by Alan Baldock
A few day ago, I took my place on the planning committee at Canterbury City Council and not for the first time faced making the inevitable decision to grant permission for yet another purpose built student accommodation (PBSA).
It is to be built on the Barretts site right next to the Westgate Towers, a wonderful location, in the very heart of our city.
Close to the train station, city centre, bus routes and more, it is a truly sustainable location in planning jargon. That’s just the sort of place a family would love to live if they are city sort of people like me.
But instead we have the council’s flawed Local Plan which encourages unrestrained PBSA building.
It has resulted in land at similar sustainable locations being swallowed up by PBSA.
Not a single area of the city is unaffected: Sturry Road with the Parham Road Student Village and the proposed Riverside development, Northgate with the plans for Notley Street and Wincheap and Oaten Hill with Palamon Court and St George’s and many others.
The argument for PBSA trotted out by the Conservative administration is that students will choose to live in PBSA rather than houses of multiple occupancy (HMOs), which are in the main ex-family homes.
It has been assumed, but without as far as I can see a scrap of evidence to back it up, that these HMOs would quickly become redundant and magically morph back into affordable family homes.
That always struck me – even for Canterbury City Council Conservatives – a leap of faith too far in their capitalist ideal.
You will not be surprised to know that over the last few years while the building of many hundreds of new PBSA rooms has progressed apace there has not been an avalanche of ex-HMO entering the market as affordable family homes.
The PBSA ethos is simple: cram in as many flats as possible, shout loud about the sustainable location so you don’t have to waste an inch of space with car parking or be troubled with a blade of grass as the students can use nearby public open space. Then charge as much as you can get away with in rent and try to convince parents you care.
A room in a PBSA hall is between about £100 and £250 per week (for example Palamon Court is from around £153 per week).
By contrast, a room in a shared house (HMO) is about £84 per week on average, often plus a proportion of bills. So, it’s almost always a lot cheaper to live in a HMO.
Some of positives of living in a HMO are that instead of having a small room in an impersonal block you are with friends, having fun, growing older and wiser and yes falling out over the washing up and bins and for most feeling a lot less lonely.
The downside is the accommodation is occasionally a bit scruffy or tired and there is a variety of private landlords and neighbours for better or worse!
In Canterbury there are around 3,800 students choosing to live in HMOs for whatever reason, but probably because it’s cheaper and is the right personal choice for them.
The high cost of PBSA is staggering when compared to the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) for a single room in a shared house, the equivalent.
The LHA defines the official view of how much a person should have to pay in Canterbury to rent a room in a shared house and as such limits any benefit contribution towards the rent at that amount.
Not forgetting if you are under 35 and single then you can only get the single room amount as a benefit if you hit hard times.
In Canterbury that LHA single room rate is £74.62 per week. Even if the PBSA landlords would consider it (unlikely) to rent a spare room it is out of reach to a low wage or homeless single person on cost alone, being many times their rent allowance.
It is also obvious that HMOs are very much a life choice for some students and will remain so.
It is time then for Canterbury City Council to face up to the crisis they have sleepwalked into and start to deliver real solutions to the shortage of affordable family homes – not hide behind the promised avalanche of HMOs at affordable prices.
It’s an ideology held by this Conservative council and based on a hunch that ex-HMOs will solve the family home shortages. It has failed and has gone on unchallenged long enough.
Leading Conservative councillor Ben Fitter-Harding writing in the Canterbury Journal was clear in his support for PBSA the reason was to him obvious “Money. There’s more money in it. More than anything else”.
However, for me it’s a little different. It’s retaining the option of delivering large numbers of family homes in sustainable locations, both in our city centre and the outskirts, developing homes over many years, a long-term aim.
The misery of insecure, high cost and poor quality homes is what needs sorting, not maxing out short-term on big bucks for a few developers and corporations.
Nor do truly affordable family homes get delivered in the numbers required by private developers despite all the promises, believed by some councillors. This is a hard and uncomfortable truth.
The ultimate solution must be to build council houses that are retained for their lifetime by local authorities, built in great locations that enhance communities and lives.
That will be the fairest and fastest way to turn this district’s housing crisis around, but we will need an election first to check the public’s appetite for such a step change.
Until then we can but hope the odd HMO comes on the market for a family at an affordable rent or purchase, but don’t expect an avalanche of them.
Cllr Alan Baldock is the leader of the Labour group on Canterbury City Council. He lives in and represents the Northgate ward.