Bristol City Council needs to get a tighter grip on student housing in the city, but its ability to do so has suffered a major setback.
New rules to control the creation of new student blocks and shared flats were proposed in the draft local plan, the city’s blueprint for housing for the next two decades.
The draft policies were developed to limit the problems – such as noise, rubbish and loss of available housing – which high concentrations of students can cause for communities.
They set out where purpose-built student accommodation can and cannot be built in the city and limit the proportion of houses of multiple occupation (HMOs) in an area to 10 per cent.
The goal is to see more students in purpose-built accommodation, which are seen as better for students and the community, and fewer in HMOs.
But it is not known how soon the policies may be formally adopted, and now the council has learned the hard way that they have limited usefulness in the meantime.
The lesson came when a government inspector overturned the decision of a planning committee to reject a developer’s plans to build three student blocks in Stokes Croft.
The inspector found there were “insufficient grounds” to conclude the 345-bed development would produce a “harmful concentration of specialist student accommodation” in the area.
As a result of the decision, the council must pay £7,500 compensation to developer Watkins Jones Group, and building of the multi-storey blocks behind the Full Moon pub can begin.
Explaining the implications of the decision in City Hall last week, a planning officer said: “The recent inspector’s decision expressed that there are no absolute limits on what would represent a harmful concentration of student accommodation.”
The decision also suggested that any effects of student housing on the overall character or enjoyment of an area can “generally be addressed by efficient management of premises and enforcement of tenancy agreements”, the officer added.
As a consequence, draft policy “can only be afforded limited weight” in planning decisions, he said.
Straight away, councillors were advised to avoid citing an over-concentration of student accommodation among their reasons for refusing another developer’s plans for a 240-bed development in Stokes Croft.
The advice was significant given it was one of the main reasons for public opposition to the development, which would have seen the legendary Blue Mountain nightclub demolished.
“There is a general feeling within public objection comments that a saturation point for student accommodation has been reached,” the officer said, pointing to a map of the central city area.
“There are 2,249 student bedrooms in this enlarged square either completed, under construction or with planning consent,” he said by way of explanation. “That includes 345 that was recently approved at appeal.”
The officer explained existing planning policy supports purpose-built student accommodation in the city centre as long as it does not “contribute to a concentration that would harm the surrounding residential amenity”.
Draft policy states : “Development should be avoided in areas of the city with a strong residential context. These are areas where the majority surrounding land use is residential. In Bristol City Centre they include St. Pauls, Old Market and parts of Harbourside.”
The public had a chance to comment on draft policies H6 and H7, addressing HMOs and purpose-built student accommodation, during a public consultation on the draft local plan earlier this year.
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The cabinet member for spatial planning and city design, Nicola Beech, who drove through the draft local plan, was not available for an interview last week.
A council press officer said interviews would not be possible because the local plan was still in draft form and not yet adopted as policy.
But the new local plan cannot be formally adopted until the region’s overarching housing plan is accepted by the government, a process which could take years after the draft joint spatial plan was rejected in August.
Two opposition councillors – Liberal Democrat Anthony Negus and the Greens’ Clive Stevens – were happy to talk about the draft policies.
Negus proposed changing the council’s approach to student housing in 2017, in a motion backed by Stevens, Labour’s Paul Smith and Conservative group leader Mark Weston.
Stevens said: “Lots of people were complaining about noise, litter and lost council tax, but the biggest impact was the impact on housing and losing so many homes as the universities expanded.”
The cross-party motion reframed the student housing issue, which was previously seen as a “middle-class” problem, he said.
“That’s what turned it from middle-class people whingeing into something that became a city-wide debate.”
The council missed out on approximately £13million worth of council tax from properties that had been converted into student lets in 2017.
Stevens brought a budget amendment last year that saw £25,000 spent on research into student housing which was used to support the draft policies.
The results of that research have not been publicly released, but, as a whole, the draft local plan implies no more than 25 per cent of a community can be given over to students, he said.
The proportion is not stated explicitly, because to do so would discriminate against students under planning law, he added.
Negus said he believes the draft policies will “make matters worse” in practice.
Developers will rush to convert homes to HMOs in areas flagged for purpose-built student accommodation before the new policies are introduced, he said.
“If you look at Bath you will see there’s a reluctance for students to get into that [purpose-built] accommodation,” he said. “After living at home and spending their first year in student halls, they want to get out and start living.”
“I accept that something had to be done [about student housing policy]. I accept the approach that was taken, but the outcomes will not in practice solve the problems in some places and in other places where it is known that student housing is preferred it will exacerbate them.”
Negus said a high proportion of students in a community not only creates an “imbalance of lifestyles” but it changes the housing market by pushing up house prices.
“By disadvantaging people who need to come into Bristol to live and work, we have an even more serious problem.”
Developers who want to convert an existing property into an HMO must apply for planning permission in parts of Bristol where housing is most scarce – Clifton, Redland, Lawrence Hill, Ashley, Cabot, Cotham and Clifton East.
Since July, a blanket licensing scheme for HMOs to protect tenants from poor-quality housing has been in place in Ashley, Bishopston and Ashley Down, Central, Clifton, Clifton Down, Cotham, Easton, Hotwells and Harbourside, Lawrence Hill, Redland, Southville and Windmill Hill.
Bristol University anticipates it will need 6,400 extra bed spaces in the city by 2028, when it expects its student population will reach 30,000.
It is aiming to have 43 per cent of its students housed in purpose-built student accommodation by 2028, which means all 6,400 extra bed spaces will have to be in accommodation of that type.
Amanda Cameron is a local democracy reporter for Bristol