Is the Smithdown Road Student Community coming to an End?

The growing number of city centre developments could “destroy” the student community off Smithdown Road if action is not taken, landlords fear.

Tens of thousands of students have made Wavertree their home over the years, cementing institutions from the Brookhouse to Dafna’s Cheesecake Factory into graduate folklore.

But as developers and Liverpool’s universities pour money into purpose built rooms, and fee hikes lead to added pressure for degree success, is this the beginning of the end for the legendary Smithdown Road student community?
Up to 34,000 students are believed to need accommodation in Liverpool every year. Traditionally, after a first year spent in halls of residence many of these move into the “houses of multiple occupation” (HMOs) off Smithdown Road – and to a lesser degree Kensington – to enjoy life with their friends.

This could all be coming to an end though. Earlier this month the Liverpool council-led student accommodation review, set up to explore fears too many student schemes were being built in the city centre, concluded there was a genuine “destudentification” threat to the streets of Wavertree.

The report, chaired by Cllr Frank Hont, said: “Both existing HMO landlords and Liverpool Student Homes reported increasing difficulty in letting HMO property. Liverpool StudentHomes produced clear data from their lettings information which indicated a long terms trend between 2000 and 2015 of students moving away from shared houses and flats and towards private halls.”
That drop in interest has stabilised in recent years but concerns remain over the impact city centre developments could have on the businesses that rely on undergraduates seeking independence.
Addressing the review Elaine Beaumont, of Wavertree Association of Student Landlords, pointed to the hundreds that rely on Smithdown Road’s students for a living and said failure to control student plans for the city centre could “destroy” that industry if the students move elsewhere.

The review reported several challenges facing the student HMO market, with evidence suggesting students are increasingly “demanding and discerning about their accommodation choices”. It reported occupants often found it easier to have guaranteed facilities – from security to wi-fi- in purpose built halls.

While rents are typically cheaper in HMOs, students are also said to be looking at the costs of living outside the city centre. Rents may be less, but bus passes and taxis home from nights out are now being considered.

With course fees having dramatically risen, universities are also “now seeing an increasing demand from final year students to move back into the greater security, stability and support services offered by halls of residence as they study for their finals”.

This evidence is supported by developers Downing, whose student portfolio includes the recently restored Scandinavian Hotel on Duke Street.

Ann Lodge, joint chief executive, said: “We’re definitely seeing an increase in students looking at more central, purpose-built accommodation… I think students’ expectations have risen in line with tuition fee increases and there is a greater onus on succeeding academically, so they want to be somewhere where they can have a laugh with their mates and go out and experience their university city, but they also want to be closer to their campuses and libraries.”
There is still a demand for the independence the Smithdown Road lifestyle offers though.
Around 7,000 students are still thought to live in the area, and the review found those landlords willing to invest were still attracting tenants.

WASH appears determined to maintain and enhance the area’s reputation, with Ms Beaumont telling the review: “It is easy to become intimidated and overwhelmed by what is going on in Liverpool, but my association members and I know our client. We know what students want. We gear our businesses towards the client and not an investor, because we are in it for the long haul.”

Optimistic about the future, Cllr Laura Robertson-Collins added that on the doorsteps there was no evidence student living in the area was falling.

Discussing the growth of city centre projects she said: “It could have a negative effect but at the moment that isn’t how it feels on the ground… I think it [the area] is on the up and I want to see that continue.”

While the student community off Smithdown Road may still be alive, there are concerns for the future. One of the recommendation’s of the council review is “the potential impact of ‘de-studentification’ needs to be considered in council policy both in terms of maintaining existing communities as students leave and in ensuring that new student developments are future proofed”.

But in the review intervention is ruled out – putting potential movement down to “realities of the market”.

Concerned for the future, Ms Beaumont said: “Whilst I feel better informed about the situation facing the leaders of this city, I do not feel reassured that there is any stability in my future or that of WASH members and what compounds this is the knowledge that to apply for a moratorium or to establish local policy to empower the city planners could take years. By which time the city will have been further over run by these developments, which unless addressed will destroy this industry.”

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