It’s good news for students in halls in London

Larissa Kennedy and Hillary Gyebi-Ababio describe plans that will improve the affordability, ownership and delivery of purpose-built student accommodation both in the capital, and elsewhere.

Larissa Kennedy is President of the National Union of Students


Hillary Gyebi-Ababio is the vice president for higher education at NUS.

As the student housing crisis continues apace, sharpened by the pandemic, it often seems like nobody in power has a plan to do anything about it.

Yet hidden beneath the noise of the pandemic the Greater London Authority has, after five years of work with NUS, this month finalised and published their “London Plan” (otherwise known as the Spatial Development Strategy for Greater London) which will radically improve the affordability, ownership and delivery of purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) in the capital.

This is excellent news for students in Greater London. However, the even better news is that several other major areas across the country have the chance to follow London’s lead – and the local elections provide a perfect opportunity to do so.

London’s Plan

In simple terms, if one wants to build something in the UK you must apply for planning permission from your local planning authority (usually your local council). To get permission, you must meet the various requirements of that planning authority. This is the case whether you are a lucky boomer in Shoreditch eager for a new conservatory, or a PBSA developer seeking to build a new £400 p/w block.

The London Mayor has the most extensive devolved planning powers in the UK. They are consulted on all planning applications of potential strategic importance (PSI) to London. These include developments of more than 150 residential units and those which are more than 30 metres tall.

In addition, Sadiq Khan, as the current Mayor, can create a Spatial Development Strategy (the London Plan) which sets the minimum planning conditions the Mayor requires to be met when any of the 32 local councils in London are awarding planning permission. It also sets the overall strategy for development in Greater London and covers everything from green spaces to offices.

Whilst all will continue to seek planning permission from their relevant local council the Mayor has the power to “call-in” and become the decision-maker on anything that isn’t following the strategy as laid out in the London Plan.

Since 2016, NUS has worked with students’ unions in Greater London, the GLA and allies including the University of London through an “academic forum” to feed into the development of the new London Plan. Our work has secured a series of regulations regarding PBSA in the new London Plan which mean that to secure planning permission all new PBSA, whether built by a university or private company, must:

  • Have at least 35% of bedrooms available to rent at an ‘affordable’ rate – defined as 55% of the maximum maintenance loan available to an English undergraduate student studying away from home in London. Rents can rise by no more than CPI each year and local councils are encouraged to review rents in PBSA every three years.
  • Be owned/managed by a university or have a nominations agreement (formal partnership) in place with a university which covers at least 50% of the bed spaces.
  • All “affordable rooms” must be located within the nominated bed-spaces to ensure the educational institution can allocate those rooms to students most in need and align that process with their various policies and strategies on mental health, access and participation etc.

The affordability requirements are a fusion of NUS’ historic “ask” for PBSA providers to have 25% of all bed spaces available at 50% of the maximum maintenance loan and Sadiq Khan’s requirements to have 35% of all new housing being truly affordable.

The requirement for a nominations agreement, in addition to ensuring the university can prioritise affordable rooms for those students most in need, also secures a range of other benefits. It brings larger chunks of the PBSA sector under the auspices of the Public Sector Equality Duty and should create a more diverse set of rooms to meet student need, for example around adaptability for disabled students.

It also de facto means that no PBSA can be built without the approval of a university, placing them in the driving seat of the local sector and preventing speculative builds.

As a result, universities will have to work much closer with private providers and local government than they do currently and, by extension, students’ unions and local communities will be able to hold their university and the whole local PBSA sector to greater account.

The best laid plans of…

Whilst the development of these regulations enjoyed the support of the University of London and most universities in the city, private sector providers will certainly seek to subvert the requirements of the London Plan by challenging planning decisions through “viability routes”.

In short, they will moan that, “we just can’t afford to build that number of affordable rooms so take our block as it is or leave it” until the local authority gives in. Universities and students’ unions will have to be vigilant in the monitoring of the implementation of the London Plan at a local level and not be afraid to tell the Mayor to “call-in” any dodgy decision.

Whilst Sadiq Khan has the strongest strategic planning powers of all the elected Mayors in the UK, he is not alone in the ability to create a Spatial Development Strategy. Eight city-regions now have Metro Mayors, covering nearly 12 million people:

  • Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority
  • Greater Manchester Combined Authority
  • Liverpool City Region Combined Authority
  • Sheffield City Region Combined Authority
  • West of England Combined Authority
  • Tess Valley Combined Authority
  • North of Tyne Combined Authority
  • West Midland Combined Authority

Just three of these (Tees Valley, North of Tyne and West Midlands) do not currently have the ability to create their own version of a Spatial Development Strategy. Many are at the start of developing these strategies and can be influenced, particularly through pressure in the upcoming local elections.

Plan ahead!

These new policies are not just important for students. Amidst a national housing crisis, universities cannot continue to assert their role as anchor institutions or maintain their bravado about civic missions without engaging with the question of PBSA in their local area.

For those universities and students’ unions in one of the aforementioned Metro Mayor areas, now is the chance to fight back against London exceptionalism. Universities and SUs should use the existence of the London Plan to secure positive measures in the Spatial Development Strategies for students, universities and the wider communities in which they sit.

Starting by meeting with each other to discuss the London Plan and by opening discussions with the local Metro Mayor’s office will be an important first step.

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