A university accused of fuelling a housing crisis in St Andrews had 131 student accommodation vacancies at the start of the new term.
A reply to a freedom of information request also revealed that St Andrews University has no plans to build social housing in the area, despite receiving £42 million of taxpayers’ money and stating recently it would place “social responsibility” at the heart of its expansion strategy.
Critics have described the vacancies in 11 university halls of residences as “significant”. They argued there is “no shortage of accommodation for students” and that the university should give more attention to the “needs of the members of its host community” rather than “privileged students”.
In reply, St Andrews University said it provides more accommodation for students per head than any other UK university.
The Ferret reported last month that so-called town and gown relations were at an all time low in the leafy town, due to a bitter dispute over the dearth of affordable housing for locals.
Hundreds of people are on a waiting list seeking homes and the university has been accused of “spawning a bonanza” for buy-to-let landlords, who have snapped up former council houses to let to students while out-pricing local people.
Many students share privately and rent former council homes sold off under right-to-buy legislation, now licensed as Houses of Multiple Occupancy (HMOs). St Andrews has the highest percentage of HMOs in Scotland.
Rents for former council homes can be as high as £2,000 and it emerged recently that around one in five houses in the town centre are lying empty. Fife councillors voted to impose quotas on HMOs but a final decision was postponed until February 2019 with a public consultation continuing.
Students claim their views were ignored and launched a voter registration campaign. A community council election was postponed so that students could apply to be members when they were back from their holidays.
David Middleton, of the Confederation of St Andrews Residents Associations, said there is no shortage of accommodation for students and that a lack of family housing is one of the most “pressing community concerns” in the town.
He added: “This contrasts with the position for families trying to find a home in St Andrews, with over 350 on the waiting list for social housing, some of whom are homeless. Over 150 former council houses in St Andrews have been bought up by buy-to-let landlords who can charge rents of £500 or more per month for each room in an HMO property.
“What is most surprising is the sense of entitlement of those proposing that more family homes should be converted to HMOs. Students are in St Andrews for only 26 weeks in the year, and the vast majority will have family homes elsewhere. It is difficult to see logic in a campaign which places the needs of well-housed students above that of homeless families.”
Before the university lectures the council on housing policy in St Andrews, it should be addressing the problems in its own student housing Linda Holt, Conservative councillor
Linda Holt, a Conservative East Neuk councillor, said: “131 vacancies suggests to me that before the university lectures the council on housing policy in St Andrews, it should be addressing the problems in its own student housing. Students regularly complain that university accommodation is too expensive and they resort to the private sector to save money.”
She continued: “New university accommodation is extremely high-end, being built by private providers, and clearly focussed on well-heeled, often foreign, students in term time and the lucrative conference and tourist/course markets in the holidays. Where does this leave UK, and especially Scottish students, from less privileged backgrounds?”
A spokesman for the University of St Andrews, Steve Bargeton, said the institution already provides “more accommodation for students per head than any other UK university” adding that it is building another 900 rooms for students.
He added: “Our students generate almost £58 million for the St Andrews economy alone, directly supporting over 1,400 jobs in the town. We are committed to playing our part in sustaining a balanced and fair community in St Andrews, but it is very doubtful that an HMO cap would achieve that, and may in fact make affordable accommodation for local people even more scarce. This is a view and concern shared by a majority of St Andrews elected representatives.”
Paloma Paige, president of St Andrews Students’ Association, said that vacancies in halls do not “represent a meaningful surplus of accommodation for students” adding they “reflect student preference for the independence and integration into the wider community that living in private accommodation offers”.
She added: “I am enthusiastic about working with the university to encourage more returning students to apply to halls as a first choice. However, filling these vacancies still would not wholly remove the demand for private flats and houses by students.
“The right to buy ended in 2016 and thus an HMO policy will neither bring back those already converted nor affect current council housing. What a cap on HMOs at current levels would do is restrict the amount of safe housing for students and make a truly “well-housed” student community even more difficult to attain.
“Affordable family housing and HMOs should not be considered to be mutually exclusive. I would not suggest that more affordable family houses be converted into student flats. Quite the opposite – I want to see a preservation of the affordable family neighbourhoods while allowing students to live in accommodation more suitable to their lifestyle and which is close to the centre of town. We should push the government to create more affordable housing for young families and professionals.”