14 Jan 2021
Most university locations across the UK have seen an influx of Purpose Built Student Accommodation (PBSA). In response many Local Planning Authorities now require developers to demonstrate the need for this development.
How can Bedspace help?
Bedspace strengthens the justification for PBSA by:
Presenting evidence led quantitative analysis of current and past trends in student growth and student accommodation preferences;
Analysing the supply pipeline as well as the potential future capacity for further PBSA, cognisant of both past trends and of university growth ambitions;
Detailing the potential economic impacts generated during construction of the development and after its completion; and
Presenting this assessment in a planning application document which has proven track record with Local Authorities.
Who is it for?
PBSA Developers: Demonstrating the need for PBSA in a given University location or informing early investment decisions;
Local Planning Authorities: Understanding student accommodation needs in their area and providing robust evidence for emerging development plans; and
Higher Education Institutions: Understanding the mix of student accommodation in their area and informing expansion of their accommodation offer.
Bedspace features two examples of student base data in local authorities, one of which is Oxford City Council (OCC). The need to deliver general housing, whilst ensuring student accommodation is provided for during the plan period, is acutely relevant to OCC, and thus presented an interesting case study.
It has been identified that in the catchment area of Oxford City there are 32,295 students, split between its two universities; Oxford University (19,265) and Oxford Brookes University (13,035). If the city’s student population was to increase in line with past growth rates over the last 10 years, there could be an additional 965 students by 2025. Unsurprisingly, our evidence also shows that in Oxford, university halls of residence are the preferred accommodation type (over 50%). With 25% of students living in private rented accommodation, private sector halls represent only a very small fraction of the share (3%).
The Council’s recently adopted Local Plan (June 2020) recognises that the success of Oxford’s economy is shaped by the presence of its two universities.
The Local Plan identifies that provision of good quality, well managed student accommodation will continue to be required in Oxford. However, this type of land use often competes with sites for general housing. The Local Plan therefore places restrictions on the locations suitable for student accommodation and limits its occupancy to students at one of the two universities on academic courses of over a year.
OCC’s approach has been to include a threshold cap for both universities within the Local Plan. This restricts the number of students permitted to live outside the university provided accommodation. Furthermore, in the OCC area, the growth, redevelopment or refurbishment of education floorspace is linked to student accommodation provision (i.e. the provision of accommodation must be in step with the expansion of student places).
The above, coupled with the requirement to provide an affordable housing contribution on student accommodation schemes (25 or more students/10 or more self-contained units), as well as payment of CIL (which is applicable to both education and student accommodation floorspace in the OCC area), presents a challenging situation for PBSA.
However, the unique nature of OCC’s threshold strategy for the universities is long established. The Local Plan Inspector noted in its Examination Report (May 2020) that “…..the threshold system has been tried and tested in Oxford in previous plans and is a workable means of balancing the housing needs of the very large student population against the city’s many other housing needs and land uses. It is also a system that, subject to the specific threshold numbers, has been developed by consensus.”
Given the importance of the universities within the area, supply for student accommodation needs to be met to ensure growth of these important institutions can continue. The Local Plan’s aim is to balance support for the two universities while continuing the prioritisation of general housing. This difficult balancing act is applicable to local authorities across the UK.
Clearly PBSA is one of many competing land uses that Local Authorities have to contend with when seeking to meet its housing requirements. The shortage of appropriate sites within the city is a factor in land supply for housing. For example, Oxford has a rich history with large swathes of the city core within or adjacent to Conservation Areas, many listed buildings and other heritage assets. This is common across several of the UK’s university towns and cities. By nature, student accommodation would ideally be located in areas accessible to the city centre as opposed to outer suburbs, which may be more suitable for general housing provision. If students living within private rented accommodation could be housed in PBSA, private housing could be released back into the general rental market.
The National Planning Practice Guidance (NPPG) confirms that all student accommodation can in principle count towards contributing to an authority’s housing land supply based on:
the amount of accommodation that new student housing releases in the wider housing market (by allowing existing properties to return to general residential use); and / or
the extent to which it allows general market housing to remain in such use, rather than being converted for use as student accommodation.
PBSA development could go some way to assist with these challenges, allowing institutions to focus investment in teaching facilities and the “student experience” rather than provision of accommodation.
New PBSA development presents a fresh opportunity in terms of the way it can be used, which will be increasingly important in an uncertain market (See Arwel Evans' blog). This flexibility could help with other competing land uses, not just for general housing sites. For example, PBSA space can be rented on a short-term basis to visitors outside of term time, helping to address a shortage of visitor accommodation.
Bedspace can help navigate some of the current uncertainty in the market and provide a robust evidence led argument, helping to guide investment decisions to where PBSA is most needed.
Please do not hesitate to get in touch to discuss further.
 HESA Student Record 2018/19 (figures do not sum due to rounding) https://www.oxford.gov.uk/downloads/file/7288/inspectors_report_-_oxford_local_plan_2036 https://www.gov.uk/guidance/housing-supply-and-delivery Paragraph: 034 Reference ID: 68-034-20190722
10 Dec 2020
Future Wales is due to be approved by the Senedd in 2021 and will then form the top tier of the development plan system in Wales. The draft document is strong on vision and identifies a series of positive outcomes such as: “A Wales where people live in distinctive regions that tackle health and socio-economic inequality through sustainable growth.” It is difficult to argue with these ambitions but the document is very light on how these outcomes are to be delivered.
Instead, the land use elements of these outcomes will need to be developed in forthcoming Local Development Plans (LDPs) and eventually in the Strategic Development Plans (SDPs) once the new Corporate Joint Committee governance arrangements are in place.
The policy approach to delivering more positive economic outcomes for Wales are to be led by Chief Regional Officers who will be responsible for delivering Regional Economic Frameworks. Future Wales states that SDPs should take strategic locational decisions on housing, economic growth, key services and essential infrastructure that will help support growth deals and Regional Economic Frameworks.
There is a logic to a strategic approach linked to the City Region and Growth Deals. The land use planning process has however already been left behind, particularly in SE Wales and the need for essential investment cannot be put on hold pending the production of SDPs which currently don’t even have a timescale. Previous experience of strategic planning in the UK demonstrates that this is not a straight forward process particularly where difficult political choices need to made that will see investment directed to one local authority ahead of another.
In the meantime there is an urgency to secure investment to address the very real current social and economic crises. The land use planning process must play a role in this process and we can’t await production of the SDP before we allow the necessary investment decisions to be made.
A new round of LDPs are in the early stages of production and have understandably been hampered by the limitations arising out of the Covid restrictions. In the absence of SDPs it is essential that we now push these plans forward quickly to provide the necessary framework for new investment decisions. These must include strategic allocations which are the proposals most likely to bring transformational benefits through their scale of investment and ability to deliver supporting infrastructure.
It must be remembered that plan making is not the end of the process and that new development will still need to secure planning permissions, discharge pre-commencement decisions and open sites up before the benefits of new development can be delivered. LDP preparation is due to be accelerated but is still likely to take 3 to 4 years. Lead-in time from submission of a planning application to first occupations can take a similar timescale for major sites. This means that, even with a fair wind, major sites currently being put forward as candidate sites may be at least six years away from delivery.
It is essential therefore that there is flexibility in the existing process to allow new development ahead of LDPs being adopted. PPW, Future Wales and existing LDPs provide a framework within which development proposals can be considered in the short term. The placemaking agenda has been at the heart of Welsh Government’s agenda and the need for all new development proposals to take account of the place making principles is reiterated in the Future Wales document.
It is important that we don’t bring down the shutters to new development in the short term and force investors away from Wales. My conversations with local planning authorities, particularly those with aging LDPs, indicate that there is a recognition of the social and economic benefits that new development brings and that we do need to consider windfall development of a suitable scale ahead of the next round of LDPs.
A recent appeal decision by the Minister for Housing and Local Government at Bedwellty in Caerphilly CBC [Minister’s letter ref:qA1399761] is a major cause for alarm by suggesting that new development should not come forward on greenfield windfall sites until the next round of LDPs are in place 3 to 4 years hence (and possibly longer in Caerphilly). The Minister refers in her decision letter to the reliance on a Plan-led system irrespective of the acceptance by the local authority that there is a lack of locally deliverable sites.
Welsh Government’s own research in the ‘Longitudinal Viability Study of the Planning Process’ (2017) acknowledges that existing plans have failed to allocate sufficient deliverable sites. Accordingly, deliverability has rightly become a key focus of the new plan making process. However, development, particularly housing delivery, is required in the short term.
Waiting on the next round of LDPs for new delivery also runs counter to Welsh Government own statement in ‘Building Better Places – Placemaking and the Covid-19 recovery’ (July 2020) that it will support decisions taken in the context of PPW and Future Wales where the LDP is silent or out of date.
Clarification is urgently required from Welsh Government that it will support well considered schemes that reflect placemaking principles in the short term and will not simply require the development industry to take a pause for 3-4 years until LDPs are in place. It is inconceivable that any other sector of the economy would be asked to stop production for several years whilst a new economic strategy is prepared.
It is clear that the focus in Future Wales is very much on the public sector leading transformational change in Wales. Policy 3 deals with public sector leadership in supporting urban growth and regeneration whilst Policy 7 sets out how the Welsh Government will increase delivery of affordable homes. There is, however, no policy dealing with market housing delivery or a national employment land strategy for Wales. There is in fact very limited policy reference to the positive role that private sector investment can play in delivering the ambitions of Future Wales.
Delivery of the positive socio-economic outcomes sought by Future Wales will require particular attention as we come out of the Covid-19 pandemic and face the uncertainty of a post-Brexit world. Whilst the role of a strong public sector will be important there is the real prospect of a tightening of public sector purse strings. It is therefore likely that major future investment will still need to be driven by private sector finance. This must be acknowledged in the way in which forthcoming LDPs and SDPs make land use allocations ensuring that sites are deliverable and where there are barriers that sources of public sector investment are clearly identified.
Many local authorities are starting to build essential new homes and this is welcomed. Unsurprisingly, given the length of time since they have played this role there is need to build up knowledge and capacity to deliver. It will be many years before local authorities are able to build “at scale and pace” as proposed by Future Wales and even then it is unclear what public sector resources will be available to fund this programme.
Increased public sector housing delivery should, in my view, be in addition to supporting increased delivery of market homes, and not in place of it. Private housing enables delivery of positive social and economic outcomes both directly through the delivery of somewhere to live and associated physical infrastructure but also in terms of investment by construction firms and then by the spending of new residents in local communities. Lichfields estimate that for every 100 homes built there is direct investment of over £13 million, c.220 direct FTE construction jobs, and £3 million in spending by new residents.
If we are to deliver the ambitious outcomes sought by Future Wales we need to start acting now. The way in which we consider and plan for develop does need to change and place making must be at the heart of this process. But there is a need to embrace these changes in the short term so that we start finding our way out of the economic and social turmoil that the combination of Covid-19 and Brexit has delivered. This is best addressed through constructive dialogue between the private and public sector about how delivery can happen now and not just in 6-8 years’ time.
I discuss these and associated issues in further detail in our insight focus: