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Don’t underestimate the students! Impact of COVID-19 on university towns
I recently wrote about the impact of COVID-19 on student accommodation given that the traditional university experience is likely to be out of the picture for the short term. I now want to look at some of the other social and economic implications of students not attending university or deciding to study remotely in September 2020.

Impact on student recruitment

There is a real possibility that students will not wish to attend university in 2020/21 due to the fear on missing out on the traditional university experience, that the alternative provision will not provide the same quality of learning, concern about living away from home or because of public health concerns. On a more encouraging note, the Guardian[1] recently commented that a record 40.5% of all 18-year olds in the UK have applied to go to university in September, the first time that more than four out of ten students had applied by 30 June. It will be interesting to understand the actual registration figures when September comes and how many will be attending in person or studying remotely. The current picture is uncertain.
If 1st year students are not registering for courses and returning students are not attending in person then this has the potential to have huge consequences on towns and cities that depend on students to ensure the vitality and viability of its communities. If learning is going to be online then the need for accommodation as well as other supporting facilities such as shops, pubs and cafes is temporarily reduced.
Aberystwyth, where I completed my undergraduate studies for example is a town that has the university at its heart. For a town with a resident population[2] of 18,749, the 2011 census states that students accounted for 8,169 of the population. It is also important to note that over 2,000 staff work at the institution[3], demonstrating the importance of the institution to the social and economic makeup of the town and the surrounding area. There are other towns that are also reliant on the student population. For example, Durham University had 19,025 students[4] in 2018/19 compared to the resident population of around 43,000[5]. It also employs over 4,000 people[6], illustrating its importance to the local area.
A reduction in the number of students learning, living and spending time within these towns could have far reaching consequences on a range of issues such as:
  1. Impact on services and facilities that rely on the student population such as shops, cafes, pubs and nightclubs;

  2. Vacancies in student accommodation on campus and in the town centre;

  3. Loss of jobs at the university and at student focussed businesses;

  4. Decrease in the vibrancy of the town centre due to lack of a critical mass;

  5. Less revenue for University provided community facilities such as theatres and art centres;

  6. Impact on supply chains that normally supply the university.

  7. Impact on hospitality sector as parents no longer need to visit their children.
Towns like Aberystwyth and likewise York and Bath are likely to be hit even harder as they also rely on tourists to support their functional economy. Tourism is another sector that has been critically impacted by COVID-19 although there are some early signs of a bounceback with people planning on enjoying a staycation during the rest of 2020 instead of venturing abroad.

Economic impact

The economic contribution of students to an university town or city should not be downplayed. The 2014/15 Student Income and Expenditure Survey[7] (SIES) states that the average (mean) total expenditure including tuition fee costs of full-time English-domiciled students in 2014/15 was £19,922. Adjusted for inflation[8] this equates to £22,472.41 in 2019 terms.
Within the total expenditure figure, the SIES states that living costs[9] for full time students domiciled in England averaged £6,956 per annum in 2014/15. Adjusted for inflation this equates to £7,846.51 in 2019 terms. Not all of this spend will be spent locally of course (i.e. utility bills, bank charges and mobile phone charges will be collected centrally). However, a large amount of expenditure will be enjoyed by local businesses (or national businesses with a local presence) including supermarkets, shops, cafes, restaurants and takeaways, pubs and fitness facilities which in turn support local jobs and supply chains.
The SIES states that housing costs[10] for full time students amounted to an average of £3,610 per annum in 2014/15. Adjusted for inflation this equates to £4,072.15 in 2019 terms. This expenditure will be realised locally, either directly to the university or to private landlords and often re-invested to further improve the housing stock, creating job opportunities in the process.
Taking the above into account it is clear that the economic benefit of students to the university and the university settlement is substantial. Consequential impacts on facilities and services in the towns and cities due to the reduced number of students could therefore give rise to social impacts such as the closing of businesses and the loss of jobs.
Research by London Economics[11] estimates that the likelihood of deferral amongst UK-domiciled students for 2020/21 was approximately 13.3% if the University was operating as usual (few if any social distancing restrictions or limits to university activities) and 28% if the University was not operating as usual (many classes delivered online and many social distancing restrictions in place). Therefore, the likelihood of deferral amongst UK-domiciled students was approximately 7% higher as a result of the pandemic.
Based on the number of first year full time enrolments in 2018/19 as a proxy we see the following theoretical economic impact, based on a 14.7% deferral rate:

The above does not include an allowance for UK-domiciled part time students or non-UK-domiciled students that may also decide to defer or those that would defer regardless of the pandemic. According to HESA there were 249,080 non-UK-domiciled enrolments studying in UK universities in 2018/19. Given the restrictions and loss of appetite for international travel it is likely that there will be a reduction in international students enrolling in 2020 which will further add to the economic impact on the institutions and the towns/cities that they are based.Source: HESA; Department for Education; London Economics. Note that a different SIES report covers students in Wales and has been used to estimate the Aberystwyth impact.

Key takeaway

The social and economic value of students to the UK’s towns and cities is enormous and is particularly important for smaller towns that are built around the institution. The social and economic impact of a reduction in students is therefore likely to be painful in the short term, especially if these settlements also rely on tourism, another sector that has been impacted by the pandemic.
To assist in ensuring that these university towns and cities are able to survive in the short term it is important to attract as many students as possible and to limit the numbers of deferrals. To do this it will be important to demonstrate that the establishment’s facilities are able to operate as safely as possible given the current circumstances. To this end, Lichfields can provide town planning advice to assist universities on how to rationalise and/or expand its estate to ensure that the university’s offer can be as attractive and as normal as possible during the pandemic. This may mean advising and obtaining planning permission for buildings for alternative purposes, additional temporary or permanent structures, extended opening hours and potentially the need to amend extant planning permissions. Lichfields has been advising Kingston University on realising its Estate Vision since 2005.
Similarly, Local Planning Authorities should be suitably flexible in the short term until student numbers return. This could include fast-tracking the above adaptation planning applications but also allowing town centre units (including accommodation) to be used for different purposes to avoid short term vacancies and designating areas for outdoor socialising so that social events can take place. Lichfields is currently advising a number of Local Authorities on COVID Recovery Strategies. In areas where there is strong tourism demand local authorities should be encouraging temporary changes of use in Student Accommodation to visitor apart-hotel style accommodation.
Contact Lichfields to discuss any planning queries that you may have.


[1][2] 2011 Census (data acquired from Nomis on the built-up area of Aberystwyth)[3][4][5][6][7] Department for Education (March 2018)[8][9] food and drink, personal items such as clothes and mobile phones, entertainment, household goods and non-course travel such as holidays.[10] Including rent, mortgage costs, retainers, council tax and household bills[11] Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on university deferral rates and student switching – May 2020


Substituting Stadia and Facilities

Substituting Stadia and Facilities

Matt Pochin-Hawkes 30 Jul 2020
In football anything can happen. As a Leicester fan I know this first hand; going from fighting a relegation battle one season to winning the league at 5000-1 odds the next (and no, I hadn’t put a tenner on that eventuality).
Despite football’s unpredictability, clubs need to plan for the future and remain one step ahead of the game to be competitive. For stadia, planning for the future often means: providing additional stadium capacity; expanding facilities to provide more diverse and regular income streams; and upgrading facilities to meeting new FA requirements.
The question of how football clubs put these plans into action varies greatly and is hugely dependant on a club’s financial position and objectives. Strategies range from: smaller scale and shorter-term upgrades to facilities; investment in new purpose-built stadium/facilities at or adjacent to an existing stadium; or development of a new stadium at an entirely new site. Increasingly, clubs are also seeking to introduce alternative uses to kick-start development and facilitate longer-term investment returns through an expanded non-matchday non-sporting offer.
Land availability, finances, investment returns (existing and anticipated), needs of the fanbase, the heritage of the club, mixed-use opportunities and environmental sensitivities are all factors influencing whether and how stadia and facilities are upgraded.
As with all redevelopment strategies, the decision on how to unlock new facilities needs to be carefully balanced against planning policy constraints. Green Belt, heritage and town centre policies are just some of the planning factors which can have a big influence. This blog – the third of a ‘hattrick’ of blogs – explores some of these influencing factors.

Home vs. Away: Is there a home advantage?

Some stadia have remained at the same ground for many decades; with urban development growing around them to create new development opportunities (through increasing land values and footfall) and challenges (through the introduction of amenity sensitive uses such as residential) for football clubs which need to be carefully navigated by redevelopment proposals.
Football architectural historian Simon Inglis comments that Manchester United’s Old Trafford (opened in 1910) was the first to have a long-term masterplan from the start; providing scope for incremental expansion on a large unencumbered site.
Whilst a stadium masterplan is now commonplace (particularly in the Premier League), few clubs initially followed Man Utd’s lead; ending up on cramped sites which evolved through ad-hoc organic expansion. Some clubs have made this work; harnessing the unique character and heritage of sites to their advantage and finding innovative ways to expand.
Fulham Football Club’s Craven Cottage oozes character and includes two listed buildings. The new Riverside Stand currently being built will sensitively balance the heritage of the site with the desire to establish an iconic building as a positive landmark along the river, capable of supporting a diversified food, beverage and hospitality offer; providing an enhanced stadium and truly mixed-use destination in its own right on the banks of the River Thames.
Other stadia strategies involve relocating stadia to new locations.
Highbury was the historic heart of Arsenal Football Club dating back to 1913. After the Gunners famous 2003/04 ‘Invincibles’ season, Arsenal moved to the Emirates Stadium in 2006 – boosting capacity by over 20,000. Highbury was then partially demolished and redeveloped to provide 655 new home via Allies and Morrison’s Highbury Square development. Part funding the stadium move, the Highbury Square development incorporates the listed East and West Stands and reinvents the pitch as a communal garden. Whilst Wenger claims ‘we left our soul at Highbury’, and a programme of ‘Arsenalisation’ was needed to invigorate the spirit of Highbury, the stadium has created new opportunities beyond football, including conferencing and live music events.
Infamously, Wimbledon Football Club, after rejecting a variety of possible local sites, moved from south London to Milton Keynes in 2003. This ultimately splintered the club, spurring the creation of AFC Wimbledon and the rebranded MK Dons. AFC Wimbledon is now in the process of building a new stadium close to its spiritual home of Plough Lane as part of a joint venture with Galliard Homes. Alongside the stadium, the scheme includes 600 new homes, a squash and fitness club and retail space.


Where more comprehensive upgrades are needed, new stadia redevelopment strategies can often involve building a new stadium next to the existing ground. The has the benefit of unlocking the redevelopment potential of the former stadium site and – on occasions – providing a smoother transition to a new ground through less interruption to home games (and associated match-day income streams).
For lower league clubs with a greater reliance on match-day revenue, the importance of minimising interruption to home games and catalysing redevelopment through alternative uses are crucial factors in unlocking new facilities.
Established in 1893, Dulwich Hamlet Football Club (DHFC) is one of the oldest league sides in London and has been part of the Dulwich community for over 125 years, with Champion Hill being DHFC’s home for the majority of that period.
Located on the same plot as the current stadium, the former stadium (‘The Hill’ – built in 1931) was demolished as it was in a poor state of repair and did not meet the safety standards of the time. The current stadium was then rebuilt on the same site in 1991, funded by development of the Sainsbury’s supermarket on the Club’s former training pitches next to the site.
Whilst the current stadium was built to meet prevailing standards, the stadium is now reaching the end of its economic life and is no longer fit for purpose. The grass pitch cannot be used intensively without compromising the quality of pitch and the existing stadium site cannot be upgraded to meet FA requirements of the league above (the National League) due to site constraints.
To meet these requirements, DHFC must increase the capacity of the stadium to 4,000 spectators and provide specific additional facilities for players, officials and the press. In addition, the club has a number of core redevelopment objectives which include supporting the local community and keeping the club profitable. Moving out of Dulwich was not an option (viable or otherwise).
The solution is a new stadium next to Champion Hill. A new 3G pitch and community stadium/leisure facility will enable DHFC to generate a sustained source of income on non-match-days and meet its community objectives by allowing use of the facilities by local school and community groups.
Residential redevelopment of the existing stadium site to provide around 200 new homes plays an enabling role by funding the new stadium and leisure facility. Phasing allows for players to use interim facilities at the current stadium whilst the new stadium is being built. The development aims to deliver a win-win for the club and local community, whilst sensitively and innovatively responding to the setting of the new pitch in Metropolitan Open Land.
The new stadium will have far reaching and wider benefits for the local community, including underpinning the important work DHFC does with the local community and charities.

Key Factors Influencing Development Strategies 

There is no one size fits all solution to how football clubs improve their facilities.
Decisions on how to provide new facilities are influenced by a myriad of factors which are often locational specific and strongly influenced by the philosophy of the club and its fanbase.
A common thread is the increasing co-location of residential, leisure, retail and food/beverage uses alongside stadia (as touched on in Ian’s earlier blog) and joint venture partnerships with developers. The mixed-use approach not only provides a diversified source of income (if managed by football clubs in the longer term) but also acts as a catalyst to kick-start and fund redevelopment proposals through enabling investment in new facilities through the increased value.
Successful strategies, whether they involve refurbishment/expansion or creation of an entirely new stadium, depend on capturing the development opportunities to meet the needs of the club and articulating the scheme benefits to secure support from local communities and decision makers.
With discussions turning to how stadia will reopen to fans, short and long-term planning strategies for clubs, stadia and facilities will become increasingly important as normal play begins to resume.