Is it time that we rethought Sheffield's student city living policy?

An artist's impression of the Park Hill student development
An artist's impression of the Park Hill student development
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There was a time when universities were institutions - seats of learning where the top ten per cent academically trod their hallowed corridors.

But those days are gone and higher education now is big business, with student numbers in Sheffield billowing - numbers that will continue to expand over the next decade.

Coun Douglas Johnson

Coun Douglas Johnson

Sheffield Hallam University has massive expansion plans over the next five to 15 years, placing it “at the heart of the city”, according to its own website.

According to the report, issued by the university earlier this year: “The first phase of the masterplan will cost around £220m and will be delivered over the next five years. It includes new buildings for the Business School and social sciences, refurbishing the Students' Union building known as The HUBS, creating a University Green and improving our current estate.

“Subsequent phases will see the campus consolidated including the refurbishment and redevelopment of existing buildings alongside new buildings; all designed to provide the flexibility to accommodate different student needs.”

Trumpeting the plans, Vice Chancellor Professor Chris Husbands, Sheffield Hallam University Vice-Chancellor, said: "This is a bold vision for the long-term future of the university‘s estate which will enhance the presence and profile of the university in at the heart of the City Region and support its wider regeneration and development.

An artist's impression of the recently approved student development at the bottom of The Moors.

An artist's impression of the recently approved student development at the bottom of The Moors.

"We want to create an exceptional environment in which to learn and work and a welcoming and inclusive environment for visitors to Sheffield.

“We are uniquely placed at the heart of the city to contribute to its vibrancy and reputation and we want to encourage everyone in the city, not just our staff and students to enjoy our campus by creating attractive public spaces.”

Big business!

The University of Sheffield recorded annual profits of £623.6m in the 2016-17 financial year, of which £155.9m came from research, and now has 28,715 students on roll - 8,000 more than a decade ago.

From its humble beginnings at the Sheffield City Training College in 1905, Sheffield Hallam University has grown to be the 11th biggest UK university in terms of student numbers, with 30,815 undergraduates and post-graduates currently studying over its two campuses.

In a nutshell, the lion’s share of 60,000 people - almost ten per cent of Sheffield’s population - are currently a student in the city.

But the business doesn’t end there, because now developer after developer is coming to Sheffield to exploit the boom, with plan after plan being approved by Sheffield City Council to allow spiralling student flats on any available site within the ring road.

Last month alone, the authority green-lit plans for an 800-bed facility over four tower blocks to be built at the bottom of the Moors, as well as conversion of part of the iconic Park Hill flats into student accommodation.

Additionally, there are also plans to demolish the Bailey Street Garage and build a 8-9 storey block to house more than 250 students; while plans for a 60-bed development on the site of Trippet Lane and Bailey Lane were approved, despite officers recommending the application be rejected.

In short, there is a push to house Sheffield’s student population within the city centre - freeing up affordable housing for the first time buyer market out in the inner suburbs where ‘studentville’ is still largely situated.

Last year, the city’s Greens, who now hold every council seat in the city centre, called for the authority to amend its policy on student accommodation, in light of the plethora or student living applications.

They called for less student-only applications and a move towards more integrated living - where communities are built to include students co-existing with young professions and families - a motion that was voted down on block by the controlling Labour group.

The student population, you could argue, is transient - it doesn’t stay in Sheffield beyond a few years; it isn’t from the city, and as such does not take a stake in it.

City ward has the lowest voter turnout in the whole of Sheffield, in no small part do to its large student population.

Green Councillor Douglas Johnson said: “Students make a really great contribution to the city but it’s important to get them involved with the rest of the community and having student-only builds doesn’t help that.

“The longer term residents are the ones with more investment in community issues. There’s one development I know of in Kelham Island and it’s only being marketed to cash buyers and the buy-to-let market.”

He added that many student flat developers are also not interested in the long-term prosperity of Sheffield, as they are able to recoup build costs within five years, and if a building loses popularity five years later they can cut and run with half a decade’s clear profit.

“Ideally I would like to see students living in decent quality accommodation within the community,” Coun Johnson added.

“From the developers point of view there is often more to be gained by packing people in - but that’s not building housing for future generations.

“Changes in student populations can happen quickly but big building projects could blight our city centre in a few years if they turn out to be the wrong type of housing.”