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The solution to a skyline full of empty buildings

Last week, Welsh housing minister Julie James suggested that unused student accommodation in Wales could be used as much-needed social housing.

If the well-intentioned idea were to be successful, it could bring benefits across the board.

People in desperate need of housing would have more access to it, developers would be more secure as they’d be more likely to earn money throughout the year rather than just during term time, and university towns would have the possibility for year-round thriving economies.

But the idea can only work if building standards are changed.

At the moment, accommodation that is specifically built for students falls under a category of building known as ‘sui generis’ – coming from the Latin term ‘of its own kind’.

These types of buildings do not fall within specific housing regulations, so they can often receive planning permission more easily, and can legally have smaller minimum space requirements than those required for social housing.

To use current empty student accommodation for social housing therefore would not work, as they would be too small under current regulations.

So what’s to be done?

It was estimated by the global commercial real estate company Cushman & Wakefield that there were around 627,000 purpose-built student beds in the UK in the 2018/19 academic year – the highest recorded number yet – and 1.8 million full-time students seeking accommodation.

But compare that to 1.1 million households (with multiple people in them) on Local Authority Waiting Lists for social housing, and the plight of students seeking digs for six month stints at a time shrinks in comparison to families with kids who are desperately seeking somewhere to call a home.

The flaw in the idea might be that there is a boom in demand for student accommodation, and that isn’t going to slow down anytime soon.

There are still more students in university than there are rooms in student accommodation, and the simple fact is that if there was a shrinking demand for student rooms, developers would not be building more.

In fact, a minimum requirement for the development of 3,500 new student beds annually is included in the Mayor of London’s ‘New London Plan’.

But it is better to plan ahead for an eventual decrease in demand from students than to do nothing at all. These new student beds could be built to comply with standard housing regulations now so that they can be used for social housing in the future.

And if student accommodation is built in future according to social housing standards, it’s not as if it will stop being economically viable, as students are now paying roughly the same price for student accommodation as they would for private housing anyway, according to Cushman & Wakefield.

At some stage the boom has to slow down, and we need to consider these social housing needs before that stage comes.

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