student accommodation, especially for schemes which are integrated into their community. But the background is one of a growing public hostility to projects and a tightening planning scenario.

Speakers and delegates at a special half-day conference held at the NLA last week and involving architects, planners, property consultants and providers, made these broad conclusions. 

Keynote speaker Chris Baldwin, Head of Student Residential at Drivers Jonas Deloitte, said there are around 280,000 full-time HE students across 40 London universities – an increase of some 6 per cent since last year. There are also 99,000 non-UK full and part-time students and 75,000 full time post-graduate students. But there are only around 56,700 purpose-built bed spaces in central London, albeit an increase of 8,000 since DJ Deloitte began compiling surveys in 2008-9. The majority of development is in Zones 1 and 2 – ‘we expect, maybe not next year but the year after to see a significant increase in Zones 3 and beyond’, said Baldwin. But the key issue is a large gap between supply and demand, with an average of 5.25 students per bedspace, compared to a UK average of 3.3 students per bedspace (excluding London). 

Camden, Islington, Southwark and Tower Hamlets are the hotspots for student residential accommodation, and the London Plan indicates demand for between anywhere from 1,400 to 2,700 extra bedspaces per year. Richard Simpson, Managing Director, Property, UNITE said there is no one-size fits all for this kind of accommodation, however, but London is ‘by far and away the top city in the world’ with ‘a lot of demand for renting accommodation in London’. Planning is ‘a barrier to entry’, however. Alison Squires, Planning Policy Team Leader, LB Southwark said the challenge is in balancing the student accommodation needs against those of conventional housing, especially affordable, in an area of high need. ‘One of the biggest issues that comes up is that so often with student housing they are not creating communities’, she added. Residents also often object to planning applications for student accommodation. Barney Stringer, Director of Quod agreed, pointing to research his firm has conducted which revealed that although there is general recognition of the benefits of having many students in London, very few residents want them in their back yard. ‘What are we all so afraid of?’ asked Stringer. Concerns range from potential anti-social behaviour to an effect on investment, to the ‘Kebabification’ of the high street – the propensity for student digs to spawn high streets full of fast-food joints and damage the image of an area for future investment. ‘The evidence has to be a resounding no to all three of those concerns’, said Stringer. 

So, what of the future for the design of student accommodation? For Rob Sargent, director at Stride Treglown, this is an area of some change, with students now coming with different perspectives, having been brought up on shiny new BSF schools, break out areas and iPads, educated in very different ways, with different mindsets. Sargent said universities are updating 1970s and 1980s stock and many are now concentrating on ‘hub’ buildings with centralised facilities, gaining efficiencies of scale in elements like catering. Low energy and sustainable design is an emerging trend, but much of the student of today’s paraphernalia is electronic, using a lot of energy and giving off a good deal of heat. Sargent said Stride Treglown even used Facebook to help design spaces, with students wanting comfort, classic furniture, ‘homeliness’, and the ability to personalize – but definitely not posters of ‘Michael Caine on a bloody motorbike’.

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly 

The event was sponsored by Buro Four and Stride Treglown

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