To avoid blazes like Bolton’s, we must radically overhaul student housing | Eva Crossan Jory | Education
The fire at a student residence in Bolton has brought into sharp relief the need for action on fire safety standards in student accommodation. It’s been more than two years since the tragedy of Grenfell, and hundreds of blocks – including many student developments – are still covered in flammable ACM cladding, with thousands of households living in fear. Landlords and private companies have dragged their feet in removing it, and the government has only approved preliminary funding to help remove cladding from just one tower.
The government’s own fire safety advisers have said that other types of cladding such as HPL, which appears to have been present on The Cube in Bolton, is also often unsafe and should be removed. Given that HPL is made of paper and wood this seems fairly obvious, but no funding has been made available to audit how widespread the use of such cladding is. We’re also unsure how many blocks have escaped scrutiny as they fall just below the 18 metre high-rise definition – like The Cube – and are potentially at risk
The National Union of Students (NUS) has and will continue to call for urgent action to fully understand dangerous cladding and for it to be removed immediately. We stand in solidarity with the Grenfell United campaign in their calls for a wider national emergency to be called on fire safety. Fire services have been slashed and local authorities’ ability to inspect and enforce fire safety is limited after 10 years of austerity. A number of other regulatory improvements are needed, such as better sprinkler coverage.
The Cube has also brought the wider issues of the purpose-built student accommodation sector to the fore. More than 500,000 students lived in such accommodation in 2017-18. The private, for-profit sector – which only really started 20 years ago – now operates more than 50% of all bed spaces. Universities have largely abdicated responsibility for ensuring that there is an adequate supply of safe, accessible and affordable homes, despite cashing in on the rapid increase in student numbers. As a result, private halls often have little or no relationship with universities.
While private halls must comply with standard fire safety regulations, the sector does have a confusing status in law. For example, they do not pay business rates, do not have to contribute to affordable housing stock (which all other housing developments do), have a confused relationship with houses of multiple occupation licensing, and are not obliged to stick to standard rules on things like room size and windows. Often students have weaker tenancy rights when staying in private halls as these are let by license agreements rather than proper tenancy contracts.
Many local authorities have given favourable treatment to private student hall providers, seeing it – wrongly in our view – as a way of taking pressure off local housing stock and planning requirements that have not been stringent enough.
The sector profits both directly and indirectly from student debt and public money as sky-high rents absorb vast amounts of students’ maintenance loans, and the resulting debt is likely to be written off by the taxpayer. The student housing affordability crisis is exacerbated by the fact that private halls often exclude disabled students, families or additional needs. Meanwhile, numerous buildings are late each year, leaving students living in temporary accommodation at the start of term.
The NUS is calling on all political parties to commit to urgent action on purpose-built student accommodation. This should start with a wide-ranging review that puts student tenants and representatives at its heart. Universities must be forced to take meaningful responsibility over student housing more generally, from affordability to supply. Neither universities nor offshore companies should be generating surpluses from students’ hardship and we must explore how more democratic, not for-profit models which put student welfare at their heart can be created. Providers like these already exist, so the sector’s bleating that any greater regulation “threatens viability” is demonstrably untrue.
It should not have taken the tragedy at Grenfell for action to begin to be taken on fire-safety in high-rise blocks. It should not have taken a fire in The Cube in Bolton for the issue of student accommodation to be put on the political agenda. We cannot wait for another terrible fire.