They have long been the pride of Bristol, bringing a wealth of economic and cultural benefits, but expansion of the city’s two universities is coming at a price.
Student accommodation was described as a ‘get out of jail free card’ for developers at a full council meeting last week, where it was heard that rapid growth of the higher education sector is inadvertently exacerbating the housing crisis.
While it was generally agreed that The University of Bristol and University of the West of England (UWE) are of huge value to the city, a motion to curb unchecked expansion and push for a sustainable solution received cross-party support.
Lib Dem Anthony Negus outlined the problems posed by the rapidly rising student population and the strain it is putting on already-stretched council services, the housing market and communities in areas with a high density of students.
The sector is also a dream for developers, who are not required to provide affordable homes in specialist student blocks as they would with regular residential properties. The increase in demand is hiking up rent prices for all tenants across the city.
“I think we all believe there is a housing crisis,” said cabinet member for housing Paul Smith, “and this is partly an unintended consequence of university growth.”
“Developers have said if we put pressure on them to provide affordable housing, they’ll move over to student accommodation – student housing is a get out of jail free card for developers.”
The high number of students, around 10-15 per cent of the population, come at an estimated cost of £10m a year to Bristol City Council.
The issue is disproportionately hitting certain neighbourhoods and a number of representatives spoke from the public gallery about some of the knock-on affects, from displacement of communities and lack of family homes, to fly tipping when the residents leave and businesses suffering out of term time.
Speaking on behalf of Action for Balanced Communities, Patricia Smith said: “We value our universities, but we do welcome the motion.
“We are concerned about unchecked growth of this sector. Bristol currently has no strategy for university sector within its local plan and this is a huge concern for the future.”
Green councillor Carla Denyer agreed the current model is unsustainable and placed the blame at the hands of governments who have forced universities to behave like businesses, something she argues does not serve the students, staff or wider cities.
She also called on Mayor Marvin Rees to, along with other city leaders, lobby the government to reinstate grants to mitigate against the loss in council funds.
Agreeing to working on measures to ensure sustainable expansion, Guy Orpen, deputy vice chancellor of The University of Bristol, said: “We offer great value to the city culturally, economically socially and we know that we derive great benefit from out city and its communities.
“We work with them and wish to meet their needs and we seek to harness the partnership for transformational benefit for the university and the city.
“In particular, we are already working with UWE to develop a joint residential plan for student and staff housing.”
Rees said “our city brand is based in part on having two world class universities” as he added his support to the motion and agreed there needs to be capacity for them to flourish in a way that is mutually beneficial to Bristol.
A cross-party group is now expected to oversee an action plan, in conjunction with the universities, to work out the best strategy for sustainable growth.
Read more: The student accommodation bubble