A property developer has taken a sledgehammer to a 400-year-old Jacobean ceiling in a conservation area of Bristol in order to devalue the property and convert it into student flats. He did it only a day before it was due to be visited by Historic England and hopefully Listed.
The outrage has been huge locally and nationally. But this can’t be the only destruction that has occurred to Bristol’s heritage and it’s certainly not the only building in danger although it was the oldest, so why all the fury now?
The ‘insult to injury’ part of this particular moral, if not currently legal, crime is that the destruction was perpetuated by a quick-profit developer uninterested in Bristol heritage and looking to benefit from students; some who pay up to £35k a year for their studies.
Students, as I was reminded at a neighbourhood consultation about cutting £30 million from public local services this year and a further £70m by 2021, don’t pay council tax. While the rest of us Bristol residents have seen our council taxes increase yearly, the university has so much money that it is buying property after property. While 17 out 27 Bristol libraries are to be shut down to save money, and others are having their hours reduced, the University of Bristol is spending £75m to rebuild its library.
At the consultation event, to discuss libraries being shut down and millions slashed from already underfunded public services, suggestions were made by people sat at our table of nine. They included ‘make students volunteer their time’ and ‘make the universities pay a certain amount out of tuition fees per student.’ Someone quoted a study citing a number of volunteer hours that students had available to them and the unspoken implication being that those students were withholding help from the city that was providing for them. Other worryingly familiar narratives also included ‘why shut our library down when other libraries are being used much less?’
The Bristol City Council are cutting £1.8 million from the ‘supporting people’ budget and the University of Bristol is spending £300 million redeveloping a new site that will host students who pay no council tax but take up a lot of city resources. There are expected to be up to 5000 additional students in the new development and coming to the city but there will only be 1188 accommodation spaces built by the university itself. The rest will have to be found in the private rental sector.
A CBRE report quoted by the Bristol Post claims that the current number of 41,000 students will go up to 44,000 by next year. Most of the growth will be coming from the University of Bristol.
A topical paper by the Council in 2014 states: “In recent years demand for student accommodation has placed pressure on the local housing stock often resulting in perceived or actual harmful impacts on communities accommodating students, especially in areas close to the UoB.”
Problems identified have included:
- Noise and disturbance associated with intensification in the residential use of properties/or the lifestyle of occupants;
- Pressure for on-street parking;
- Breakdown in social cohesion;
- A shift in the character of shops and businesses supporting the community;
- Unsympathetic external alterations;
- Poor waste management;
- A shift from permanent family housing to more transient accommodation;
- A reduction in the choice of housing available in an area.
Surprisingly, what isn’t mentioned is direct financial gain to the city through CIL fund payments by specialised housing premises for students. For example, just one student accommodation company CRM recently paid close to £1m.
In 2014, there were approximately 3800 bedspaces for students in the city centre and another 2489 with planning permission. There could be a lot more being created without the numbers being known because, since 2010, legislation changes mean that permission is no longer needed for the transformation of houses into multiple occupation premises (Bristol City Council).
The council is set to cut at least £4.1m from the council tax reduction scheme that allows vulnerable people to pay less tax. Public toilets are closing, 1000 members of staff are being made redundant, parks will no longer be maintained, neighbourhood partnerships have been defunded, and a myriad other cuts are being put in place.
The number of student properties however are increasing and they include the University of Bristol’s own accommodation, Dwell housing on Hotwell Road that is registered in tax haven Guernsey and bought for £6.4m, and Unite which owns 14 properties for student accommodation in Bristol. And many others.
There will soon be so little left of Bristol and yet here is a man with a sledgehammer destroying what little we have in order to make profit from students who don’t even pay council tax and whose university has been flaunting its millions around in the city.
To top it all off, housing in Bristol has been a problem for a long time and the increase of housing stock was one of Mayor Marvin Rees’ campaign promises; the University of Bristol is spending millions and charging up to £35k for tuition fees; public services are being cut drastically while student numbers, and their perceived harmful actions, are increasing and taking up private housing just when housing is at a shortfall. People are getting angry and they are going to need somewhere to vent their frustrations soon.
Brexit has already focused anger on immigrants so before the pitchforks come out for the students it’s time to engage that part of Bristol’s community and look to them too for answers to our public funding crisis and student property worries.
Update: (22/10/17) Kerry McCarthy speaking in parliament asked
The Minister talks about the expansion in student numbers. How often does he have conversations with the local government and housing Ministers about the impact on housing pressures in cities such as Bristol and on council finances, given that students do not pay council tax and developers do not pay the community infrastructure levy? Although those students are welcome, it does come at a cost.