Equitable rents for disabled students ‘won’t break any banks’, says Unipol chief exec

Unipol’s chief exec Martin Blakey talks to University Business about the significance of the new national PBSA code

Student housing charity Unipol has relaunched the National Code of Non-Educational Establishments to reflect the rapidly changing landscape of private purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA).

The new code is shot across the bows for providers that have failed to deliver buildings on time.

Co-authored with the National Union of Students (NUS) and Accreditation Network UK (ANUK), and supported by the UK Government, Unipol’s updated code was due to launch in 2021 but pandemic bottlenecks delayed things. Its slightly later-than-expected arrival doesn’t make it any less timely.

The first incarnation of the code arrived in 2005 and oversaw some 26,500 beds. That responsibility has mushroomed to 400,000, with spades in the ground for projects set to deliver a further 90,000 beds over the next three years. University-run accommodation has, by comparison, been left in the dust. “The balance has shifted dramatically,” says Martin Blakey, chief executive of Unipol. “Universities in the main are not adding bed spaces. If you look at new-build and refurbishment, it’s just replacing old stuff.” Even though universities account for 272,000 beds, says Martin, “the real figure is much lower because 44% of those are outsourced to public sector companies.”

One of the revised code’s big clauses is a stark reminder to accommodation providers that the consumer comes first.

Penalty zone

Come 1 September 2022, students will be entitled to a ‘no-quibble’ sliding scale of compensation if construction delays mean they cannot move into their PBSA rooms on the contracted date.

In the first instance, tenants will be paid £200 and then a further £200 per week for up to four weeks. If they’re still unable to unfurl their duvet by week five, the compensation raises to £500 and each time their move-in date is postponed they’ll get another £100. It is also worth noting that tenants won’t be paying any rent for the duration, either, so the costs to providers only increase.

Call it a penalty, call it a fine; Unipol expects it to be a hefty incentive for companies to manage their deadlines.

“We’re not suggesting that student accommodation providers should pass over large sums of money to students for a laugh. We’re saying you need to take into account the penalties of having a building that’s late, and you need to leave enough time to complete on time.”

Late construction, especially of purpose-built accommodation, has “always been a bit of problem,” says Martin. He compares it to the package holiday farces of the 1970s when tourists would arrive at aggressively-marketed continental holiday resorts to be greeted with half-built hotels. “Projects get behind schedule, demands are greater than planned: I think that era of Spanish hotels is a fair comparison. If you’re not careful, you get a development pipeline, where people are bound to be suffering inconvenience.”

The genesis of the fines was 2009, when, according to Unipol data, some 35% of promised beds failed to materialise on time, disrupting thousands of predominately first-year students.

“There was quite a lot of media attention around that, which is understandable as it is a high figure. Some 10,000 students, the majority freshers, were at the receiving end. Lots of people have bought new houses that have been delivered late. It’s an inconvenience, but it’s not the same as a young person, moving away from home for the first time, expecting to make new friends and social networks and then being told they have to take temporary accommodation. It is really disruptive, especially at such a crucial moment in your university life.”

The protocol now is that construction firms must flag issues they think might arise much earlier and mitigate them – or face the financial consequences. “It should be said,” adds Martin, “that that 2009 figure was down to between 2% and 3% last year, which represents around 2,200 students. That’s an improvement, but it’s still a significant figure.”

Scenarios across the UK differ, of course. Ten late buildings with five students are highly inconvenient for them but it’s not a total disaster for the provider. “You don’t need a calculator to work out that the costs for one late building housing, 500 students will rise very quickly and will have very serious financial implications,” Martin adds.

Rooms for improvement 

Another major revision of the code is to write in guarantees that rents for students with disabilities are not out of step with the cost of standard rooms.

By their nature, larger bedrooms are more suitable for wheelchair users or can easily be adapted, but they’re often available at a premium price. The NUS Accommodation Costs Survey 2021 found that 19% of private providers could not confirm that disabled students were able to get a room at a rent equivalent to the lowest-priced rooms.

You could read it as marketplace stinginess, or as former universities minister Chris Skidmore put it, “tantamount to a tax on disability”. Martin Blakey agrees with the former minister: “We are talking small numbers of students here, it won’t break any banks for providers to accommodate disabled students, but it’s highly significant for students with disabilities because of their day-to-day living costs, not least transport such as taxis, are so much higher.”

Rents for these rooms will now need to be equivalent to the lowest available locally. Unipol estimates that this measure will save impacted students an average of £2,300 per year.

Tipping the balance

Weighing in favour of tenants’ needs is a big theme of the code in general, reflecting technology and societal shifts. Martin estimates that the 75/25 split between managing a PBSA building and caring for the pastoral needs of its tenants has reversed in the past decade. “Buildings have become more resilient over time,” he says, “they’ve become cleverer, too, they don’t go wrong all the time. Attitudes have also changed. The real issue now is to make sure that people living in them are living well and enjoying their time in them. I think the more that the private sector does, the more it has to agree to take on those other responsibilities.”

An example of those responsibilities written into the new code is that PBSA managers – whose knowledge will then be shared with out-of-hours staff such as cleaners and security – will undergo official training to identify and take action on mental health issues.

“We’ll be seeing a lot of measures taken by accommodation providers to encourage socialisation, to stop social isolation and getting students who are having well-been or mental health issues the all the help they need. There’s a big incentive for PBSA providers. Most universities only accommodate first-year students, private providers want to retain their tenants throughout – whether in the same building or in different buildings in the city. A student who has had a great initial experience and has built a social network in a safe and happy environment is far more likely to want to stay with that provider.”

Read more: Annual PBSA rents rose 4% this year, report finds

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