Edinburgh locals who don't want more student accommodation should have a chance to 'block the blocks' – Helen Martin

The canal-side in Fountainbridge is the latest local community shattered by the prospect of a student accommodation development.

By Helen Martin
Monday, 30th November 2020, 7:00 am
Cult BBC comedy The Young Ones showed students in an unflattering light as potential neighbours, although Helen Martin reckons their modern counterparts are less wild and more studious than those of yesteryear (Picture: BBC)
Cult BBC comedy The Young Ones showed students in an unflattering light as potential neighbours, although Helen Martin reckons their modern counterparts are less wild and more studious than those of yesteryear (Picture: BBC)

Originally, Glencairn Property’s plans were approved for a four-storey block of 20 flats. They then switched from flats to 74 bedrooms for students, which local people are sadly convinced will also get the thumbs up from the planning department.

This controversy is happening all over the city and upsetting communities. But Edinburgh does have a huge number of students who come here to attend Edinburgh Uni, Napier, Heriot Watt, Queen Margaret, and Edinburgh College.

And of course, many of us parents have, or have had, or even have been, young students who must live near their university or college. So, there’s no solution that pleases everyone.

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A few decades ago, some students began in university accommodation only for their first year away from home. They had a canteen, a chance to meet each other in a communal building, and after that they wanted to share a flat where they could live as adults rather than in a system similar to a boarding school. Other students (like my son) wanted a shared flat from day one.

For many people living in tenements, student rentals were a problem. I lived in Gillespie Crescent for about 12 years. It had been a 19th-century “family” street with large flats so it was a mix of elderly people whose children had grown and moved off, couples, and families with several children or teenagers – a friendly community.

Gradually, like flats in Marchmont for example, the flats started to become homes of multiple occupancy, rented by students who had parties particularly at weekends, didn’t share mutual jobs such as cleaning the stairs, and would take over the rear communal gardens for boozy barbecues and loud music, waking up kids and elderly. (If I was a student, I’d probably have done all that too.)

I moved from the crescent, but now when I meet people who left later or are still there, I’m told it’s become a student location. Students do change a residential area.

It wasn’t that long ago that student blocks, provided commercially, and not by universities, began to crop up around the city. In some ways, purpose-built blocks with student rooms seem better for locals than having student groups living in their stair.

But the downside is that, for example, 74 temporary students next door rather than 20 residential flats isn’t great for building a community, and what we are really short of now are affordable homes for local people and families.

Today, because of the pandemic, many Airbnbs are switching to long-term lets, and students might be much more acceptable to other residents than short-term holidaying tourists, especially if they were likely to stay there for two or three years. I also reckon students today are less wild and more studious than they were a couple of decades ago.

Student accommodation is both complex and necessary for the city. But large student blocks shouldn’t just be down to investors and planning. They are taking up space for local homes, crowding and changing communities, so local people should have their say and a chance to justify their right to “block the blocks”.

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