Council approves 850-room student accommodation despite local protest

By Sophie Gregory and Tania Chakraborti

Durham County Council has granted outline planning permission for an 850-room student accommodation block on land north of Mount Oswald, in spite of significant disquiet among local residents.

The Purpose Built Student Accommodation (PBSA), set to be developed by coal-mining and construction firm The Banks Group, was opposed in the application stage by various group actors and individual residents, who cited concerns with the environment, noise pollution and adverse effects on student well-being.

Durham University, meanwhile, leant its support to the project, the site of which being close to its own 1,000-room Mount Oswald development designed to provide a new home for John Snow College and another, new college.

However, residents raised a number of concerns with the PBSA.

One such issue, raised in January, is that the PBSA may be inconsistent with the 2014 Interim Policy on Student Accommodation, which maintains that “new student accommodation should not be built at the expense of general housing as the Council must address the need for new family and affordable housing.”

Concerns were also raised regarding the level of noise that local residents may be subjected to as a result of the increased number of students. Furthermore, as the PBSA is under private management, some concerns were raised regarding well-being of students, who may, it is claimed, find it more difficult to access the welfare services provided by colleges and the University.

During earlier stages, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) also emphasised the need to protect the Green Belt.

A further issue raised has been whether or not the PBSA will reach full occupation. Though Durham University is expanding, there is no certainty, as Palatinate has previously reported, that such privately owned blocks would be filled with students, especially due to high rent costs.

One pre-existing PBSA in Durham, Chapel Heights, currently charges £165 per week for a standard flat, with bills included. With rising college fees and the concerns publicised by the Durham SU’s #RippedOff Campaign, the growth of PBSAs poses more questions regarding the cost of accommodation for both students and residents.

In the event that the current PBSAs are not filled to capacity, another concern highlighted by local resident objectors to the Mount Oswald site’s draft proposals – that there is no “need” for such developments – may carry greater weight.

Marie-Louise Milliken, of The Banks Group, disputed this concern, saying: “There is a clear need for further student accommodation within the Durham City Centre and we consider Mount Oswald to be the most appropriate, logical and sustainable location for this.”

Residents’ concerns also include allegations of manipulating the application process, as noted under Public Responses in the Durham County Council Planning Services Committee Report. The report states that  “objections are raised on the basis that the planning application is misleading and unclear on whether it is related to the already approved 1,000 student bedrooms.

“Suspicions are raised as to whether the applicant is applying for the extra 850 bedrooms now to increase approval chances because if it had applied for 1,850 in the beginning, it would not have been approved.” Such speculative allegations appear to be unfounded, however, as eight councillors voted in favour of the application, allowing it to pass.

In a statement to Palatinate, Jane Robinson, Chief Operating Officer of Durham University, said: “We need a world-class estate in order to deliver our University Strategy, which includes proposals to increase our student population to a maximum of 21,500 by 2027 and house over 50% of our students in College accommodation.

“The University is committed to taking a planned and sustainable approach to developing our estate, in consultation with the wider community. We want to be a good neighbour and, as such, any developments will be carefully managed.”

Illustration: Charlotte Way

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