Planning matters

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Competition is the name of the game in the Government’s new Green Paper on reforms to the higher education (HE) sector. The sector could be set to undergo a significant period of change, due to deregulation, increased competition and the new promise of flexibility on tuition fees alongside the lifting of the cap on student numbers.There is no doubt that the HE sector is booming; in 2014-15 the UK cap on student numbers was raised to 30,000 and in 2015-16 will be unlimited. The Government predicts the number of students entering higher education will increase by 60,000. It remains to be seen whether in practice such rapid growth will materialise, if it does, it is likely to put unprecedented demand on accommodation providers. NLP’s new BeDSPACE tool will assist by giving the answers to capacity and demand. Part of the emphasis of reform is a focus on quality, in terms of the whole ‘university experience’ - including the quality of teaching, going so far as to be critical of intuitions overly focusing on research. This may well be good news for students but research is a lucrative funding stream for many and often vital in terms of attracting outstanding academics in their field and the quality of teaching that often results. If the whole ‘university experience’ is a barometer of success, then accommodation will be a key influencing factor on whether students consider their aspirations have been met or where they choose to study. There is a longstanding tension within many institutions as to whether they are a teaching body or a provider of accommodation; the reality is they are both but often struggle to fulfil both in equal measure at equal speed. When there are competing priorities and opinions within institutions, it makes it extremely difficult to respond quickly with new accommodation and keep pace with student needs. Despite many institutions being fortunate to have sizeable land holdings, it is not practical for them to focus solely on building new accommodation as this could come at an opportunity cost to investment in teaching, which underpins their competitiveness and desirability as a location to study.Many local plan policies still reinforce the view that accommodation should be on-campus, presuming that institutions can respond. Yet the continued growth in the purpose built student housing (PBSA) sector is testament to this not being the case. Despite a large number of new national entrants into this market, there still remain good opportunities for PBSA in many university locations.Crucially, to keep upgrading/replacing accommodation to match the quality provided by the private sector will prove difficult for traditional educational institutions, especially when they are grappling with a more competitive market environment and an increasing global mobility of students, with many choosing the UK as their preferred study location.As is common with many local plan policies, they are not especially dynamic or flexible, which is a concern in terms of the level of local planning authority (LPA) understanding of the ‘student housing problem’. Pressing PBSA provision onto educational institutions who cannot respond will not deliver a big uplift in supply. As many institutions can be cautious about joint ventures or similar, a balance needs to be found in promoting more privately operated PBSA in the right locations. Otherwise areas with a concentration of Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs) are likely to continue to grow and intensify, maintaining attractive returns for landlords forcing up property prices well out of the reach of families and key workers.Of course PBSA is not the only form of student accommodation that should be available; HMOs will always exist as many students want to live in a ‘traditional’ house arrangement. But areas with a concentration of student-let HMOs that raise environmental concerns can be brought under control potentially via Article 4 Directions, and in time, reduced in terms of concentration and extent alongside LPAs taking a more positive and proactive approach towards PBSA.NLP’s new BeDSPACE tool will assist private developers and LPAs in terms of understanding capacity, and the analysis of need and economic impact, to inform the proposed developments and the decision making process, by informing where PBSA should be sited and how much should be provided.