Planning matters

Our award winning blog gives a fresh perspective on the latest trends in planning and development.

The ‘knowledge-based economy’ is an important area of growth in the UK. In 2013/2014 there were just over 2.5 million students - 77% at undergraduate level and 23% postgraduate. Universities employ nearly 400,000 staff and generate a total income of over £29 billion and a total expenditure of over £27 billion per annum.The UK continues to be a service-based economy - reliant on an educated workforce to grow. In spite of the economic downturn and higher tuition fees, students continue to recognise the benefits of gaining higher education qualifications. This has been demonstrated by the number of full-time students in further education which between 1999 and 2012 grew by 46%i.e 540,000 students.Furthermore the number of international students choosing to study in the UK has also continued to grow over the last 15 years and is expected to grow by a further 15-20% within the next five years. The UK now has the second highest number of enrolled international students in the world - choosing the UK for its highly regarded universities and the emergence of English as the international language of business. International students have become their own strong market, annually generating £3.9billion in tuition fees, not forgetting the expenditure they also contribute in university towns and cities.The continued increase in numbers of both domestic and international students means it has become imperative for universities to be able to offer quality accommodation to provide an enhanced overall student package. Despite increased investment into purpose built student accommodation (PBSA), the undersupply of student accommodation is concentrating students into the private rented sector and particularly in Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs). Universities in the UK are able to provide accommodation in the first year but for the most part, students are forced into the local private rented sector for subsequent years of study. Students are increasingly demanding a higher standard of accommodation - that includes reliable broadband – than traditional residential university halls of residence provide. They can be considered to be inferior in their facilities, with students seeking on-site gyms, cafes, organised social events and games areas. HMOs are often of relatively poor quality, lacking modern amenities and can be too far from town or campus. These deficiencies have led to the development industry reacting to the clear opening in the market for PBSA, filling a gap which universities or landlords increasingly cannot.Local Authorities are also seeing the benefits of the PBSA trend. The change of permitted development rights in 2010 allowing family homes (Class C3) to change to HMOs (Class C4) without the need for planning permission saw growing concern in many university towns and cities that there would be an uncontrolled spread and intensification of areas with more HMOs. Areas which were already renowned for providing students with housing were already experiencing ‘studentification’. This is where an area is perceived as being ‘taken over’ by students and local amenities are increasingly aimed towards them, resulting in families feeling ostracised and unable to access the increasingly expensive local rented housing. The new permitted development right was inevitably going to rapidly increase this trend. Eventually local authorities (LAs) began imposing Article 4 directions in these key student housing areas to help prevent further intensification, by requiring planning permission for HMOs. Although this step was taken as a preventative measure to control the number of HMO conversions in the future, in many areas the intensification had already occurred.In order to address this issue, LAs began encouraging PBSA so as to help to move students out of these areas- and into other parts of towns. These areas were typically not suitable for family housing given their location; PBSA proposals were and still are in areas which are in need of regeneration that would benefit from the expenditure and services that students bring. Increasingly, Local Plans in major university towns and cities have addressed, and continue to include, specific policies regarding student housing - although it is noted that while some local authorities are encouraging this type of development, others are becoming increasingly cautious and even restrictive, as apprehension grows that the market may be overheating.More councils are requiring needs assessments to demonstrate a requirement for PBSA, as fears grow in councils that they have granted too many permissions which remain extant and unimplemented. The counter to this argument is that if council’s better understood the accommodation needs within their areas, ‘mothballed’ development sites, with developers trying to dispose of sites to investors in sub-optimal locations, would not result.NLP’s new tool – BeDSPACE – can inform policy decisions or be used to support planning applications. It assists developers, operators and educational institutions in assessing whether there is need and capacity within any defined area for PBSA, be that town, city or district. Incorporated in BeDSPACE is also a thorough assessment of the economic benefits that students bring.