Student accommodation: making the grade?

Ian Fletcher, director of policy (real estate) at the British Property Federation lays down its manifesto for PBSA for the future

Readers of University Business will be well aware of the importance of promoting and investing in all aspects of the UK’s higher education (HE) sector, and the valuable contribution it makes to the UK.

The sector develops our future workforce, attracts international students, and in 2011/12 universities contributed over £36.4bn to UK GDP.

As a lecturer, I was in at the start of HE expansion in 1992, and can still remember the palpable disappointment that students felt when they were not able to live in halls, because there simply was not enough accommodation to go around. The purpose built student accommodation sector (PBSA), has played an integral part in allowing the HE sector to expand at an incredible pace over the past 20 years, not just facilitating that expansion, but maintaining the experience for students, and peace of mind for their parents that they are living safely away from home.

That reassurance that the accommodation is managed to a high standard is also an imperative to attract investment. Pension funds and other investors would run for the hills if they thought their reputation would be damaged by investing in a sector which failed its duties of care. The Codes of Practice and associated schemes do not just provide students and parents with peace of mind, but are an imperative for investors as well.

A further benefit is that the sector relieves the pressure on local housing markets to accommodate students. It is thought that the provision of PBSA in a number of locations across the UK could release 77,000 homes back into the market. In the grips of the housing crisis as we are, this could make a significant amount of difference to local housing targets.

These are the benefits that the BPF is extolling in Making the Grade, our manifesto for the PBSA. This has been designed with the new Parliamentarians in mind – those who might not yet understand the positive role that the sector makes, and it contribution to making the UK a great place to learn.

We want to explain that if the HE sector is to grow then accommodation must grow with it, and that there is a number of policy changes which could encourage this.

First on this list is the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), which is not being used for the purpose it was intended (to provide the infrastructure for development and the communities it serves) but is actually blocking development. In London especially there are some enormous CIL charges on PBSA developments that can affect the viability of important schemes, and this needs addressing in the five-year review of CIL, just underway.

Clarity and consistency with council tax is also a priority. The fact that the PBSA sector did not exist when council tax bands were introduced in 1991 means that councils vary wildly in their treatment of PBSA units, often resulting in different results for students and inequities as a result.

There are similar levels of inconsistency in regards to waste disposal. Government guidelines which seek to encourage local authorities to classify PBSA waste as residential, not industrial, have not been adopted by all local authorities, again with inconsistent results.

Finally, we would like to see PBSA providers that are registered with the ANUK/Unipol Codes to be exempt from local authority licensing. The Codes mean that a provider is regulated to a standard expected by local authorities, and beyond it, and it is unfair for local authorities to be deriving a fee through unnecessary additional licensing.

We will be using the manifesto to engage with government, to ensure that they understand the benefits of a strong HE Sector and how a thriving PBSA sector helps support it, with the right policy framework in place.

Ian Fletcher is director of policy (real estate) at the British Property Federation. Follow the BPF on Twitter via @BritProp 


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