Sunday, 31 December 2017 16:17

The Problem With Student Halls

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The Problem With Student Halls

With so many new student blocks opening or being built around ‘Station Square’ (soon to be renamed 'Student Central') is it time that we stopped worrying about all the minor details and ask the big question – will these new halls kill small business in Southsea? Could they be the death knell for the University itself?

Let’s get the minor details out of the way 1st….

  • Parents of students generally prefer halls as it is the first year away from home for their little treasure and for some reason, they think little Jemima or Jimmy will be safer in a tower block with 800 similar ‘newbies’ than in some private house within the community.  (Suggest these parents read ‘Lord of The Flies’)
  • Students rapidly come to realise that £7,000-£9,000 for a year in a battery cage with very little space, privacy or peace is probably the worst place to sleep let alone study, especially at 3am on a Sunday morning (and this is on top of their £9,000 / year tuition fees)
  • The University are largely ambivalent. They don’t want bad press and they do want to please parents of potential students, else they will have less potential students (and as a business, their aim is to grow whenever possible). Conversely, these aims would be better met if there were more choice for potential students and not all halls were over-priced with the same layout and limited facilities
  • Councillors generally want ‘All students to live in halls’ because a minority of residents (remember happy residents never contact their councillor to express their happiness) complain about students living in their street. They also somewhat simplistically see this as a partial solution to the city’s housing problem – if 14-15 thousand less students live in the city’s 3,000 HMO’s then that means there will be 3,000 more homes for families.
  • Local residents (for example the Somerstown Residents Assoc (PATCH)) complain that new halls cannot be used for other inhabitants should the flow of students dry up, they worry that developers seem to get away with ‘cheap’ poorly designed developments, there is no provision for affordable housing and less S106/CIL payments than similar non-student developments
  • And it goes without saying that local landlords see the halls as unfair competition as 1 or 2 large developers have far more clout when talking to the Council or the University than 500 or so small landlords even before you look at the marketing budget differential between the 2 groups

So that’s the small stuff out of the way, back to the original premise that these new halls will kill small business in Portsmouth which may in the end, kill the University itself.  The logic goes something like this:

  • As the University has grown, Southsea has flourished
  • Whereas North End and other retail centres have degenerated, Albert Rd, Marmion Rd, Elm Grove and others in the area have gone from strength to strength
  • It is not just ‘shops on the street’ that have benefited. The vast majority of Portsmouth’s cultural heart seems to beat in the South of the city – from music venues to art galleries, artisan workshops to quirky chocolatiers, they are the beating heart of the city and the students living there are its lifeblood
  • You would expect no less with nearly 20,000 intelligent young people living in an area of around 50,000 in total, 1 in 3 of the population are students in many streets in the area
  • Now what happens as the new halls come online?
  • The first casualty is the Universities own halls on the Langstone Campus at Milton. These will be ‘moth balled’ in June. With around 450 rooms there the University were faced with a large bill to bring them up to a standard comparable with the new halls, or to admit defeat and close the hall allowing students to opt for the newer accommodation nearer to the main campus
  • We can argue how much money the University lose through not letting rooms on the Langstone Campus but even if all of that income merely covered the cost of managing and operating the site, we can say that at least it was being spend locally. Now it will go to the developers and managers of the new halls, none of whom have any significant local presence.
  • So step one has occurred, the income from housing ~450 students is no longer being spent within the city
  • Step two is the University bus service. We have been told that it will stop running to Langstone at the end of this academic year but no decision has been made on whether to do away with it completely. Our expectation is that with the loss of income from Langstone, the Uni will cut what must be a considerable cost and cancel the bus service.
  • The immediate effect will be that houses currently occupied by students along the bus route will become unlettable (see the 200 or more students waiting for the bus at Lidl in Goldsmith Avenue on an average weekday to judge the scale of that impact)
  • Some of these properties will be sold and become available for families, it may introduce a brief dip in house prices which some will benefit from, but most won’t. But many will require significant work to turn them into dwellings for anything other than groups of professionals or students, the cost of which will be hard to justify by the owners given the lower returns achievable if they do so. Many landlords are asset rich and cash poor, so will not have the money to upgrade - so they will soldier on spending as little as possible and less than before as their incomes have been hit
  • So, our expectation is that the number of derelict or poorly maintained properties in Southsea will start to rise
  • That has several knock-on effects, most obvious being less work for the various tradesmen we all employ on a daily basis, plumbers, gas fitters, electricians, decorators, roofers, gardeners, odd job men, cleaners, carpet fitters and the rest. Some of these will go out of business, most will have less money to spend in the city
  • Add to that the loss of income to the 3,000+ HMO landlords in the city, most of which is spent in the city and will no longer be so
  • The biggest impact will take longer to materialise. As students move from the heart of the city into Student Central in increasing numbers, the businesses that depend upon them whether that be bars and takeaways in Albert Rd or grocers, coffee shops or hairdressers or any of the many other businesses that have sprung up to support them will also see reduced business
  • Some will die, some will struggle on. All will have less to spend feeding back into the city’s economy
  • As Southsea becomes more run down and less appealing, the Uni will find it harder and harder to entice young people to come and live here
  • Especially when social media starts to tell how hard it is to find part time work in the area (due to all the struggling businesses), how dire and expensive the halls are and how tatty the city has become…..

As members of the local community we obviously don’t want the above version of Armageddon to slowly consume a city that at last appears to be finding a role and a life after the navy (or at least, not wholly dependant upon it).  But what can we do?

The halls are there and will continue to arrive but there are some things we can do to minimise the risk of the feared outcome:

  • Compete!  Upgrade your properties to match the standard of the halls. Yes it will push up prices, but what are the alternatives? Come along to our January meeting to find out what you need to do…
  • Fight for the Uni bus service. True, it is not needed at Langstone anymore and yes, the Uni probably could save money – but what about a reduced route, say just to Goldsmith Ave/Fratton Way roundabout or even a round trip taking in Albert Rd? Talk to your student tenants and find out what they want. Most will be happy to pay £20 / term for a ticket I am sure…

End Notes

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