By Ryan Gould
Plans to redevelop The Gates shopping centre in Durham City to include a cinema, restaurants, and a further 253 student bedrooms have been approved by Durham City Council’s planning committee in a move that will cost £30 million.
The plan to redevelop The Gates – in the face of strong opposition from Durham University, the MP for the City of Durham, and various residential groups – will improve the city’s nightlife and create jobs, applicants Clearbell Capital have said.
In particular, the inclusion of 253 student bedrooms as part of the project has come under fierce scrutiny for how it will have a detrimental impact on permanent residents of Durham City.
In a letter submitted to Durham County Council’s planning committee on behalf of the University in July, Harvey Dowdy, Deputy Director in the Estates and Buildings department, wrote that “it has not been demonstrated that there is any need for the 253 student bed spaces proposed.”
“The University’s projects of growth in student numbers over the next five years are only 359 students and in the last two years the Planning Authority have granted permission for over 3,000 beds in Purpose Built Student Accommodation,” the letter reads.
“The University does not consider that the developer can demonstrate what objectively assessed need the proposed 253 bed student accommodation is aimed at and why this need is currently unmet.”
Citing that the surrounding area of Durham City is “already heavily skewed to the provision of student accommodation,” the plan to allow the residential portion of The Gates’s redevelopment to be solely student accommodation “would perpetuate an unbalanced residential population where […] a temporary population of students […] dominates to the exclusion of other types of resident.”
Durham County Council raised Ms Dowdy’s concern of the risk of an unbalanced residential population within the supporting text of the Interim Policy on Student Accommodation, recognising that action must be taken to address the shortage of family housing within Durham City.
Roberta Blackman-Woods, MP for the City of Durham, argued this point in a letter to the Council’s planning committee in September, stating that the supporting text for the Interim Policy on Student Accommodation “recognises the fact that Durham City is under increasing pressure from large scale student developments, with 4,113 rooms currently with planning permission or in the pipeline.
“It is important to consider the cumulative effect such an application will have on the character of the city, the amenity that is currently enjoyed by local residents, and the pressure that will be placed on services and infrastructure within Durham,” Ms Blackman-Woods wrote.
In conversation with Palatinate, Ms Blackman-Woods said that Durham County Council are consulting on a number of policies that will seek to address some of the imbalance issues that exist within the local area.
“Parts of the city that are already saturated with student housing, such as the Viaduct area, will need a set of specific measures to create more of a balance between permanent residents and students, but these are still to be established,” Ms Blackman-Woods said.
“Until this is done, local residents and Durham County Council will find it difficult to realise their ambition for more family housing within the city centre.”
Ms Blackman-Woods’s concerns were also echoed by David Freeman, a local councillor representing the Durham City communities of Elvet, Gilesgate, Crossgate, Claypath, and The Sands.
Mr Freeman told Palatinate that “while the redevelopment of The Gates has some merits in providing a much needed multiscreen cinema and improved retail space, the purpose built student accommodation part of the scheme is far from welcome.”
Aside from the 4,113 rooms referenced by Ms Blackman-Woods, Mr Freeman said that Durham University’s own plan to erect 1,000 student bedrooms at Mount Oswald, near Van Mildert College, points towards no need for further student accommodation in The Gates.
“The Council is completely crazy to keep approving large private sector accommodation blocks when it is clear there is no demand. I know many students want to ‘live out’ in a house in the city and would not want to live in purpose built accommodation,” Mr Freeman said.
“In a few years we could have a very serious housing problem as a result of the Council having no sensible policy on student accommodation in Durham.”
In its summary statement for the redevelopment, Milburngate Ltd states that the inclusion of student accommodation as part of The Gates “will have a positive impact upon the private property market through assisting with the re-release of a proportion of houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) back to market housing.”
“By increasing the provision of purpose built accommodation which is of a higher standard than many HMOs, whilst maintaining competitive rents, it will promote students to move into purpose built accommodation,” the statement reads.
Alluding to the risk of an unbalanced residential population, Milburngate Ltd concludes that, in the longer term, students living in developments, like that proposed as part of The Gates, “should lead to a readdressing of the balance between HMOs and Purpose Built Accommodation.”
Opposition from residential groups, like that of the Durham City Neighbourhood Planning Forum (DCNPF), are coherent in citing that the inclusion of purpose built student accommodation in the redevelopment of The Gates is “a misuse of prime retail space in the city centre.”
In a statement to Palatinate, the DCNPF said that the “lack of planning for the appropriate location and design of student accommodation benefits neither students nor residents of the city.”
The DCNPF referenced the Council’s committee report for the project, where it states that “student accommodation would maximise the viability of the development to enable delivery. Residential use is also considered less marketable due to factors such as low demand for apartment accommodation and the impact of the traffic adjacent to Milburngate Bridge.”
“In other words, students living in close proximity to high volumes of traffic and poor air quality,” the DCNPF said. “Students are being used to make the project viable.”
The DCNPF has since set out a list of priorities for “what needs to change” following the return of 162 consultative questionnaires; a list that includes redressing Durham’s heavy skew towards student accommodation and its accompanying consequences.
In a meeting of the Forum last week, leaders also highlighted that Durham County Council should further take on board the views of local residents before agreeing to planning proposals, as well as to increase the diversity of retail outlets and reduce business rents and rates.
Analysis: Making the best of a difficult situation
Finding the happy medium in situation such as this was never going to be plain sailing.
While some might be hesitant to admit it, The Gates has long been crying out for the investment it so desperately needs. This is Durham, the city’s official tourism guide, labels it the “premier shopping location,” but truth be told, it hasn’t been that for some time.
Perhaps to the dismay of Durham’s Gala Theatre, the inclusion of a multiplex cinema — likely to be Odeon — as part of the redevelopment is one of the more convincing elements in the plans.
The Gates has struggled to cash in on the value behind Durham’s status as a university town, and in doing so, has prevented itself from becoming the city’s go-to venue for wining and dining, shopping and socialising.
Most interesting, though, is the University’s response to the story.
While clear in their objection to the inclusion of further student accommodation as part of The Gates at the planning stages, the University has in some way shied away from shouldering some of the responsibility for the imbalance between local residents (including residential housing) and students overall.
Let’s not forget that students aren’t a permanence in Durham. Students spend roughly eleven weeks here between October and December, nine weeks between January and March, and only eight weeks between April and June.
Durham is university town, and local residents are mostly proud of the University’s status and the privileges it brings to the city. At the same time, it isn’t fair that students should be responsible, though indirectly, for essentially locking residents out of the city.
Many might feel that the University should do more, particularly at the planning stage, to prevent the possibility of further student accommodation being erected without its own given consent.
With over 4,000 student bedrooms having been granted outline planning permission in the past two years, it isn’t yet clear where the line will be drawn.
The DCNPF said that responses frequently drew attention to excessive student housing around Durham, the city’s poor retail offering, and traffic congestion, while at the same time praising the University and its students.
The City of Durham Trust, set up in 1942 with the aim of conserving and encouraging the appreciation of Durham’s historical heritage, also lobbied strong opposition to the inclusion of student accommodation in The Gates redevelopment in the planning stages.
“The applicant has not demonstrated that a need exists for this student accommodation and consequently […] this element of the proposal must fail,” a letter to Council’s planning committee reads.
Dr Douglas Pocock, Honourable Secretary for the City of Durham Trust, told Palatinate that, “since the creation of the unitary authority in 2009, the County has acted shamefully to the city.”
He said that the refusal to create a town council, despite a legitimate referendum, and the abolition of Durham’s mayor means that “the city is totally over-ridden” [sic].
Ms Blackman-Woods told Palatinate that, “by and large, local residents are not against the development of Purpose Built Student Accommodation.”
Rather, she said, they “would prefer such development to be brought forward by the University itself, whether this is an expansion and renovation of existing facilities, or the development of new college accommodation.
“This could improve the residential offer to students, protect the collegiate system which is so important to the University’s identity, and create more appropriate student development.
“This is especially the case if the University works with the community to identify suitable locations for student accommodation, if it is of a high quality, and is effectively managed,” Ms Blackman-Woods stated.
“It would also be helpful if any further private, developer-led Purpose Built Student Accommodation applications are brought forward only with the support of the University and local residents following a full consultation and engagement process.”
In a statement provided by Durham University to Palatinate, Professor Tom Ward, Pro-Vice Chancellor (Education), said:
“In common with many UK universities operating in a competitive global higher education market, Durham is considering a long term growth agenda and has modelled options for an increase in student numbers, along with the appropriate investment in staffing and infrastructure to ensure students will continue to receive a first-class experience both academically and within our colleges.”
Asked about whether the University should shoulder some of the responsibility in permeating an unbalanced residential population, Professor Ward stated that the University’s “long term growth agenda” is “an extensive programme of work in progress, and will need to be fully considered through our governance system, including but not limited to Senate and Council, on which there is student representation.”
“It is important to stress that no decisions have been made.”
The University did not provide comment on the viability of its own plans to erect a further 1,000 bedrooms at Mount Oswald, near Van Mildert College, after it entered into contract with developers, Banks Group, in August 2014 in a deal worth £200 million.
Professor Graham Towl, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Deputy Warden of Durham University, also commented that the University “takes very seriously the concerns of residents,” and is “evidenced by the fact that [the University] hosts regular local residents meetings.”
“We are keen to work with the community to ensure there is a positive environment for all who live and work in Durham and Stockton-on-Tees and we welcome open dialogue,” Professor Towl stated.
Applicants Clearbell Capital have said that 23 retail stores will be refurbished, alongside the creation of 35,0002ft of restaurant space and the installation of a new riverside walkway.
Work on The Gates is due to start next year, with the new centre expected to open in two stages between winter 2017 and summer 2018.
Photographs: Clearbell Capital (feature), Venus Loi