PRESS RELEASE: Student housing

Claims of a shortfall in student beds in Durham are challenged by the City of Durham Trust.

The Guardian’s piece on student housing (27 December) describes queuing in Durham to secure a property for Autumn 2023 and quotes data supplied by StuRents to quantify the national shortfall in student beds.

The City of Durham Trust has been taking a close interest in how Durham University’s growth can be accommodated in this very small city, where the number of students now significantly exceeds the resident population of the City of Durham Parish.

Without doubt, the expansion of the University has not been accompanied by a corresponding increase in the provision of student accommodation. As a result, thousands of family homes in the City have been converted into Houses in Multiple Occupation. This has proved to be very profitable for student landlords, who of course do not pay Council Tax, and very harmful to the principle of balanced and sustainable communities.

StuRents are a national company that provides a paid-for service to private developers, private landlords and investors. We have looked at their claims of massive shortfalls of student beds as against need. For Durham they estimate that there will be a demand for 21,317 student beds in the Academic Year 2023/24. StuRents compare this with the 17,914 student beds they list on their website in Houses in Multiple Occupancy (HMOs) and in Purpose Built Student Accommodation (PBSA) developments. Taking the latter figure from the former gives them their figure of a 3,403 bed “deficit”.

The crucial mistake made by StuRents is to have forgotten that Durham University has Colleges, seventeen of them in fact. The University accommodates some 7,500 students, mainly first-years, in these Colleges. Thus the total number of student bed-spaces for 2023/24 will be StuRents’ 17,900 in private accommodation plus 7,500 in University’s accommodation, that is a total of 25,400 – well above StuRents’ projection of 21,317 as next year’s need. There is no shortfall!

The fact is there is in Durham a surplus of student beds, but landlords and their agents deliberately promote a rush by students to secure a bed for next year and to achieve the high rents involved.

StuRents’ message, and the resulting headlines, have caused panic amongst newly-arrived first year students and led them to form rushed alliances into paying over-the-odds for next year’s accommodation. This is the reality here in Durham and desperately needs sorting out between the University and the local authority.

The example of Nottingham in the Guardian’s article points to a potential solution: there, the local authority has collaborated with the town’s two universities on a student living strategy to determine how much housing is required and available. Surely, for the sake of the well-being of students and of their host communities, that should be happening everywhere.

Student numbers and accommodation

The City of Durham Trust considers that the increase in Durham University student numbers has gone well beyond the ‘tipping point’ for community cohesion and balance. We are a local voluntary group concerned with appropriate development in and around the city, and we closely scrutinise planning documents such as the University’s Strategy and Estate Masterplan. The target in that Strategy is for growth to 21,500 students in the year 2026/27. But the (provisional) latest figure is that there are already 22,220 Durham University students.

How has this happened? In the post-war years the number of Durham University students grew very gradually to about 4,000 in the 1960s and to 6,500 in 1990/91. The then Vice-Chancellor regarded that as the right size for the University in this small host city. However, subsequent Vice-Chancellors grew the University to about 15,500 in 2013/14 with virtually no corresponding increase in College accommodation and no public engagement. That was deeply damaging, pursued without regard to the effect on the year-round residents of the city. Developers and landlords bought up much of the working class terraced housing in Durham, pricing out locals and resulting in whole areas without school-children, without neighbours for the elderly, without shoppers for half the year. For their part, the former Durham City Council and then Durham County Council for many years resisted any planning policies to control conversions of family homes into Houses in Multiple Occupation.

To its credit, the University produced a public Strategy document for the decade 2016/17 to 2026/27. Not so welcome was that it set out to increase student numbers in Durham city by a further 40% in just ten years, though with a comforting aspiration to accommodate between 50% and 55% in College accommodation. Under Stuart Corbridge the University has, thankfully, built two new Colleges and identified sites on its own estate for a further six purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) developments.

Unsurprisingly, the property market sniffed opportunities, and there has been an eruption of private PBSA developments across the city. Generally, these are well-designed but too bulky for the local street-scene, and some seriously intrude in views of the Castle and Cathedral World Heritage Site despite the protection that UNESCO and County Durham Plan policies are meant to ensure. These PBSAs have enabled the worst imbalance of any English University city – more than half Durham’s population are students, and only 35% are in College accommodation compared with Oxford and Cambridge’s 70%. Indeed, Oxford City Council’s policy is that the two Oxford Universities should together have only 6,500 students living out. In Durham 14,000 live out, in a city a quarter the size.

Most recently, a PBSA has been proposed to replace the Apollo Bingo Hall in the Sherburn Road. The local community was very strongly against, as were the Parish Council, all three local County Councillors and the Member of Parliament. The Trust submitted that there is no need for more student accommodation, regardless of location, given that the University’s target for 5 years’ time has already been exceeded, and all those students are accommodated. Nevertheless, the County Council’s Planning Committee has approved this scheme! Far better use of the site would be retention of the bingo hall or development of much-needed affordable housing.

The massive question now is whether further increases in student numbers will be allowed or even encouraged. The Government planning inspector who scrutinised the County Plan in 2019-20 expressed major reservations about the city’s ability to cope with any increases beyond the 2026/27 target in the University’s Masterplan. While as a business the University must be tempted by the prospect of yet more income, the question of even further growth must be a top issue for the new Vice-Chancellor and Warden. An apparently compliant County Council needs to reflect on what kind of county town it truly wants. Bodies like the Trust must continue to be an independent voice for the exceptional heritage and civic qualities we must try to sustain.

The Trust’s objections to the PBSA proposed for the Apollo Bingo Hall in the Sherburn Road can be seen below: