James duncan winckworth sherwood

James Duncan, head of PRS at Winckworth Sherwood

The government has used its reform of the National Planning Practice Framework (NPPF) to offer some new thinking on the development of student accommodation. While addressing points surrounding student housing and retirement accommodation is a welcome move, the reforms have presented a segmented system and could even be viewed as a potentially discriminatory policy approach – particularly if these views are extrapolated across the broader shared and co-living market.

The government should be prioritising the creation of a private rented sector (PRS) which is consistent in the way it treats all forms of rental development, irrespective of the demographic at which it is marketed.

The kids aren’t alright

The key potential point of controversy within the draft NPPF is the proposed approach it suggests will be taken in counting student housing developments against local government housing requirements. The guidance now details a fragmented approach, which distinguishes studio flats within student housing developments from shared or co-living arrangements, with only studio flats contributing to councils’ five-year housing land supply. Other forms of tenure (including innovative shared or co-living tenures) can only contribute insofar as they release more ‘traditional’ homes onto the market.

The Collective’s HQ, 14 Bedford Square

The new guidance distinguishes studio flats within student housing developments from shared or co-living arrangements

Under these rules, there is a distinct lack of incentive for councils to approve developments of student accommodation as there is no guarantee that it will be counted towards their housing obligations.

Not only will this have a negative effect on ensuring that student housing needs are adequately and flexibly catered to, it also stops university towns from being able to retain graduates as they transition from student to professional life. That retention rate is a significant economic identifier, and providing affordable, shared or co-living accommodation for young professionals is an oft-neglected approach which councils can take to ensure a strong and vibrant economy. Cities like Manchester that have made conscious efforts to retain their student population have seen great financial and social benefits arise from the policy.

The inconsistent truth

This element of the guidance reveals an inconsistency of approach. The draft NPPG outlines that councils can count all accommodation provided for older residents (including but not limited to residential care homes) against their 5YHLS. The guidance risks being taken as discriminating against provision for young people in comparison to the elderly.

While there are of course circumstances where councils legitimately take the view that student accommodation is not appropriate development, and elderly residential accommodation is desirable, there are equally as many where the opposite is true. Fundamentally, any discrepancy between them is an unnecessary and restrictive complication; housing should be being delivered as and where it is needed, responding to the needs of present and future residents.

The guidance has clearly tried to wedge student housing in to its framework to comply with traditional C3 forms of accommodation where it does not properly fit. With that being said, the solution to the inconsistency is certainly not to develop more use classes to fit every single type of shared living arrangement imaginable. Instead, there should be less detail in the rules, allowing the private rented market to concentrate on finding rental homes for people at every stage of life.

Councils need to be able to provide room for students and young professionals just as much as they do people who are looking to downsize or retire into care. A system by which accommodation for one of those demographics is incentivised at the expense of the other should not be considered tenable in the long-term.

Detailed guidance is important, but ultimately we should be looking to build a system founded on pragmatism and practicality.