breaking news

Housing policy sparks local election debate

May 8th, 2018 | by James Sproston
Housing policy sparks local election debate
News
1

Thousands of students took to the ballot box last week amid debate over housing policy in student residential areas.

A Newcastle City Council policy that has been scrutinised by student representatives was the centre of attention going into polling day, with Newcastle University Students’ Union President Ronnie Reid writing an article that claimed that the Council has been “silently trying to put in place policies which will stop students living in sociable and affordable housing.”

The article has been considered inherently political by some students, who believe the piece to be critical of the Labour-controlled City Council, after Reid encouraged the student body to vote in the upcoming elections at the end of the piece.

However, the process of incentivising the construction of purpose built student accommodation (PBSAs) and the conversion of empty houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) into family dwellings to ‘rebalance communities’ outlined by Reid has been a City Council policy since 2007, when the Council was controlled by the Liberal Democrats.

In early April, Ronnie Reid wrote and publicised an article on NUSU’s website with the headline ‘They want you out, we want you in!’, detailing the Union’s stance on a housing policy document produced by Newcastle City Council.

Reid’s qualms were with the description of students as a “transient community” that impact on the community through “increased crime” as well as a “fear of crime” and “anti-social behavior, noise and nuisance” in the Maintaining Sustainable Communities policy document, written by the City Council.

Reid considered these descriptions to be an unfair image of students. His stance was swiftly followed by an article of similar tone in The Tab, though both articles are no longer available.

Though Reid’s view was echoed by a number of students, he faced a backlash from a portion of the student community, with some branding his views as “ill-informed scaremongering” and “complete fabrication.”

“Either Reid does not understand the policy or he’s trying to discredit our Labour-led council ahead of the local elections (a clear abuse of his power), or, more likely, both.

Newcastle University Labour Society

Many took issue with the timing of Reid’s article, just weeks before the May 2018 local elections. The article encouraged students to register to vote, prompting comments on the NUSU President’s Facebook post that referred to the article as “blatant anti-Newcastle City Council propaganda.”

Reid justified this by telling The Chronicle that the campaign was “about getting students to register and using a student facing policy to engage them,” adding: “The first paragraph of my article does encourage students to read the policy for themselves so they can make their own minds up.”

Newcastle University Labour Society refuted this, claiming: “Either Reid does not understand the policy or he’s trying to discredit our Labour-led council ahead of the local elections (a clear abuse of his power), or, more likely, both. Either way, students will see through it, Newcastle hasn’t had a Tory councillor in 23 years and that’s not about to change because of some amateurish scaremongering.”

Three weeks prior, Reid was interviewed by Newcastle Student Radio for a news piece that opened saying: “Newcastle City Council wants to move students out of Jesmond and Heaton, and into purpose built student accommodation in the city centre.”

Reid shared the video on his Union Facebook page, within which he expressed concern that some students would be priced out of student residential areas.

Issue has also been taken with the factual accuracy of Reid’s article, specifically around his interpretation of the development of HMOs. Reid’s assertion that the Council “plans to incentivise landlords to transition properties from student housing to family dwellings” has been considered problematic.

According to the document, the grant funding of £2,000 to £10,000 will only be accessible to small landlords whose properties have “remained empty for long periods” to bring the property up to the Newcastle Accreditation Standard.

37 potential sites for PBSAs are identified, with a total estimated capacity of 13,604-16,420 students

However, there is little doubt that this funding is accessible for the purpose of converting student-orientated HMO properties “back to family accommodation,” with the document stating that this process will be monitored to “ensure appropriate assistance is made available to realise the potential of the existing housing stock to create sustainable communities.”

Whilst this seems to propose that HMOs will be taken out of the housing market, a Newcastle City Council spokesperson said: “The policy does not seek to reduce houses of multiple occupation, but instead control the loss of further family housing to student accommodation in the interests of the wider community.”

The City Council have defended the intention of the policy: “The purpose of the Maintaining Sustainable Communities policy is to create balanced communities where there is a good range of housing, access to jobs and services that meet the needs of our communities.”

Though blame for the policy has fallen at the feet of the City Council, controlled by Labour both immediately before and after the May 2018 local elections, another Council document (the Interim Planning Guidance on Purpose Built Student Housing) introduced the process in November 2007.

In the document, the then Liberal Democrat-controlled City Council proposed: “Alongside encouraging the development of purpose built student accommodation, the Council is seeking to discourage the conversion of family houses into flats or houses in multiple occupation.”

Whilst it recognises that students bring “prestige and recognition”, “increased spending in the local economy”, and “investment into older properties that would potentially otherwise be in decline”, the framework advises the building of PBSAs to avoid “anti–social behaviour and marginalisation of long standing communities”.

It is in this local development framework that the idea of ‘balance’ in communities is first raised, and this is carried through to the current policy. The 2007 document encourages a process of ‘destudentification’, and claims that the higher cost of PBSAs is offset by fewer transportation costs by virtue of living in the city centre, even though many students commute on foot to university.

37 potential sites for PBSAs are identified, with a total estimated capacity of 13,604-16,420 students On this list there are several sites that now host PBSAs, whilst several others are currently under construction, such as ‘Richardson Road Halls of Residence’ and ‘Newgate Shopping Centre’.

An amendment was passed in 2010 to revise the Code of Practice for the Management of Student Housing under the newly elected Coalition government that gave local authorities more control over the licensing of HMOs, giving more control over their development.

Reid is correct in saying that neither students nor the Students’ Union were listed as consultees, though it is believed that the policy was presented at the Students In Newcastle Forum (SINF) in October 2016

Labour regained control over the Council in May 2011, but continued with the policy to rebalance communities, with the Proposed Maintaining Sustainable Communities and Urban Core Housing document written in January 2016 detailing the use of the powers granted by government.

The document states: “In addition to encouraging the development of PBSA, the Council also introduced a number of Article 4 Directions between 2011 and 2013 restricting the permitted development change of use between Class C3 family dwellings and Class C4 houses in multiple occupation.”

The process over the last 11 years proves that the policy cannot be solely attributed to the Labour Council, though actions since taking control of City Council in 2011 indicate an acceptance of the policy.

Throughout the recent debate, there has been much confusion over how much students were consulted during the process. Reid is correct in saying that neither students nor the Students’ Union were listed as consultees, though it is believed that the policy was presented at the Students In Newcastle Forum (SINF) in October 2016.

SINF, being the primary forum between the Union and the City Council, hosts student representatives from both Newcastle and Northumbria universities, and no objection was recorded at the time from NUSU representatives. However, this was considered to be a presentation rather than a consultation, with little time spent gathering feedback from student representatives.

Despite the Students’ Union not being officially consulted, Newcastle University was listed as a consultee. In the consultation document, the submission reads: “University recognises and supports the need for the Council to ensure that there is not an over concentration of accommodation in the city and that any future developments need to be adaptable to future proof against oversupply.

The University asked questions to get clarity over the building of Park View Village: “But we need further clarification of point 6.6, Criterion C which requires development to demonstrate how it will deliver a mixed range of housing in terms of size, type and tenure to meet the future needs of the community.

“Today’s students expect higher quality, more centrally located accommodation and we partner with Newcastle City Council and private landlords to offer a variety of housing options.”

Newcastle University spokesperson

“As an educational body, only interested in providing accommodation for its student population, we would like to know how this would work for the University?” The Council responded by stating that the city’s two universities would be exempt from the requirement.

Commenting on the policy itself, a Newcastle University spokesperson said: “Students make a significant contribution to the city’s economic, social and cultural life and a great number of them have a positive effect on the local community through their voluntary work.

“We work hard to ensure that our students have suitable and affordable accommodation throughout their time at University and promote sustainable development in the city.

“Today’s students expect higher quality, more centrally located accommodation and we partner with Newcastle City Council and private landlords to offer a variety of housing options.”

The City Council echoed the importance of students in the city, with a spokesperson stating: “We value the significant contribution that students make to the life of our city. Our universities and college are among our biggest assets at the forefront of teaching and research.

“We want to attract the best students into the city, and retain them long after they have graduated as it is they who can start businesses and create much needed jobs.”

One Comment

  1. Arthur says:

    What an excellent article. Well researched and highly informative.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *