I offered to write this piece, not because I expect to convert readers of The Saint to the residents’ point of view but in the hope that it might contribute to an understanding of where we residents are coming from. And I want to emphasise that we are neither anti-University nor anti-student – I know of no resident who doesn’t recognise their importance to the Town and welcomes their presence in the Town. It’s all about balance.
The numbers are revealing and here are a few: In 1985 there were 3,500 students, today there are 9,000+ and an expectation that this will rise to 10,000 in the next 3-4 years. The Town’s total population over the last 20 years has hovered around 17,000 but the resident population has fallen from 12,000 to 7,600, i.e., residents are now in a minority in the Town. Between 1979 and 2012, the number of primary school age children halved and in 2007 the largest primary school in St Andrews, Langlands, closed.
Some more numbers: The University accommodates roughly 5,000 students in its halls of residence leaving 4000 or so to find accommodation in the Town – some in 2 bed flats but most in private 3-7 bed HMOs. There are 580 of these and most (70%) are concentrated in the historic centre of the Town, the Conservation Area, where students make up 85% of the population (here, the resident population is now below that of the Middle Ages!). With few exceptions, the HMOs were once family homes and 160 of them were once Council houses that entered the HMO market via Right to Buy. There is an acute housing shortage in St Andrews with a housing waiting list of 370 and 40 people designated homeless.
No one would argue that the loss of family homes is due to conversion to HMOs alone – second homes and holiday lets are a problem – but there is no denying that HMOs are a major factor. Such is the premium on properties eligible for an HMO licence (estimated at £50-£80,000 for a 3-bed flat back in 2013) that property in St Andrews is unaffordable for most of those who work in the Town, including University staff and their families, who must look to the surrounding villages and towns for accommodation – pushing up property prices in these areas in the process.
By the time you read this, Fife Council Community and Housing Services Committee will have launched a consultation on an Overprovision Policy, with options of 0% and 3% limits on the further conversion of homes to HMOs, but a preference for 0%. A 3% limit doesn’t sound much but we are not talking about a 3% increase in HMOs but an additional 3% of the Town’s housing stock – some 220 homes. With Powell and Whitehorn Halls now on stream, the planned development of 750 places at Albany Park, and spare capacity in the private HMO market, there is no demonstrable need for further conversion of homes to HMOs.
A lot has been made of the issue of ‘locked bedrooms’ but, to date, no evidence that this practice is widespread has been put forward. Even if it is, it is hard to see why it is a problem. HMOs have additional safety measures because multi-bedsit properties are inherently less safe than smaller properties, such as 2 bed flats. The recent tightening of safety regulations for all properties, and the introduction of a strict letting agents code of practice, means that all properties, whether HMOs or not, must meet the highest safety standards and any student who thinks their property is unsafe should report the issue to the Lead Officer of Fife Council’s Private Sector Regulation Team (finlay.ross@ fife.gov.uk) if they don’t get a satisfactory response from their letting agent or landlord – safe in the knowledge that they cannot legally be evicted for raising safety concerns (or any other concerns about the property, for that matter).
Once a decision about the limits on HMOs has been made, I hope that residents and students can come together again to tackle accommodation issues such as high rents and poor maintenance, as well as wider Town issues such as vehicle pollution and lack of safe cycling, that affect us all.
About me: I’ve lived in St Andrews since 1985 and I represent the Confederation of St Andrews Residents’ Associations on the St Andrews Housing Group. For additional information, go to:
standrewsqv.org.uk/2018/11/the-hmo-problem-in-st-andrews-and-possible-Solutions (look for: St Andrews HMO problem)