Last week I found myself in conversation on what is becoming quite a touchy subject in the Swansea Bay region.
In fact, you only have to mention “student accommodation” for someone to share a horror story of litter, noise and generally anti-social goings-on.
As it happens, my chat was with a national research group who are looking at the social and economic impact of what’s called the ‘pod-living’ revolution.
This unattractive term refers to the city-based self-contained studio apartment sector – either owned or rented – and which has seen considerable growth as a favoured form of accommodation.
Although their actual data remains commercially confidential, the headline findings they shared is that hurdles confronting home-ownership currently make the pod approach the most cost-effective regeneration model.
We can see this for ourselves of course. The buy-to-let market might have peaked elsewhere but new campus developments locally are sparking accommodation demand with an emphasis on better quality, better location and relative affordability.
Developers are cashing in and not a week seems to go by without another announcement of a new high-end, multi-storey scheme.
The comparative attractiveness of purpose-built and independently managed student accommodation is that a relatively modest price will get you a stake in the property market plus a guaranteed income without the associated tenancy hassles.
Investors buy into the opportunity to purchase en suite accommodation either within new schemes such as that planned for Mariner Street or a conversion/extension scheme similar to what you will find above Castle Buildings or located on top of the former Barons nightclub just opposite.
Starting out fresh admittedly carries some risk. The packages sound great but mortgage lenders are not overly keen to advance money against this type of investment. Rates are therefore not as competitive as you might expect. Traditional lenders also have concerns about tenancy and re‑sale potential, or so I’m told.
The research I saw had some mixed messages on the thorny issue of parking.
Surprisingly, the cities where campus parking is banned or severely restricted have not necessarily seen congestion in adjacent areas. Where accommodation and study areas are reasonably close to each other, or else well-connected by public transport, recorded car ownership among students is actually lower.
It’s likely that these findings will be used in future to support planning applications.
The health warning attached though is that these worthy cases seem to be the exception. Most university towns and cities struggle with self-imposed parking headaches to some degree.
On the economic front however the news is almost entirely good. New urban self-contained accommodation brings improved commercial footfall, enhanced surrounding property values plus a noticeable increase in retail takings & related employment.
The bottom line is that city living is becoming firmly established as a lifestyle choice as much as an economic consideration.
A hope I’ve heard expressed is that all this new property will eventually see terraced houses previously converted to student accommodation transformed back into family homes. The findings suggest that this could be happening, albeit on a very piecemeal basis.
We’ll get a better picture when the report is published early next year.
Bring High Street out of the shade
We’ll likely experience quite a few more dreadful summers before Swansea has the kind of free-standing glass roofing used at retail centres like Victoria Square in Belfast – or closer to home at the McArthurGlen designer outlet at Bridgend.
One bright spot that might come sooner though is the suggestion that upper High Street could see the return of storefront awnings.
As one Evening Post reader commented online, overhanging awnings originally doubled up as a means of keeping fresh produce out of the sunlight as well as protecting customers from the elements. Modern versions serve more as advertising but certainly add to the ambience.
To my mind, the proposal would bring character and functionality to a part of the city centre much in need of continued regeneration.
I’ve made no secret how I think excluding High Street as a retail precinct from previous city centre masterplans has been a mistake. This proposal would most definitely bring the area out of the shade.
Time for grown-up politics
The occasions where I reply to the television are exceedingly rare (by my reckoning anyway).
What sparked my back-chat was the insistence by an audience member during a debate that “politicians are put there to represent the interests of the party”. Wrong!
Not only does this this kind of partisan thinking ignore the wider democratic involvement, it is turning what should be serious political introspection into nothing more than an internal and shambolic power-struggle.
The Westminster situation looks like one of the latter scenes from Saving Private Ryan.
In Cardiff Bay, the burning issue to be addressed just before recess in post-Brexit Britain was a motion proposing “the National Assembly for Wales agrees its name should be changed to the "Welsh Parliament" at the earliest opportunity”. Really?
Call me out of step, but I really think we as voters deserve something more mature than process-driven politics and musical chairs – as I told my television.