Fife councillors have recently agreed on a 0 per cent increase in HMOs, or houses of multiple occupancy, in St Andrews, sparking outrage particularly amongst the University’s student body.
The Fife Council considered research commissioned by the University of St Andrews and led by student representatives of the Students’ Association, which examined the nature of locked-off bedrooms in the town due to the HMO threshold.
The report found about 145 reports of “wasted” rooms and advocated for a 3 per cent increase in HMOs to resolve this issue.
HMOs are mostly used for student living and are required when three or more people who are unrelated are sharing a home.
Of the report, Councillor Linda Holt said to The Courier, “It is amateurish, it has not been independently verified, it is not open to public scrutiny and it raises more questions than it answers as there are many reasons why not every room in a rented property is let out as a bedroom. It is no basis on which to make policy.”
Other councillors spoke against the report, claiming more research was needed to change the policy.
Outgoing SRC Accommodation Officer Lucy Allatt, who led the research on locked bedrooms, responded to the criticism of her report by Fife councillors.
She said to The Saint, “The research that was carried out was not done as a quick fix. Many months before the survey was sent out, there was a lot of research done about the methodology behind making a survey. The survey was set out in a way that every student that answered it knew the definition of a privately rented property, locked bedroom and under-used rooms, meaning that all the responses that we gained fitted with the definitions that would be used in the report.”
Ms Allatt stated that the Students’ Association did not offer an incentive for students to answer the questionnaire, like the chance to win a voucher as other surveys offer, so that its only aim was to “gain more of an insight into student housing within St Andrews.”
The questionnaire had a 25 per cent response rate from students, and the survey programme used meant each student could only answer the survey once.
Ms Allatt continued, “It is disappointing that Fife Council reacted to the research in the way that they did. The research was not intended to just be of benefit to the university but to the wider town. It is highlighting a problem that is shown to be widespread and potentially wasting a lot of bedroom spaces within the town.
“I still hope that the research that was carried out will be able to be used in the future to compare the impact of the widespread issue of the HMO ban within St Andrews in the future with the current research that has been carried out.”
Students received a survey in their University email and private residents were sent a paper survey in the mail from Fife Council ahead of the meeting on Thursday 11 April 2019.
On the decision, President of the Students’ Association Paloma Paige said, “It is my view, on behalf of the student body, that Fife Councillors have failed the youth of St Andrews who overwhelmingly asked for a three per cent HMO threshold.
“The phenomenon of ‘locked-off’ bedrooms has until now been only anecdotal. Nonetheless, it has had a detrimental impact on students’ experience living in private accommodation.
“The research commissioned by the University, which was based on a survey completed by nearly 25 per cent of eligible students, not only proved that this phenomenon is real, it also gave a clear indication of the scope and scale of the problematic practice.
“I am proud of what the University and researchers have achieved here and every student who took part in the survey should also be proud. Councillors’ criticisms of the research do not change the results: over a hundred reports of wasted rooms.”
As the HMO policy in St Andrews will not be reviewed again for another three years, the Students’ Association is now tasked with finding alternative strategies in making student accommodation more affordable and accessible in the town. On this, Ms Paige added, “We need to ensure that properties are fully utilised. Prices are too high and competition for resources is too intense for us to ignore wasted rooms.
“The new policy will be reviewed and its success measured over the next three years. I highly doubt that it will succeed and the Students’ Association continue its work advocating for students and for balanced evidence-based solutions.”
Many Fife councillors, including convener of the committee, Judy Hamilton, stated that they would work with the University of St Andrews to explore the town’s options for accommodation so as to satisfy both students and residents.
A spokesperson for the University stated of the Council’s decision, “We are committed to playing our part in sustaining a balanced and fair community in St Andrews, but very doubtful that an HMO cap will achieve that.
“The University already provides more accommodation for students per head than any other UK university, and will continue with work to build another 900 rooms for students as well as developing a 64-bed affordable housing scheme for our early career staff and postgraduate students.”
Exceptions to the HMO cap will be made for applications currently being processed or for the renewal of HMOs and purpose-built student accommodation.