By Steve Chilton
IS ‘studentification’ harming Coventry communities?
Trafford council in Manchester last week implemented an emergency Article 4 Direction, a planning law option open to all local authorities, to help it stem the flood of family homes lost through conversion to student accommodation.
Campaigners in Coventry, who say their neighbourhoods are being slowly destroyed by “studentification”, have urged Coventry City Council to do the same, but is has steadfastly refused.
Here, Mike Parsons, chairman of Cannon Park Community Association, argues the case for the Article 4, and the leader of the city council, Councillor George Duggins, responds.
FOR: MIKE PARSONS
The overwhelming influx of student housing in Cannon Park poses the biggest threat to the harmony and cohesiveness of what was traditionally a balanced, family neighbourhood.
We are in real danger of becoming a student dormitory for the University of Warwick.
The benefits to the university are obvious. It has expanded massively in the last decade to about 25,000 students but hasn’t provided anything like enough accommodation on campus.
For students, many of whom are from overseas, a house within a short walk of the university is an attractive proposition. The social dynamic of a housing estate is not on their curriculum, neither should we expect it to be. They are here to study and enjoy an important part of their lives.
But the issue should be high on the list of priorities of Coventry City Council. Not just in this neighbourhood but city-wide.
The number of HiMOs (Houses in Multiple Occupation) given planning permission by the city council in Cannon Park is already way above what would be permitted in other major university cities.
Those are cities which have implemented what’s known as an Article 4 Direction, effectively a local planning law which allows it to limit the number of HiMOs in any given area.
But the Coventry council has steadfastly refused to do this.
Why? Our city is facing a huge housing shortage and has recently announced huge areas of green belt will be sacrificed to meet targets.
Yet it has stood by as hundreds of former council houses, which provided relatively low-cost homes in Canley, Cannon Park and Cannon Hill, have been bought by developers to convert to student hostels.
It is doing nothing to stop bungalows – a scarce commodity in Coventry – being taken out of the housing stock by developers cashing in by converting them to hostels for up to 10 students.
Even harder to understand is the council’s economic logic, at a time when it is having to close libraries and health care facilities to meet budget cuts.
Once a house becomes student-only accommodation, no council tax is paid. Students are exempt, so too are landlords if they don’t live on the property.
The “loss” of council tax on those properties to Coventry city council is estimated at £6.5million a year.
As HiMOs are not classed as businesses, the owners – increasingly foreign investors- pay no business rates either. With some 10-bedroomed conversions raking in £75,000 a year in rent and local taxpayers picking up the bill for services like rubbish collection, is it any wonder they are exploiting the council’s open door policy?
Residents are entitled to ask why their needs take second place to the university’s.
Much is made of the prestige, investment, employment opportunities and vibrancy that the University of Warwick brings to Coventry.
We would agree with that. To a point.
But it also needs saying that Warwick University is a business. As it has charitable status, it benefits from massive Corporation tax exemptions and of course pays no council tax on halls of residence.
Those tax breaks helped it to record a “surplus” (i.e profit) of £41.5 million in the financial year ending July 2017.
It undoubtedly has brought jobs to the region, but judging be the queues of traffic coming in off the A46 each day most of its higher-paid staff live in south Warwickshire, not Coventry.
It’s a common jibe that Coventry council is so in awe of the university that when it says “jump” the response is “how high?”
But the truth about their relationship is far more subtle if no less insidious.
Over the years the city council has formed many business “partnerships” with the university, mostly bringing benefits to both parties. A recent example was the uni’s backing for Coventry’s successful City of Culture bid.
But have these close working partnerships diluted the independence of the city council when it comes to making decisions which might upset the university?
More information about Cannon Park Community Association is available on www.cannonpark.org
AGAINST: GEORGE DUGGINS
COVENTRY City Council is working to balance the need of our residents with those of our universities and to ensure there is good quality, suitable housing for all.
As part of this work, the Cabinet Member for Community Development considered a petition concerning Houses in Multiple Occupation in November.
Council officers looked at the use of Article 4 Directions and how they can be used to manage such houses. But several issues were highlighted, including the fact that they cannot be applied retrospectively; they can take a year before being fully implemented and they require extensive evidence to justify their use.
Another area of concern, and a more important one for us as a council, was the fact that not all Houses in Multiple Occupation are for students – they can help support other housing needs and provide homes for people who need them.
As a council, we are pursuing a policy of promoting the delivery of purpose-built student accommodation, which will provide suitable homes for our students and at the same time ease pressure on traditional family homes and reduce the need for these to be converted.
Early signs are that this policy is working, with a notable upturn in vacant bed spaces in Houses in Multiple Occupation, and fewer properties coming to market.
We will continue to monitor the situation, and a report is due back before the Cabinet Member in November of this year. A part of the evidence we consider will be the research and data collected by Cannon Park residents, which we have requested and are hoping to receive soon.
I know that residents have submitted a second petition around the issue of Houses in Multiple Occupation and a report will be presented to the Cabinet Member next month. We would urge residents to share any information they have collected with our officers so it can be properly investigated.
The university is an important and valued part of city life and we work to support them as a council, as we do with all other businesses across the city.
We work very hard to make sure all businesses and educational institutions are given the platform they need to succeed – that helps the whole city and all its residents.
We need our organisations to be able to compete with the very best from around the region, the country and the world – that is what attracts investment and creates a prosperous city with a good quality of living.
However, that support does not in any way, affect our duty as a council. Our dealings with the university and others are completely transparent and open to inspection and they have been carried out with the best interests of the city at heart and with full regard to all our legal duties and obligations.
We would take issue with any suggestion that implies otherwise and would expect any such accusation to be backed by evidence.
We would like to reassure you that we are continuing to monitor the situation and promote the delivery of purpose-built student accommodation.
We believe this will help us to support the valuable work of our universities and protect traditional family homes so they are there for those who need them.