Pride of place” is what Graham Wynd, chairman of the St Andrews Preservation Trust and David Middleton, the Trust’s lead on the town’s HMO issue, value most about the town and its buildings.
Our meeting was held in the musty rooms of their offices on Queen’s Gardens, filled with the scent of mature wood and dotted with precious antiques. David jokes about the increased popularity of his surname since the famous royal couple graced these streets, setting a relaxed tone for the friendly but short interview.
It is immediately clear that, contrary to what some other commentators might think, the Trust is not campaigning to drive students out of the town centre. I first ask them where they think students should live: “Students should have a choice,” David responds. Apparently the Trust “don’t have any strong ideals,” and are simply looking for “some sort of awareness within the student population” about the pressure that some residents feel as a result of the overwhelming presence of students.
They appear highly sympathetic toward the student lifestyle. Graham lives in the “heart of student-land” in Greyfriars Gardens, where out of “35 dwellings, only four are in the hands of permanent residents. Of course there are times when there are noisy parties, but that can be coped with, so long as it does not become a problem.” It later emerges that both he and David share longer connections with the University: both of Graham’s children came to study here, while David took a postgraduate course once he had retired.
The chief problem, they assert, is not the students but the landlords, whose monopoly on accommodation within the town centre ensures that they are able to charge extortionate prices while providing the bare minimum of upkeep. Graham views this as detrimental to what he refers to as the “pride of place” of the town: “many of [them] are absentee landlords, who have no interest in maintaining the community of the street, and whose motivation is to make money out of the students.”
David stresses the implications of the unsympathetic motivations of the landlords and estate agents: he pushes across the table a pile of photographs of advertisements for properties to let throughout the town, posted well into the start of the semester, in the hope that vacant houses – often, crucially, with HMO licences – will be filled by desperate students strapped for a place to live. It seems the letting agents wish to perpetuate a sense of a local housing market stretched to the limit, while internally admitting that there is actually a slight surplus; he hands me another sheet showing a letter from one estate agent to a local resident stating that “there are at present 13 [unoccupied] properties offering 44 student rooms in the town just from the larger agents, not taking any account of the universities [sic] position, private landlords and out of town agents.” Leveraging these facts, the letter, addressed to a man involved in the construction of new private student bedrooms, implores the addressee that “there is no need to flood the market with additional student bedrooms.”
It seems, therefore, that this intensely competitive attitude of landlords (perhaps to be expected, since they are a business) has meant other local residents are priced out of the market. Graham sympathises with the “old couples” or “young families” looking to move into the centre but who simply cannot afford a single place because of this economic result. David adds that although students make up roughly 9,000 of the town’s 16,000 population, in the centre 85 per cent of residences are student-let. “We just want to make sure that this doesn’t become 100 per cent.”
I ask him about the Council’s role in this issue, and he points to multiple flaws in the system. He first says that on new property developments, while 30 per cent must be built as “affordable housing,” the developers will, naturally, not prioritise these builds. “It’s always a case of ‘we’ll get round to those ones later on’.”
A more fundamental problem he reveals, however, is that purpose-built student housing is exempt from this stipulation, thus incentivising developers to build more student flats which are, more often than not, too expensive for local residents. “There was even an article recently in the national press singing the praises of developing and owning student flats to let.” Although the HMO moratorium mitigated the problem somewhat, there remains this effect that non-students are pushed out to the depths of the badlands and Lade Braes, and beyond.
David and Graham are not set against the students – David repeatedly emphasises that he doesn’t want his views to be interpreted as “anti-student” – and it simply seems that they value the community and appreciation of the town that a better student-resident mix provides. While the Trust would rather that students don’t become the sole inhabitants of the town centre, Graham adds that “the students bring tremendous vibrancy to the town… If you go to some of the other Scottish towns, they can feel very morbid in comparison with here.” Ultimately they want to “strike a balance” between the “vibrancy” that students bring and the “pride of place” that their organisation promotes – and this seems, at least in their opinion, a very achievable outcome.