Student Accommodation: Belfast

Oral Answers to Questions — Employment and Learning – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:30 pm on 9th February 2016.

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Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:30 pm, 9th February 2016

T2. Mr A Maginness asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to comment on what appears to be a frenzy of planning applications for accommodation for university students in north and south Belfast and the fact that it appears that the universities are simply allowing these applications to develop in a free market without any plan or control. (AQT 3462/11-16)

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

First, I think it is important to acknowledge that, in one respect, the fact that we are having this interest in student accommodation is a very positive sign. It is a sign that our universities are still flourishing, despite all they have been through with cuts. They are attracting students, and international students, in particular, are very much on their agenda. That is important for openness and diversity in plugging into the rest of the world. I stress that that does not come at the expense of opportunities for local students at the same time.

In terms of accommodation, we are seeing different approaches, depending upon which of the universities we are talking about. Queen's has moved ahead with its own projects and its own managed accommodation. Ulster University is adopting an approach where the private sector is responding. I would not say it is fair to say that there is no control over that, because obviously what happens is controlled by planning for land use and the regulation of individual applications. In that respect, Belfast City Council is the lead authority with responsibility. You are seeing the council go through its own processes. In some cases, it is granting approval and, in other cases, it is not. The overall level of applications that comes forward for housing is probably going to be in excess of the need itself, but that process is working its way through the system.

Various working groups and interventions have also been organised, primarily through Belfast City Council but also under the auspices of the Department for Social Development, about how we best manage a whole host of issues on university expansion. Housing is one of those, but transport and parking are equally important.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his answer, but, in a sense, he is avoiding the real issue: in the overall structure, this is an unplanned series of developments, which could have negative impacts, as well as positive ones, on local communities. Is it not necessary for both universities to get together, along with Belfast City Council and any other planning authority, to work with your Department and satisfy the needs of students?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I assure the Member that that process is already happening and those structures exist. Indeed, they are being revamped and are giving much stronger input. We are having discussions between Departments at ministerial and permanent secretary levels. Those discussions are focused on housing, transport and parking issues. Let me be clear: I am the Minister with responsibility for universities. Universities do not exist in a bubble; they have to take account of the context in which they exist. However, other Departments also have responsibilities in relation to this piece. Obviously, the Department for Social Development has a very clear role with respect to housing and urban regeneration powers. The Department of the Environment, of which the Member's colleague is the Minister, has responsibility for some planning powers, as does the council. The Department for Regional Development is responsible for transport, including public transport. It has to be a multi-Department and multi-agency approach. The structures exist. We need to see people bringing to the table solutions to some of the problems that still have to be addressed.