Student backlash against St Andrews HMO ‘ban’ - but councillor defends the decision

Market Street.
Market Street.

There has been a student backlash following local councillors’ voting for a ‘HMO ban’ last week.

Councillors on the North East Fife Area Committee recommended that the percentage of Houses of Multiple Occupation (HMOs) in the town should not increase.

The recommendation, put forward by Councillor Brian Thomson to Fife Council’s Community and Housing Services Committee, states that the thresholds should be set at 17 per cent for the central conservation area, five per cent for the south east section of the town, and three per cent for the west section of the town.

In the response to the recommendation, around 1600 University of St Andrews students have signed up to vote in local and national elections.

A petition has also been set up calling for the removal of the ‘ban’, and, at the time of writing, has received 1711 votes.

The petition was set up by the University of St Andrews Students’ Association.

The association president Lewis Wood said that the decision was “punishing students”.

He told the Citizen: “The decision that the Fife Councillors made was an incredibly disappointing one – it is widely accepted that the HMO moratorium thus far has had no positive impacts, but it is also known that it has made the quality and price of the private renting sector more expensive for all people in St Andrews.

“The committee has not been able to justify its decision adequately, given the inevitable worsening of the private renting sector.

“What’s more disappointing is the conduct of the councillors.

“Many of them insist that the university should deal with this issue, particularly through expansion of student accommodation, but they intentionally ignore students informing them that university accommodation is at capacity, and will continue to be so as the university expands.

“Punishing students for university expansion is inappropriate and inadequate, and proof that local representation is not working for all people in St Andrews.”

The University of St Andrews has backed its students, saying that they had been treated “shamefully” by some councillors.

A spokesman for the university said: “The university stands foursquare with our students.

“They have not only been treated shamefully by some individual councillors, but appear to have been denied the right to speak at the Fife Council committee, while other local residents were invited to be heard.

“What sort of model of democracy is that?

“The council has taken a decision while ignoring the views of half of the people who live in St Andrews. By any standards, that is bad government.

“University students have been residents of St Andrews for over six centuries and are integral to the town’s prosperity and the fabric of this community.

“It is time for a new model of representation which ensures elected representatives are accountable to all who live in and contribute to the town, not just a vocal minority.

“The university will enthusiastically support the campaign for voter registration and we are currently investigating ways to allow students to register to vote automatically when they matriculate.”

Cllr Brian Thomson has defended his recommendation that a threshold on HMOs be set at current levels.

Following the decision, Cllr Thomson explained that there was a need for family housing in the town.

He said: “The simple facts are that St Andrews has the highest percentage of HMO properties in Scotland, which has hugely inflated property prices, the number of students in the town over the last 30 years has grown almost three-fold, with the number of permanent residents decreasing over the same period. We’re now in a position where even people on salaries of £40,000-plus can’t afford to buy or rent in the town, never mind people on low incomes.

“Furthermore, there is currently no shortage of student accommodation in the town, and the university has embarked on a build programme to deliver around 900 new student bed spaces.

“Many of the councillors who spoke at the meeting recognised that high rents and poor quality accommodation are issues that many students are faced with.

“This needs to be addressed through the enforcement of HMO legislation, the reporting of any landlords who don’t comply with their legal obligations.

“What’s proposed is not some NIMBY knee-jerk reaction, that’s been made up on the hoof.

“Legislation and Scottish Government guidance provides the context for setting overprovision policies where there are high concentrations of HMO properties.

“I’m firmly of the view that any further increase in the number of HMO properties in St Andrews will further reduce the ability of many families to purchase or rent open market family housing.”

However, the recommendation did not receive the support of all St Andrews councillors.

Cllr Dominic Nolan backed Cllr Jane Ann Liston’s recommendation that the threshold for the central conservation area be higher.

Cllr Nolan added: “Some level of over provision policy is needed to respect all sections of our community but I believe this policy will place further pressure on the town’s housing stock by encouraging landlords to let out an increasing number of two-bed properties and so leave less homes available to a permanent population. “I believe a level of flexibility in HMO provision and an increased threshold would have been more appropriate to make full use of the existing housing stock which is already occupied by students.

“This will also see rents remain at excessive levels where landlords must collect the same amount of rent from a house which does not have the intended the number of occupants.

“I believe it is also worth noting that three of the four St Andrews councillors saw that the potential for a slight increase in HMO numbers was appropriate and that it was largely out of town councillors who have chosen to implement this policy.”