The government announced plans last week to reduce the adverse effects of densely-populated student areas in university towns.
Increasing concentrations of students living in select areas, close to university campuses, are driving out low-income families from affordable housing and causing notable changes in local communities.
The report, from Housing and Planning minister Caroline Flint, outlines ways universities and town councils can work together to reduce the number of HMOs (Houses in Multiple Occupation) in certain areas. An HMO is defined as an entire house or flat which is let to three or more tenants who form two or more households.
A large number of students live in HMOs, often of poor quality, to save money and to be in a practical location for travelling to and from university. These houses, which may otherwise have been let to low-income families, are often bought by landlords to let to the student market.
Student numbers have been rising at a faster rate than universities can provide accommodation and this problem has given students no choice but to turn to the private sector. A recent study by Brighton and Hove City Council found that nearly two-thirds of Brighton University students and half of Sussex students live in privately managed accommodation.
The areas most affected by high student populations are Lewes Road, Upper Lewes Road, Coombe Road, Hartington Road and Bevendean.
Increased numbers of students in a small area can lead to the closure of local amenities such as schools and churches. A primary school in Coombe Road has seen the yearly intake halve as a result of the changing
demographic of the area. A large number of students in a neighbourhood can also lead to social problems. Locals have complained about noise late at night, changes in local shops (more takeaways, off-licences) and an increase in litter which attracts seagulls and rats.
Another problem is that houses are often left empty during long summer breaks which can give rise to crime. Caroline Flint says that “it is not acceptable that current rental practices allow unplanned student enclaves to evolve to such an extent that local communities are left living as ghost towns following the summer student exodus.”
However, students also bring many advantages to a region. In Brighton, students spend over £250 million each year and it is estimated that 5,000 jobs depend upon the student populace. Student volunteering schemes such as Project V also provide an important way of improving relations between the university and the local community.
Adam Farrell, University of Sussex Student Union (USSU) Education officer, states that “a lot of the complaints
that are directed towards students are issues such as littering or poorly maintained front of houses. These are, a lot of the time, due to landlords failing to take responsibility and taking shortcuts on maintenance. Whilst this is the conduct of some estate agents and not all, more has to be done by the University and the council to stop bad practice.”
USSU Welfare officer, Richa Kaul-Padte, adds that “perceptions of students in the local community are often exaggerated, with a general group of young people between the age of 19 and 25 being classed as ‘students.’ The union recognises that there are a variety of problems in local neighbourhoods that students may contribute to, and I think that a growing engagement with the local community, not only throug volunteering schemes but with an active student participation in council meetings etc. will allow us to work together with the community to change not only perceptions, but conditions.”
The government report also encourages universities to provide more purpose-built student accommodation.
The University has recently applied for planning permission for the construction of a new accommodation block, due to commence in 2010. The plans are to use land at the north end of campus to create new residences while a redevelopment of East Slope is planned for 2011. Although this aims to house all first year students it still does not account for all the second and third year students who need to seek housing in the private sector.
A green paper is due to be put to parliament later this year detailing more specific plans of action.