Houses in Multiple Occupation A paper by the New Works Committee May 2014
Report of the Chester Civic Trust working group – March 2014
1. Problems of the current situation
1.1. Distortions in the housing market over the past five years caused by the economic crisis have made the provision of student accommodation financially attractive in the short term for both commercial developers and private landlords. This is an unstable situation leading to overprovision of accommodation, some of which will prove ultimately unsatisfactory or even redundant. The spate of planning applications for student dwellings in the past two years emphasises this problem.
1.2. Government higher education policy is radically changing the market for student places and accurate prediction of future student numbers in Chester and the surrounding area is almost impossible. Although the best guesses of both the University and the Nevin Leather report are for roughly static numbers, at least in the short term, student accommodation policies in practice have to react to a volatile and uncertain market.
End note (1)
1.3. It is unclear whether the University will continue to develop most strongly in Chester or whether significant growth will be diverted to Thornton, Warrington and Shrewsbury. The University’s strategy appears to be opportunistic and unpredictable. The development of the University of Law at Christleton may complicate the situation.
1.4. The need for student accommodation is not seen as a legitimate element in the total housing needs of the city. It is dealt with as a special issue driven by political pressures and it is largely ignored in the Council’s strategic housing documents. End Note (2)
1.5. The lack of explicit policy for student accommodation has created uncertainty for both the Chester community and for potential developers of student accommodation. Council responses are ad hoc and lack consistency and this leads to controversy and potentially expensive appeals against apparently arbitrary refusals of permission. There has been a failure to implement policies HO16/17 of the 2006 Chester Local Plan concerning houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) and conversions to student occupation.
1.6. There are no planning policy criteria to define the appropriate location of both purpose-built and HMO student accommodation; applications are dealt with ad hoc.
1.7. The University has taken a largely ‘disinterested’ view of student accommodation issues and has failed to engage effectively with the local community and other stakeholders in Chester, including the Council.
1.8. The rapid growth of the University in Chester has created great pressure for accommodation in the surrounding areas leading to large-scale creation of HMOs, especially in the Garden Quarter, with consequent problems of car parking, deterioration of the environment and community stress. Potentially accessible family housing is being lost to the market, creating pressures for greenfield development of housing elsewhere.
1.9. HMO accommodation is often of poor quality and lack of good accommodation may be a disincentive to students choosing to study in Chester.
1.10. Student preferences for accommodation are varied and often change during their period of study. Developers of purpose-built accommodation are increasingly ignoring students’ revealed liking for grouped flatlets with communal cooking and social areas. It is considered this is being done to ensure buildings could be available to other occupants should they fail on the student market. This may produce unpredictable and undesirable social outcomes.
1.11. Lack of statutory accommodation, private open space and car parking standards for student dwellings lead to overdevelopment of sites. Purpose-built student accommodation is generally built down to a price that maximises profit and this produces mediocre design and overdominant massing of buildings that are poorly related to their surroundings and damage the historic heritage of the city.
1.12. The rapid growth in student numbers and their impact on the city have created an unhealthy environment of hostility amongst some in the Chester community. Students are sometimes viewed as a ‘contagion’ to be excluded or removed as far as possible from the city environment. The Civic Trust believes, on the contrary, that students can make a valuable contribution to Chester’s attraction as a diverse and vibrant city. Students should not be blamed for the student accommodation policy vacuum.
2. Goals of a student accommodation strategy
A strategy is needed that addresses all the problems listed above. In summary it should:-
2.1. Deal credibly and publicly with the issues raised by student accommodation within the overall housing strategy for the city and the implementation of policy SOC3 in the (draft) Local Plan.
2.2. Create certainty by defining and implementing policies on acceptable development to guide applicants in both the purpose-built and HMO sectors.
2.3. Give confidence to the city’s residents and property owners, particularly in areas of current stress.
2.4. Provide criteria to assess the planning applications for student accommodation that arise.
3. Suggested policies
Chester Civic Trust believes a student accommodation strategy should contain the following elements:
3.1. Consideration of student accommodation as an integral part of the overall housing strategy of the Council.
3.2. Up-to-date estimates of the demand for various types of student accommodation taking account of the plans of the various HE/FE institutions.
3.3. Estimates of the land needed taking into account various combinations of development density.
3.4. Identification of the actual supply of potential sites and localities to provide a balanced and sustainable development of student housing.
3.5. A mix of accommodation:-
A brownfield campus development or developments (not in the Green Belt). The University should be urged to develop or make available for commercial developers the Parkgate Road land north of the railway embankment. The policy process also needs to identify suitable locations for such a development in the city that might potentially become available in the future.
Individual developments of purpose-built student accommodation in suitable locations within the city. Acceptable developments must have a 24-hour management presence. The Civic trust believes a distributed pattern of developments will provide social diversity and promote integration of students into the city community.
Conversion for student accommodation of currently under-used or unoccupied premises (including upper storeys) within the City Centre.
Properly maintained and managed HMOs in suitable accommodation but with restrictions on the proportion of such properties in any particular area. To achieve this an Article 4 Direction in relation to HMOs needs to be in force across the whole city to avoid diversion of unrestricted HMO development into areas outside the boundary of the currently defined area.
3.6. Proposals for purpose-built student accommodation should be developed in partnership or consultation with the University or other relevant institution and show recognition of the overall housing and student accommodation context of Chester.
3.7. The University and other HE/FE institutions must actively engage with the Chester community, particularly in areas of housing stress. They must also develop, where not already present, contractual codes of behaviour that are then enforced (including exclusion) against students who prove to be ‘bad neighbours’ in the community. Students should be contractually forbidden to keep a car in the city.
3.8. The design and construction of purpose-built student accommodation must be of high quality and respect the environmental and historic context of the immediate surroundings and of the city as a whole, particularly in Conservation Areas.
3.9. New student accommodation should be capable of conversion to ‘normal’ residential houses and apartments without the need for redevelopment should there be a future decline in student demand. Schemes should have the necessary quality and infrastructure (such as parking on site) to enable this to happen. This will lead to a more stable and sustainable environment and less chance of such developments reverting to bed-sit ‘sink’ accommodation.
4. Implementing the policy – suggested criteria to judge applications for student accommodation
4.1. HMOs End Note (3)
Change of use from a C3 dwelling house to an HMO will not be permitted where there is a high concentration (perhaps 10% or 20%) of residential properties that are already HMOs (defined by specific criteria) within a short distance of the application (perhaps within 100m).
In cases where the concentration of such properties is significant but less high the Council will examine property type and resident mix in more detail when considering an application for change of use.
In areas of high concentration of HMOs, extensions will not be permitted where this can reasonably be expected to lead to an increase in levels of occupation.
All proposals for change of use of existing properties into HMOs or flats will only be permitted where the accommodation provided is of a high standard and will not materially harm the character of the area (as defined by the Chester Characterisation Study and other relevant area design briefs.)
4.2. Purpose-built student accommodation. End note (4)
Priority will be given to schemes which are part of the University’s development plan or are being progressed in partnership with the University or other relevant institution. Developers will be required to demonstrate there is a need for additional student accommodation or that they have entered into a formal agreement with a relevant institution to supply such accommodation.
Sites should be in a suitable location affording good access to University premises or other institution on foot, by cycle or by public transport.
Developments must respect, complement and enhance their surroundings and Chester’s historic architectural heritage, particularly in terms of appropriate height, density, design features and materials.
High density developments should be sited in locations where this is compatible with the existing pattern of uses and development.
Proposals that demonstrate a positive regeneration impact in their own right will be given preference over other schemes, as shown by impact and environmental assessments.
Where appropriate, proposals should contribute to the re-use of listed buildings and other buildings of heritage value.
5. Developing the policy documents: next steps
5.1. A policy for student accommodation in Chester should be prepared as part of the housing strategy for the local authority. Overall housing policy must be implemented through a comprehensive strategy prepared in partnership with all those in both the demand and supply parts of the housing system. This ensures that need and demand are properly balanced with supply, affordability and the most suitable locations for housing.
5.2. Once the need for student housing is considered as part of the whole need for housing then planning policy can be prepared that guides which sites are most suitable for student housing rather than other housing components.
5.3. Development control policies can then set out the criteria by which applications for new build on windfall sites and conversions of existing buildings for student housing can be judged.
5.4. This policy, following the examples of criteria given in paragraphs 4.1. and 4.2. above, can be ‘supplementary planning guidance’ to the Local Plan that has recently been submitted for examination or included in a ‘part 2′ of the Local Plan for site allocations and development management.’
1. University of Chester, Development Framework, March 2012, p. 19; Nevin Leather Associates, Student Housing in Chester, January 2012, para. 7.11.
2. E.g. Cheshire West and Chester 2013 Strategic Housing Market Assessment, Final Report for Cheshire West and Chester Council July 2013; CWAC Local Plan, Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment (SHLAA), 2013
3. These criteria have been adapted from those contained in Manchester City Council, Core Strategy Development Plan Document, 2012, policy H11. See also Leicester City Council, Local Development Framework, Student Housing Supplementary Planning Document, June 2012, sections 2-3.
4. Adapted from Manchester City Council, Core Strategy Development Plan Document, 2012, policy H12.