by Nick Eden-Green
Can I pour a little water – or perhaps petrol – on the fire of the purpose built student accommodation debate?
First, let’s distinguish between commercially produced purpose built student accommodation (PBSA) and student halls on campus constructed by the universities themselves.
The former are university owned and controlled and largely for first year students. They tend not to be particularly controversial.
The current debate centres around the latter: speculatively built PBSA where developers and investors aim to make a profit from letting to students.
The model was set in Parham Road off Sturry Road. The council failed to produce a master plan for the redevelopment of this area with the result that over the past 15 years there have been a series of planning applications – the last one was last month – for more and more student blocks.
Development has never been properly planned. Facilities for students are minimal with virtually no open space.
What limited facilities there were for students, the developers have tried to convert into more accommodation.
At one planning meeting we were told that a Students’ Union building was not needed because students could go to the nearby Asda café. Presumably they can play Frisbee on the Asda car park, too!
Since then the former Peugeot garage site on Pin Hill has become another unplanned site.
Again no master plan from the council although there were earlier plans for a conference centre or for housing and a supermarket.
The local plan designates it for “student housing, office/commercial, leisure and education”.
What we have is an initial PBSA development put up by Canterbury Christ Church University, the private block, Palamon Court, put up by a developer, another private block as yet unbuilt and the controversial St Mary Bredin School site which was turned down last month.
Interestingly, the private blocks were opposed by the university. So, a series of applications with no master plan for the site – and, incidentally, none of the other ideas in the Local Plan.
Let’s be clear about why the St Mary Bredin site was turned down by the planning committee.
After all, as a member of that committee, I led the charge on this and was put on the spot to provide adequate reasons to refuse it.
It was not because we don’t want more PBSA. That is not a valid planning reason. It was not because we want to preserve the historic mound. That too was deemed invalid. It was because the building was unsuitable in terms of height, scale and massing and would dominate the City Wall.
That night the planning committee voted through no less than three more sites for PBSA: 382 units at Kingsmead, 194 at Military Road and four more at Parham Road.
This is in addition to various other sites across Canterbury which have recently been given consent. New and Old Dover roads, Wincheap, Old Ruttington Lane and others.
We know much of this accommodation is empty. We know there is over provision. We know it is not releasing houses in multiple occupations (HMOs) back on to the housing market.
We know it is opposed by residents. We know many students don’t want it. We know Christ Church doesn’t want it. We know we should be building residential houses on these prime inner city brownfield sites.
The Barretts site is merely another in this long line. I cannot comment on it because it would prejudice my vote at the planning committee.
But I must ask: why are we in this ridiculous situation? It all comes back to the Local Plan, forced through by the Conservatives and opposed at every quarter by the Lib Dems.
The Local Plan failed to count student housing within its housing numbers. The chairman of the Local Plan Steering Group refused to accept that we should do so.
As a result we have a rash of PBSA blocks going up on prime brownfield inner city sites that could – and should – have been houses for local people, and preferably social housing at that.
Sadly, we now reap the whirlwind of a faulty Local Plan. And there is little the planning committee or our residents can do about it.
Cllr Nick Eden-Green is a former Lord Mayor of Canterbury and represents Wincheap ward for the Liberal Democrats. He lives in central Canterbury.