CHESTER'S student accommodation is under the spotlight.
The issue was raised at a meeting of the full city council by College ward Cllr David Mead (Lib Dem) backed by fellow Lib Dem Cllr Jim Latham (Boughton Heath).
It is now destined for the incoming Cheshire West and Chester Council and possibly Westminster.
The Lib Dems raised concerns at “the difficulties caused to local communities neighbouring the university by the conversion of larger numbers of houses to houses of multiple occupancy for student use”.
They accept this occurrs in many university cities and housing minister Caroline Flint has published a report.
The councillors called on the city council to “address the problem”, while at the same time ensuring the continuing success of the university.
They believe planning guidelines being drawn up by the new authority should allocate areas for student accommodation and limit the spread of house conversions to student HMOs.
Cllr Mead has consistently raised concerns about individual applications with city planners while Cllr Latham has drawn attention to the rapid growth of the university and the need for accommodation for its students.
Secretary of the Canal Basin Community Forum Avril Coady has told the city council there is an “oversubscription” of multi occupancy housing in the canal basin and Garden Lane area.
“The entire area is suffering in several ways,” she claims.
This includes “ever present overparking” due mainly to HMOs and to a lesser extent commuters and noise, litter and low-level antisocial behaviour for nine months of the year “with some streets taking on the air of a ghost town during holiday periods leaving people feeling vulnerable with no permanent neighbours”.
Executive member for development at the Town Hall, Cllr Stuart Parker (Con, Christleton) has told the ruling Conservative Executive the university plays “a key role” in the city's economic and cultural renaissance and students make “a significant contribution to the local economy through their combined spending power”.
Student numbers have seen a “substantial increase” since university status was achieved in 2005 which has affected the demand for suitable private and university owned rented accommodation.
There is an increased concentration of students in certain parts of the city.
“This has led to particular issues in those areas including street parking, property management issues and issues relating to general behaviour and neighbourliness,” reveals Cllr Parker.
“It has led to serious concerns within those local communities.”
He points out that as part of a national campaign, it is being suggested there could be a change in the planning system to create a separate category for student accommodation, separate from that for HMOs, which would allow for additional controls.
Half of the city's HMOs are licensed, he says but the system does not limit the concentration of HMOs “and the practicality of making landlords responsible for tenant behaviour is debateable”.
The city council has policies for HMOs and for student accommodation and takes account of issues such as the availability of on street parking and if the number of HMOs in the area has led to a loss of amenity.
These are applied “robustly and consistently” according to Cllr Parker and a number of applications have recently been refused.
The university has to demonstrate a need for student accommodation and it should not lead to the loss of family homes.
Cllr Parker says the university “recognises its obligations to work closely with the planning authorities to maintain an overview of student residential life to ensure that the university and the city are as attractive to students as possible”.
The university is said to be “acutely aware” of its responsibilities to its students and to Chester residents.
It is hoping to have purpose built student accommodation ready in July 2010 which would be “a major step forward in helping to alleviate the accommodation pressures for students” according to the report.
Cllr Parker says the new council's planning arrangements will take account of the potential allocation of suitable sites for purpose built accommodation and zoning areas under pressure from high numbers of HMOs to enable a package of measures to be put in place, including additional licensing requirements.
The executive has agreed a series of measures including:
Ensuring planning policies for HMOs are applied robustly
Continuing to work in partnership with the university, the Chester Landlords Forum and the Student Union to address issues such as parking, behaviour, property and environmental matters
Working with the university to identify potential suitable sites for purpose built student accommodation
Taking forward the city council's approach into the Cheshire West and Chester Council's planning policies.
Councillors are also to have a report on lobbying the Government to create a separate planning category for student accommodation to address the issues which have arisen in the city's student areas.