By Ben Macpherson Published May 2018
In my constituency of Edinburgh Northern and Leith and across our city, there are few more important issues than housing.
From the supply of new properties to increasing costs; from the growing prevalence of holiday lets to the maintenance and standard of our buildings – housing is constantly a cause for debate, whether that be in the media or at the many advice surgeries I hold and community meetings I go to as a local MSP.
One of the major areas of concern that many people have at the moment is the issue of student housing, especially private purpose built student accommodation (PBSA).
This is becoming increasingly prevalent across Edinburgh, including in Leith. At the moment this is particularly relevant to a proposed development on Leith Walk, which has led to the mobilisation of the local #SaveLeithWalk campaign.
As well as supporting this campaign to stop the demolition of the building that includes the Leith Depot, Leith’s favourite live music venue, I am also concerned generally about the growth, quality, sustainability and affordability of private PBSA development.
Don’t get me wrong, I really value the highly positive contribution that students make to our society.
I also understand that student housing is important, to make sure that there is somewhere to live for the increasing number of people who are choosing to study in Edinburgh.
The problem is, however, that private PBSA isn’t actually affordable for many students. Also, private PBSA development adds to the overall housing pressures in our city, by snapping up valuable sites that could otherwise be used for building truly affordable housing for all.
Students living in private PBSA often complain about the costs and face bills in the region of £700 or £800 a month – these costs would be high for full-time workers let alone for students who are only able to work part-time, if at all, during their degrees.
In contrast to how such costs are stacked against most students, currently things are stacked very much in favour of private PBSA developers.
Unlike with other large residential developments, under current planning policy there isn’t an overriding obligation for private PBSA developers to provide a quantity of affordable housing.
I believe this is wrong. We need student housing but we also need more affordable student housing and more affordable housing development generally. That’s why I’m advocating for a change of policy.
Just the same as any other type of residential development, private PBSA developers should have to supply a percentage of affordable housing units within their developments, or make a financial contribution towards public sector affordable housing development.
Current planning policy states that local authorities should seek an affordable housing contribution from developers of new housing developments of a certain size, where there is a shortage of affordable housing in the area – however, this doesn’t apply to private purpose built student accommodation, meaning that private PBSA developers are able to charge high rents without having to provide any affordable units within their developments.
Private PBSA developers make large profits in our country – therefore, to me it is simply just and reasonable to argue that they should provide a fair share of affordable accommodation as part of any private PBSA development.
The SNP Scottish Government is already taking strong action to supply more affordable housing – with a commitment to build 50,000 more affordable homes by 2021.
SNP-led City of Edinburgh Council is also taking strong action, with a commitment to build 20,000 affordable homes over a decade. With all of this public investment being made, it is only right that private purpose, built student accommodation developers play their part too.
We should all be looking to deliver more affordable housing for our communities and for the next generation – and that includes for students.
This article was originally published in The Edinburgh Evening News, May 2018