City Council warns Oxford

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The City Council has reiterated threats to Oxford’s universities that they will not be able to occupy new facilities if they do not restrict the number of students living in private accommodation.

A report released last week shows that both Oxford and Oxford Brookes have exceeded the limit of 3,000 students in privately-rented accommodation. 3,251 Oxford students lived in private accommodation in 2010-11, up from 2,991 the year before. The figure for Oxford Brookes is 3,611, up from 3,493.

The council has the power to stop universities moving into new academic facilities if the quota is breached. Oxford’s Radcliffe Observatory development and Brookes’ Headington Campus, due to open this year and next year respectively, could both remain empty if the universities fail to sort out the housing crisis.

Asked about whether the council would in fact stop new facilities from being occupied, Deputy Council Leader Ed Turner said: “There is not a lot of point in us having said that if we don’t mean that. The council means it.”

However, he added: “I understand that both universities have in place ambitious plans to expand their level of purpose-built accommodation, and this would be the best way forward.  The policy requirements are not new, and I am sure the universities will be planning to meet them.”

When asked whether this is possible given the difficulty obtaining planning permission, Turner continued: “The Council is supportive of new purpose-built student accommodation in the right location.  The flip-side of the policy requirement clearly is that good applications for new purpose-built student housing, which meet our planning policies, should be approved.”

He added that it was not “penalising” the universities to stop moves into academic facilities for failures in providing accommodation, saying the policy was “the only tool the Council has”.  He continued: “If the universities were able to expand without making any extra provision for accommodating those students, the losers would be families who would find themselves without somewhere to live. […] we are trying to strike a balance between the needs of different groups.”

A spokesperson for the University of Oxford said: “The collegiate University is committed to providing accommodation for as many students as possible and this is reflected in our recent, ongoing and planned student accommodation developments. The 340 additional units already under construction will bring us below the 3,000 threshold and another 652 planned units should ensure that the number of students in private accommodation falls even further.”

Anne Gwinnett, Director of Corporate Affairs at Brookes, said the university was “absolutely committed to hitting the target”, stating that by 2013, when the Headington campus is to be opened, there will be 500 new university-owned rooms and a reduction in student numbers of up to 15 per cent. “The combined effect of these is moving us significantly in the right direction”, Gwinnett added.

Daniel Stone, OUSU Vice-President for Charities and Communities, said: “The University and Colleges have to show a commitment to providing high quality accommodation at the lowest possible price to students. Equally, residents and the City Council should acknowledge that opposing planning applications and imposing an additional cost on new accommodation buildings will put the University between a rock and a hard place.”

 

This week the council also became the first in the country to introduce a scheme of licensing for houses of multiple occupancy (HMOs). Every landlord who owns a property with three or more unrelated tenants sharing facilities has been required to have a license since Monday.

993 houses have been given licenses since January last year, but the figure could rise to 5,000 HMOs. Each house is inspected by the council before a license is granted, and specific conditions can be set out for properties. Poor management or unsafe conditions in houses could lead to landlords losing their licenses and their ability to run HMOs.

Councillor Joe McManners, Board Member for Housing, said the scheme will “help drive up standards for everyone”, as “HMOs have long been recognised as being a particular problem in the city, with many examples of poor quality homes and in some cases being poorly managed.  These damage the reputation of good landlords and we are determined to put this right. We also have connections with student groups and the universities to try to publicise the scheme and the rights of tenants.”

He added that although the council has received a “good response” from landlords so far, “there will be a lot of work to do”. Furthermore, landlords who do not comply could face court action and fines of up to £20,000. Landlords pay a fee, so the scheme will not receive taxpayer funding, and the council will not make a profit. Landlords judged to be good will also benefit from fee reductions.

Councillor Turner added: “[the scheme] was developed with some excellent input from and the support of OUSU. HMO licensing will mean that students and others living in HMOs will benefit from living in a property which has been independently inspected.”