Student Housing

Orders of the Day — Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 9:42 pm on 23rd November 1992.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kirkhope.]

Photo of John Denham John Denham , Southampton, Itchen 10:15 pm, 23rd November 1992

I should declare an interest and a history at the outset. The history is that I was a student, and for several years I lived in rented houses. I do not claim that my life style was significantly different from or more neighbour-friendly than that of today's students. My interest is in the Outer avenue residents association, a city centre residents association in Southampton, whose members are most concerned about the sudden surge of student housing into their community.

The recent and rapid expansion of higher education has been matched by a dramatic increase in the number of houses, most of them former family houses, which have become student lets. Between the last academic year and this the number of full-time students in Southampton grew by 1,676. In the same time, the number of purpose-built student places rose by only 283. Even allowing for the fact that some of these full-time students may be living at home, it is likely that more than 200 family houses in Southampton have been lost to student lets since last July.

Two years ago, the city council estimated that the three-year growth projected in student numbers would cost the city about 750 family homes. That represents a dramatic impact on the housing market of a city such as Southampton. The explosion in student housing is pushing local people out of the housing market and undermining the health and vitality of inner-city communities.

In my constituency, areas such as Nicholstown, Tennyson road, the Inner avenue area and the Outer avenue area and the Polygon and Fitzhugh areas are all suffering from these extreme pressures. Most of this pressure is felt in the city centre, but there is also significant pressure in a number of suburbs.

In representing my constituents' interests and those of local residents in the city centre, I do not believe that I am speaking up for a "not in my backyard" attitude. The truth is that, in most of the areas of student housing which are now coming under pressure, there has been student housing for at least 25 years, and no one moving in to those areas in that period would have believed that they were moving in to a socially exclusive part of the city.

Many of the people who moved in to the inner-city communities, including my family and myself, have positively chosen to live in a part of the city centre which is socially and ethnically diverse. We wanted to live there to benefit from the community life and the educational opportunities that inner-city diversity brings. Many of my constituents and I believe, however, that the balance between sections of the inner-city community is being tipped too far in favour of student accommodation.

In raising this subject for debate and with regard to a university city which has other higher education institutions, I want to make it quite clear that I am not setting out to be a student basher. I do not intend to blame individual students for the problems facing inner-city areas.

Individually, the behaviour of those students is typical of the behaviour of young people. However, I must say that I have always been surprised that some of the most intelligent and expensively educated young people find it so difficult to remember to put out their rubbish sacks on the correct day, but prefer to leave them out all week in case they miss the refuse collection. Similarly, I admit that there are limits to the spectator interest in the sport of kicking a drink can all the way home from the pub.

In truth, the problem is not the behaviour of individual students or individual student households. The problem is one of sheer numbers. Large numbers of young people who live for only a short time in an area undermine the cohesiveness of that local community. In a street quite close to my home, about one third of the houses are occupied by students, compared with only two or three just three years ago. There are four or five students in each house.

We must recognise that in such a street, nearly half the adult population will change every year. Quite simply, if one lives in such a street, one can no longer expect to know one's neighbour. Networks of friendship, co-operation and security, and a common involvement in schools and community and religious organisations, become hard to maintain.

We cannot overlook the fact that change is taking place very rapidly. In a street in the Fitzhugh area of Southampton, 18 family houses were converted from family homes into student lets between July and October of this year. With that level of concentration of student housing, aspects of behaviour that can be ignored in small doses can become major problems. If one student house in a street has one noisy party a year, that is not a problem. However, if 30 student houses each have one noisy party a year, that is a noisy party every weekend of the academic year, and it is a big problem for neighbours.

Most students do not have cars, but more of them do. Local people suddenly find in October that they can no longer park outside or near their homes. They have to leave their cars in insecure locations away from their homes, where they are prone to theft and vandalism. They cannot use their pull-ins, often constructed at their own expense, because the entrances are blocked.

The powers that local authorities have under environmental health legislation do not help. The powers are quite useful to tackle genuinely anti-social tenants and neglectful landlords. However, when people are acting quite reasonably, as in a sense students are by parking their cars, the problem stems from the fact that too many people carry out that activity at the same time in the same place. Environmental health powers are of very limited use in tackling such problems.

I accept that, individually, many of those problems may seem trivial. However, taken together, they create a deeply damaging loss of confidence and identity in inner-city areas. Quite simply, local people no longer feel that they own or belong to the areas in which they live and in which they have bought their homes.

The incentive to invest in their homes diminishes. Many of my neighbours and constituents know that the most likely purchaser of their home will be a student landlord —someone who is interested only in the most basic fabric of the building. The purchaser is unlikely to be another family. In the current housing market, the purchaser is almost inevitably going to be a student landlord in such areas.

Rapidly, and remarkably rapidly in many cases, whole streets become marked by properties that are neglected by landlords or where private owners no longer feel willing to invest in them. That means another turn in the screw of decline in inner-city areas. Ultimately, that can and will become a pressure on the public purse. When the decline goes too far, it is back to the local authority for home improvement grants and possibly neighbourhood renewal areas for public money to invest, because private individuals lack the confidence to maintain the standards of their properties. It would be a social tragedy if people who can afford to move out of those communities do so, leaving behind only those who cannot afford to move.

Before I outline exactly what needs to be done, the question of student housing needs to be linked to HMOs —housing in multiple occupation. They are typically bedsits or converted flatlets let on single tenancies. In a city like Southampton, HMOs house many local young people, and increasingly—and regrettably, because they are quite unsuitable for the purpose—they also house many local young families. The use of HMOs by local people is regrettably an essential feature of the local housing market. The city council has to rely heavily on such properties for housing priority and non-priority homeless families and individuals.

To some extent, although to a lesser extent at the current time, the spread of HMOs in an inner-city area also gives rise to the type of concerns that I have been talking about. It is obvious to me that no responsible local authority could or should want to obliterate the use of properties for HMOs in the current demand for housing, but it is equally obvious to me that councils need to be able to balance the needs of residential communities—the needs of settled communities—against the different uses of housing. That is difficult enough at the moment, but it is particularly difficult because of the pressures and distortions that are created by the student housing market.

The only way to deal with that issue is through the planning process, and a sensible planning policy which the city council in Southampton would like to pursue would do several things. It would seek to limit the impact of HMOs and student lets in any one area. It would put a limit of, say, 10 per cent. or perhaps 20 per cent., depending on the nature of the area and local demand, on the maximum number of such conversions and such a loss of use as family houses.

At the same time, local authorities should be obliged to ensure that within their entire area they were still allowing sufficient HMOs to meet local needs—in other words, spreading the load from high-concentration areas to other areas of the city. Of course, they should use, as Southampton does with its HMO team, their full environmental powers to bring HMOs up to high standards. Within the rented sector, the balance should be shifted towards local people. In part, that should be done by planning controls on properties, and in part by requiring institutes of higher education to provide sufficient housing for their new students.

The problem, and the reason for requesting this debate, is that, under current planning laws, local authorities cannot pursue such a sensible planning policy. Any attempt to limit the loss of family housing is likely to produce the perverse result of increasing the number of student lets and decreasing the availability of rented housing for local people. Under the Use Classes Order 1987, a group of up to six people living together as one household are classified in exactly the same way as a family residence—as a dwelling house. That order was brought in for an entirely different reason. It was about sheltered housing and problems of that sort, but it has had the effect of removing student housing from planning control.

A property let to six students who share one rent book and share the occasional meal will not require planning permission. Ironically, the same property let to six local young people each with an individual rent book will require planning permission. Of course, landlords know that, so any council that tries to limit the spread of HMOs by planning permissions and planning consents will encourage the same landlords to turn houses into student lets which do not require planning permission—the very reverse of what a sensible local authority would try to achieve.

Southampton city council has explored those issues in great detail with the regional office of the Department of the Environment, and the advice that it has received backs up my comments. In principle, one could control HMOs. It would cost one a lot; one would have to door-to-door surveys and so on. One would be able to control their spread, but one would have no control over student housing.

Other factors are pressing in the same direction. Student letting is already easier for landlords. In a sense, one is more or less guaranteed vacant possession from time to time if one lets to students and there are no complications with housing benefit. But from April next year, student landlords will be exempt from council tax on those properties. If they let their properties to local people, the local people and the landlord will have to pay council tax, but not if they let their properties to students.

That relief will not benefit students, because the rented market will charge as much as the students' purses can pay, but many landlords who run those properties purely as a private business will gain hundreds of pounds per property at the taxpayer's expense—a strong fiscal incentive to switch their properties from local people to students. Local people in Southampton are outraged that many of those properties which are adding to the decline of their area will make no financial contribution to running environmental and other services in inner-city communities.

The final problem is that local authorities lack the powers to require higher education institutions to provide purpose-built accommodation. Both Southampton university and the institutions of higher education are now —if somewhat belatedly—making significant efforts to provide new student halls of residence, but their plans imply the loss of many more family homes in the city.

Nationally, it is recognised that a shortfall of about 200,000 student places is forecast during the next few years, which implies the loss of about 40,000 or 50,000 family homes to student accommodation. Students are actively campaigning for better purpose-built accommodation, because they know how vulnerable they are to exploitative and neglectful landlords. Rents of up to £60 a week are being charged in Southampton for single rooms. The institutions of higher education face great problems in financing new student housing, but this issue would be dealt with elsewhere.

I have set out the problems and the difficulties facing local authorities in exercising proper planning controls over the spread of student housing. I invite the Minister to make a number of responses implying a different level of commitment. At the very least, I hope that he will recognise the seriousness of the problems that I have outlined and the extent to which they are shared by other university towns and cities. I hope that he will pledge to study with local authorities the impact of student housing on residential areas and of students on housing supply and the housing market.

Secondly, I hope that the Minister will consider consulting with local authorities on changes to the Use Classes Order, which would enable local authorities to treat houses occupied by full-time students as HMOs. When the change was made, the Association of District Councils considered objecting to it. It did not do so, because it thought that the change would lead to a restriction of HMOs. As I said, the result is the reverse; it allows local authorities to restrict HMOs but not student housing, and I am sure that that was never the intention of the order when it was introduced.

Thirdly, I urge the Minister to discuss with his colleagues a review of the council tax regulations, to ensure that, while maintaining relief for students, landlords running businesses should pay fair taxes and contribute towards the local services that tenants use, and to remove the fiscal bias from renting property to students rather than to local people.

Fourthly, I hope that the Minister will review strategic planning powers to enable local authorities to make proper strategic provision for renting housing to local people and to require higher education institutions to house the projected increase in student numbers.

We have heard a lot in recent years about the enabling role of local authorities in housing provision. This is an area in which that role should be played in full, in planning the availability of housing for local people throughout the city, in working with institutions of higher education to ensure that they exercise their responsibility and in using their powers to bring existing rented property up to a reasonable standard. If local authorities were enabled to do so, it would allow inner-city communities such as the area that I represent to maintain their vitality, health, vigour and confidence—which I hope is the aim of all of us.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment) 10:37 pm, 23rd November 1992

This debate focuses on the impact of the expansion of student numbers in residential areas.

The hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) has expressed concern that the expansion of higher education in Southampton has resulted in a marked rise in conversions of larger houses for students, which has had housing and planning consequences.

The hon. Member makes three suggestions: that student housing should be separated from other residential housing for the purposes of the Use Classes Order 1987, which would mean that converting homes to student use would require specific planning permission; that higher education establishments should be encouraged to provide more purpose-built student housing; and that local authorities should be enabled to make provision for more rented housing locally.

First, I shall deal with the planning considerations. As the hon. Member has rightly said, properties may change from family homes to student houses without the need for specific planning permission. Family houses and student housing fall within the same class—C3—of the Use Classes Order, because their impact in terms of land use, and their effect on the locality in terms of, for example, noise, traffic, and visual appearance are reckoned to be generally comparable. Class C3 comprises use as a dwelling house, either by a single person or by people living together as a family; or by not more than six residents living together as a single household.

In contrast to its predecessors order of 1972, class C3 aims to provide more certainty about the planning position of multiple occupancy and other cases where houses are occupied by groups of unrelated people, such as students, nurses or professional people. Another advantage of class C3 is the flexibility it gives to property owners and landlords who wish to respond to changing patterns of the local demand for accommodation, without the burden of making planning applications.

But the essential point is that the Use Classes Order is concerned only with considerations material to planning. It is the nature of the use of the land which is relevant. Land use is not about social, ethical or moral issues: the age, occupation or social background of residents whether they be students or anyone else, are not material planning considerations.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke of his concerns about the increase in various kinds of nuisance perceived to be associated with student life, such as neighbourhood noise. The Environmental Protection Act 1990 gives local authorities a duty to take reasonable steps to investigate all complaints about noise. The Act also provides environmental health officers with extensive powers to control noise by serving abatement notices which, if ignored, could result in a considerable fine. Where the threat of prosecution is not enough to bring the disturbance of, say, a noisy party to an end, local authorities may need to take immediate action so that people can enjoy their right to peace and quiet.

In mention those sanctions not because I believe that students in general are inconsiderate—usually quite the reverse—but to emphasise the fact that where isolated instances of anti-social behaviour occur, local authorities already have more than adequate powers to deal with them.

The hon. Gentleman is also concerned that there might be a decline of established communities, as a result of concentrations of a particular kind of resident in this case, students. I appreciate his concern about eroding the character of established residential areas, but changing patterns of housing demand inevitably lead to changes in the type of housing required. In some circumstances, they can best be met either by a simple change of use, needing no planning application, or by the adaptation and conversion of buildings, which will probably require the grant of planning permission.

Where local authorities consider that the pressure for development is so serious as to threaten an established residential area whose character warrants protection, they may include policies on density of development in their local plans to protect that area—although they must take care to avoid undue rigidity. In general, the Government believe in the desirability of a reasonable housing mix, and a balance of house types and sizes, to cater for a range of housing need.

Photo of John Denham John Denham , Southampton, Itchen

Does the Minister accept my basic point that the powers of local authorities to control density of development or conversions do not apply when a house changes from a family home to a student house? If a local authority finds that the impact of student housing is fundamentally changing the character of an area, it is unable to use any of the existing planning mechanisms to limit that change in character.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

As I have explained to the House, the Use Classes Order considerations are planning considerations; they do not have regard to the nature of the occupants living in the home whether they be students, nurses or anyone else. That provision was introduced after consultation with local authority associations and others. Where local authorities are concerned about the change in the character of an area, due to the increased density of development, they have powers through their local plan to take action.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to houses in multiple occupation, HMOs. An HMO is defined as a house which is occupied by persons who do not form a single household —and it thereby falls outside the scope of the dwelling-house use class. That broad definition can cover a wide range of properties such as hostels, bedsitters, and bed-and-breakfast establishments. Of course, students, too, can live in HMOs. A change of use from an ordinary dwelling-house to an HMO will require planning permission and the planning authority will have an opportunity—indeed, a duty—to consider such applications on their planning merits.

The hon. Member was also worried that the expansion of student housing could operate as a disincentive for private landlords to invest in the maintenance of their properties. The responsibility for repairs and maintenance is, of course, normally set out in a lease or tenancy agreement. For those tenancies granted since 1961 the landlord is, by law, responsible for the repair of the structure and exterior of the dwelling and, in most cases, for keeping in repair and proper working order sanitary, water-heating, and space-heating installations. For new tenancies granted for less than seven years since January 1989, the landlord is also responsible for the repair of most common parts of the building, and installations if they are owned or controlled by him.

This brings me to consideration of the institutions of higher education themselves—in this case, the university and other higher education institutions in Southampton. Universities are autonomous bodies and, as such, are responsible for deciding their own funding priorities within the total resources at their disposal. Southampton university in particular has ambitious plans for growth. I fully appreciate the concerns expressed by the hon. Member and local residents about the potential impact of expansion of student numbers on residential communities and the effect that that has on availability of stock to local residents.

I remind the House that Government grant to higher education institutions is provided through the funding councils, which distribute grant to institutions on the basis of criteria for teaching and research rather than for the provision of student residential accommodation. Where institutions decide to make such provision, they are expected to finance it from borrowing, rental income or other sources of funds at their disposal, taking account of their students' needs. However, the higher education institutions in this country accommodate a larger proportion of students in their own accommodation than do those of our European partners.

The hon. Member spoke of his concern and that of his constituents that students displace local people from the rented market. That is the crux of the matter. In any area, there will be X number of units of accommodation and Y number of people—students and non-students—wanting to occupy that accommodation. The House will know that the Government are committed to achieving a situation where those wanting accommodation and the accommodation that can be provided can come together, and the steps that we have taken to increase the supply of rented housing will greatly advance the cause.

A fortnight ago, the Chancellor of the Exchequer confirmed the Government's plans to allocate some £6 billion to the Housing Corporation over three years. In addition, this year's allocation is being increased by £600 million to enable housing associations to purchase new, empty and repossessed properties for rent and to allow housing association tenants to buy homes in the private sector. In the three years to the end of 1994–95, housing associations will be able to provide considerably more than the 153,000 new social homes forecast in our election manifesto.

In addition, the House will recall that local authorities are also being allowed to spend all their capital receipts accrued between now and the end of 1993, releasing a considerable sum for increased housing provision—we estimate, over £1 billion for housing in the next year.

Photo of John Denham John Denham , Southampton, Itchen

If a local authority were to get its capital receipts—I do not wish to debate tonight whether local authorities will get as much as the Government say—would the Minister be willing to allow it much more flexibility to purchase properties, for example in the type of areas that I mentioned, to secure those properties for family use?

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

We see local authorities as enablers, working together with housing associations, the private sector and the Government to provide housing. Having been chairman of the housing committee in Southampton, the hon. Gentleman will know that we see new social housing as being provided by housing associations. Because we are keen to see local authorities working together with housing associations and others, we have also set up capital partnerships worth some £600 million to local authorities this coming year, which local authorities can use in partnership with the Government.

Under the business expansion scheme, many universities and other institutions have managed to devise schemes to provide housing specifically for students in their area.

We are also keen to revive investment in private letting and to encourage landlords to make more accommodation available for rent. That will help residents in Southampton and elsewhere. The signs are that deregulation of rents for new lettings from 1989 is having an encouraging effect on supply, so that, for the first time in many years, the number of new lettings under the assured tenancy regime is beginning to overtake those coming to an end.

We should not, of course, overlook existing resources and I should mention three initiatives we have launched to make better use of existing housing. First, we have introduced a scheme to allow housing associations to act as intermediaries between potential private landlords and tenants, in order to encourage more empty property to be let.

Secondly, we have introduced a flats-over-shops scheme, designed to bring back into use the many properties in our high streets currently lying idle. Thirdly, we have introduced a new tax relief, the rent-a-room scheme, to give incentives to owner-occupiers and tenants to let rooms to lodgers. I suspect that there are many students in Southampton and elsewhere who start their student life as a tenant in a house with a resident landlord or landlady. No tax will be payable on the first £3,250 of rent received.

I have listened carefully to the concerns that the hon. Member raised in the context of Southampton's—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at fifteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.