For decades in the post-war years the City Council was hoping that people would move back into the city centre. It was written into all the post-war plans for the city. But people didn’t want to live there and builders didn’t want to build housing there.
All that has changed now! The expansion of university education, the growth of Coventry’s two universities and the attraction of foreign students, many of whom are much more affluent than local students, has brought tens of thousands more students to the city. Private developers have been falling over themselves to build accommodation for them – much of it in high rise blocks in or adjoining the city centre.
The Government’s National Planning Policy Framework gives the green light to all but the very worst forms of development and so a hands-off approach has been adopted by the city planners. The market has been left to sort out supply and demand. In addition Government policy now permits offices to be converted into housing (i.e. student housing) without the need for even the light touch requirements of current planning law.
The result of this approach can be seen by any visitor to the city centre, with two dozen high rise blocks, many in bold colours, dominating our historic city centre. We estimate that there are at least 24,000 students living in purpose built accommodation in the city, 15,000 of these are in or close to the city centre.
There are both positive and negative aspects to this change in the life of our city.
On the positive side, the housing of thousands of young people brings significant economic benefit to the city and to the cafes, pubs, restaurants and shops here. It brings jobs and it adds diversity, energy and innovation to our community and public life. There is also what is called the multiplier affect: for every 100 university employees it has been calculated that a further 99 jobs are created in the wider economy.
Some new development has brought historic buildings back into use. For instance the new Eden Square development on Stoney Stanton Road has led to the restoration of the historic Nurses Home and Operating Theatres (the Dalek Block) at the former Coventry and Warwick Hospital. The creation of a huge number of student rooms at Weaver Place has cross subsidised the redevelopment of the former Telegraph offices as a boutique hotel. The development of Millennium Place has generated resources for the daylighting of the River Sherbourne at Palmer Lane.
The new buildings are more energy efficient than the older homes in the suburbs and being built close to the city centre reduces the need for public and private transport, both of which are good for the environment.
The reduced demand for the conversion of family homes in the inner city areas, in theory releases affordable homes for families and other groups of people in need, for example single homeless people. This is actually happening now in some parts of the city. Coventry University reports that there has been a “significant drop” in the number of students going into private rented accommodation – from around 2,500 10 years ago to some 800 today. The City Council has started to purchase home like these to house homeless people.
However there is not evidence yet that families are moving back into inner city neighbourhoods and it is clear that there has been little or no reduction in the conversion of family houses to HiMOs in areas such as Earlsdon, Cannon Park and Canley. Applications for HiMOs are still coming in steadily, including some high value homes in the south west of the city.
Budget changes in relation to mortgage tax relief and the recent Council decision to introduce licensing to control the conversion of homes to Houses in Multiple Occupation (HiMOs) make the student market less attractive to private landlords, so we wait to see if this policy is effective.
On the negative side, the towering blocks are not to everyone’s taste and some of them have been permitted to loom over some of our city’s most magnificent heritage – for example Spon Street Conservation Area, St. John the Baptist Church and Whitefriar’s Monastery. The garish coloured blocks will hardly be winning any design awards.
Secondly, student blocks take up valuable city centre land that might otherwise generate business rates.
Whilst the Council and local people are losing money, the companies providing the accommodation are posting multi-million pound profits, little of which will be coming back to the city. Of course these arguments apply, perhaps to a lesser extent, to the local landlords in inner city areas who also don’t pay business rates or the community charge.
The seeming take-over of the city centre by University students appears intimidating for many Coventry residents and many citizens lament what they see being done to the city. Comments made on Social Media include the following:
“Enough is enough, not enough social housing”
“Don’t want anymore in the city centre. Too many already”
“They should re-name this city the City of Students”
“This seems to be completely speculative and frenzied: like Coventry’s 21stC version of the South Sea Bubble. If the bottom drops out of the student accommodation market – what a mess!”
“I feel sad when I continue to see more tower blocks going up. Heritage is too costly to maintain & incorporate into designs. Especially when it’s about fast money – and wonder what will happen when the bubble bursts.”
Should the City Council and the universities just ignore these views of Coventry citizens, or should they demonstrate what benefit the city is receiving from all this change?
After the War, Coventry acquired a planned city centre with an overall concept, structure and layout that was unique at the time. Apart from a small number of buildings in strategic places, the newly built centre rarely exceeded five storeys in height and had a design and appearance that gave it coherence. Much of that has been compromised or, at worst, destroyed.
We now see very little pro-active planning. Coventry’s city centre is almost like an experiment to see what will happen if we don’t plan anything. Where will it end?
One of our members asked one of the developers whether the student block could be converted to other forms of accommodation if it turned out that it was not needed for students. The reply was “Well you would have to gut it first.” Furthermore it would lack some of the facilities normally required of residential accommodation – such as car parking. But interestingly at least one London Borough only approves student blocks if they are capable of being converted into family accommodation. At present this would not happen in Coventry.
The recent experience of Corvid-19 surely raises concerns about the future of the Higher Education market. The Guardian recently headlined “Universities face funding crisis due to coronavirus”. It reported that “British Universities face a black hole of hundreds of millions of pounds in tuition fees from the impact of coronavirus”. Will this be just a short-term problem or will the affect be longer lasting? Even a short term shortfall could lead to the bankruptcy of companies serving the student market. Will we be left with a skyline of half completed developments? In the longer term, will Chinese authorities continue to permit students to travel overseas for their education? What will be the impact of Brexit on students coming from the EU?
The Coventry Society is not opposed to students coming to our city: even in large numbers! We welcome them! We believe that they add to the vibrancy and energy of our city and contribute to our economic wellbeing.
But we don’t believe that we can continue with this ad hoc approach to planning. We want the City Council to get a grip on the situation. We want a proper assessment of the need for future student accommodation. We want a proper plan of where any future student blocks should be located. We want a proper policy to limit the height of new developments. We want the protection of our historic heritage and the important views and perspectives of our heritage buildings. In particular we want proper consultation with Coventry residents on future plans and planning applications. Enough laissez faire – lets have some proper planning and some proper consultation!
What do you think?