By Hilary Priestley (University of Oxford), a Cumnor resident
Mace seeks to build 262 units of high-quality student accommodation. There’d be 250 studios (ensuite shower, kitchenette) and 12 flats. The target market is ‘the more mature end’: postgraduate students and university staff. This scheme is different from Doric’s: fewer tenants; bigger units. However the overall scale has not changed. The floorspace allocated to students is now divided between three buildings but the total is very similar to that Doric proposed.
Would provision align with demand? This question is fundamental. Mace claims an ‘attractive offer’. Attractive to whom? Many postgraduates want to live with a partner. Mace excludes couples: all 250 studios are shown as single occupancy. Blocks B and C contain 197 identical 20sqm studios. I’m puzzled. Such studios are surely too small as primary homes, even short-term, for over-25’s; they’d be over-lavish, and too pricey, for nearly all students. Does Mace mistakenly think there is a big pool of wealthy international students hankering after premium studios? A wide spectrum of residents would raise compatibility issues. For younger students (undergraduates are not debarred), a communal building and noisy socialising often go together. The prospect of such neighbours would deter mature tenants. Enthusiasm for institutional living decays with age.
Purpose built student housing (PBSH) is big business these days, seen as offering high yields for investors. Such housing has boomed in London, where university accommodation is scarce and students in rented digs face a long commute. High-rise blocks on inner city sites, as Mace delivered in London E1, can meet a need. Oxford is different. The Colleges of the University of Oxford have been providing PBSH since the Middle Ages. They excel as one-stop shops for student living, a stone’s throw from University lecture rooms, libraries and labs. Monastic garrets aren’t today’s reality. Thanks to new buildings and refurbishments, the majority of undergraduates never ‘live out’; for most who do, it’s by choice. There’s more postgraduate housing than the infamous Castle Mill flats, and supply is increasing. See Oxford Mail’s article on Keble College’s new centre incorporating 230 graduate rooms, across the street from the Blavatnik School of Government. Oxford’s smaller university, Brookes, offers a range of halls of residence, mostly near its main campus in Headington. The Harcourt Hill campus seems unlikely ever to host a large student population. International students at both universities get priority treatment. Overall, the significant groups of unhoused students are (1) postgraduate couples and (2) Brookes undergraduates, who favour private sector housing in the studentified areas down the Cowley Road and in Headington.
More housing is needed for the City’s students. But need is not the same as demand. It’s demand from prospective tenants that counts. Well-located commercial PBSH can look enticing: Alice House in St Clements and the forthcoming block at Latimer Road, Headington, for example. But how affordable is £260 p.w. rent for a 51-week studio tenancy at Alice House? That’s more than £13,000 p.a. (those dependent on maintenance loans or scholarships couldn’t afford to eat). University housing and rented houses are cheaper. Cost aside, would students flock to PBSH in Botley? Mace studios might be temptingly e-marketed to newcomers. But wouldn’t rush-hour commuting – along Botley Road and well beyond – lead to disenchantment? No current student I’ve asked would consider living in Botley: too far from their academic/social base. This was Oxford University’s official reaction to the Doric application too. Location matters.
Mace refers to ‘university-related’ accommodation, so does not restrict to students. Certainly flats and larger studios, as in Block D, could suit academics on sabbatical in Oxford or postdoctoral researchers, for example. Small studio units could work well for short-stay academic visitors and part-time postgraduates. Studio flats suitable for couples (postgraduates upwards) would meet a genuine need and could be popular. Mace’s current designs for Blocks B and C are poorly matched to these potential markets. Alternatively, affordable housing for key workers, university or others, would benefit Botley more than studios targetted at non-local students.
Mace’s three large-scale student blocks would have a major impact on Botley and its character. Their inclusion has driven up building heights across the site. And what of the students Mace seeks to attract: location right? price right? accommodation that’s right for them? Low occupancy rates would benefit no one; not investors, not students, and not the local community. Housing pressures in Oxford City would not be eased.
I don’t argue for no university-related accommodation. But I do argue that Blocks B and C should be re-configured and scaled down, with their heights reduced.