Text by Charlotte Liu, SCT trustee
I was strolling in the city centre on a sunny afternoon when this question suddenly appeared in my mind. I guess it must be because there were so many adverts and a giant 7-story tall building which was still under refurbishment with a huge sign saying “New student accommodation coming!” At first glance, I was surprised how grand the building looked, and it hadn’t even been finished yet. I said to myself “it’s just like a nice hotel”, and at the same time tried to figure out how many beds this building would offer. Of course, it’s very difficult to guess but I suppose it must have around 140 beds. Anyway, when I added together all the student accommodation I had seen that afternoon (Purpose Built Student Accommodation), I knew it’s a lot and maybe more than we need.
I was one of the (international) students living in Sheffield city centre and I enjoyed my city life a lot (even though I moved to Crookes in the second year) and I still think it’s a great place to live. After more than 10 years, I still remember vividly how stressful it was to get accommodation through the university, so ever since then I have paid attention to this issue and tried to help newcomers to look for a place to live. In fact, I should feel very relieved and happy to see the rapidly increasing numbers of student accommodation in the city centre, but as a landscape architect whose profession is relevant to the planning and construction industry, I cannot help but worry about what is happening just now. At one of our Civic Trust meetings, I raised this concern and promised to write an article to discuss my worries. So I gave myself the task of working out the answer to the question “Do we have too much student accommodation in Sheffield?”
Isn’t a simple maths question? We just need to know how many students from both universities and how many bed spaces the universities provide and then we can get a rough idea. Of course, the real situation is more complicated that because there are lots of different types of accommodation, in different locations, provided by different organisations. I decided to ask the universities directly if they feel they can offer sufficient student accommodation to their students. I got a prompt reply from Sheffield Hallam University (SHU), who said they have enough accommodation for the students that apply each year and explained briefly they also work with partner organisations to cope with fluid student numbers. Unfortunately, I haven’t had any reply from The University of Sheffield (UoS) yet. However, on their website, UoS state that if the students meet certain deadlines and conditions, they are guaranteed accommodation. Although it is not a rigorous survey, this all suggests that the universities, at least, feel we have sufficient student accommodation in Sheffield at the present time. However, we shouldn’t just focus on the present numbers, but need to consider other issues like the quality of the accommodation, rents, and future circumstances like immigration policy, tuition fees and so on.
I have to admit that I naively thought if I worked out the maths I could confidently say: “Yes, we have enough student accommodation and please stop building anymore!” But it’s more complex and we need a comprehensive strategy to deal with the issue. Maybe we don’t need more now but we know the number of students is still growing and we can’t simply say “No More”.
While I was sending the questions to the universities and doing casual interviews with several students, my colleague Louise White at Sheffield Civic Trust (SCT) found me an very important document “Student Accommodation Strategy 2014-2019” published by Sheffield City Council in February 2014. I quickly compared my rather unsophisticated findings to the Council’s strategy and found there were a lot of issues in common. The Council’s strategy is thorough and has covers several important issues. They state:
“The city has a mixed accommodation offer for students, with an increasing amount of Purpose Built Student Accommodation (PBSA). Whilst demand for PBSA is continuing to grow, particularly from the newer international student market, our existing stock is still not at full occupancy, and there is a risk that the provision of more PBSA will lead to oversupply and older blocks falling empty.”
This sounds quite alarming – shouldn’t we start acting now? The Council has a long “to-do” list in the strategy and give the impression they have tackled all the concerns and problems they identified, but I don’t think this means we can step back and relax. In fact, we need to be more active in bringing this issue up. “Purpose Built Student Accommodation” has a huge impact on Sheffield’s housing strategy because of its sheer scale, as well as its “purpose built” character, especially in the city centre; it feels like an alien intruder has occupied so many spaces and maybe one day will disappear as quickly, leaving a lot of empty hollows behind.
One of my interviewees, an international student, said that even though he preferred living in the city centre, he wouldn’t want to live in hotel-like accommodation or PBSA; it doesn’t help him to interact with locals and take part in city life – one of the reasons he came to study in the UK. I was very much inspired by his statement. I don’t think I need to emphasise more that the new PBSA has to be flexible and allow as wide a variety future uses as possible. Almost all the PBSA rooms have exactly the same layouts: a narrow bed, long desk (which you can reach from your bed) and tiny bathroom. I’m sorry to say that it reminds me of one of the prison projects I had worked on in my career – and some of my interviewees think the same way.
So why not think outside of this box? Is there only one type of student accommodation that can exist? Wouldn’t it be nicer if we can offer a home-like accommodation for students – even saving the hassle of converting it in the future? I am not suggesting all the student accommodation be built like a family home but at least we can provide more choice. In other worlds, when the accommodation could be for all the city residents, why should we only restrict ourselves to student accommodation? Is this a design issue or a management issue?
Elsewhere, the Sheffield Retail Quarter Development is ongoing and one of the discussions after SCT’s meeting about it last year summarise the vision for our city. We want a convenient, friendly, safe, fun city: a 21st century city with its history intact that belongs to everybody living in it. I’d like to describe it as a “permeable” city, well connected for all. Wouldn’t you think it’s a risk to have too many same purpose buildings/developments in our city? I think I can say yes, maybe we do have too much student accommodation at the moment but we can take this concern as a positive opportunity to inspect our local plan policy and its ongoing proposals. We can, and should, use it to come up with new and better ideas than the standard, clichéd student accommodation, ideas that better reflect Sheffield’s aspirations to become a truly innovative and sustainable place to live.