Sheila Gilmore: Student housing risks balance

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Last week, student accommodation specialist Unite announced plans to refurbish the Homebase DIY store on St Leonards Street and build a five-storey block of flats on top. This comes soon after an application for student housing at Lutton Place, which will be considered by the planning committee shortly.

I formally objected to the proposal at Lutton Place and last Thursday I told the Evening News I would do likewise with St Leonards Street (‘£38m Student housing plan for St Leonard’s area’, 20 February).

However, John McLellan then used his column to suggest I was simply “fishing for votes”.

John is right to think that many of my constituents are strongly opposed to these developments, and part of my role as their MP is to publicly articulate their concerns. But this wasn’t the only reason I spoke out – I also firmly believe that we must avoid over-concentrations of students in any part of our city.

Despite council policy stating that no more than 30 per cent of housing in any area should be taken up by students, the 2011 census indicated that 194 out of 392 residents in the streets immediately around these developments were already at university – nearly 50 per cent. If the Lutton Place development goes ahead, it would add a further 240 students, pushing the measure up to 68 per cent.

This new proposal will only exacerbate the issue. It’s not as if there isn’t more student housing going up elsewhere in the Southside, with a large development being built on the old Deaconess Hospital site, while another on Holyrood Road promises more than 1000 units of student accommodation.

John rightly noted how successful our city’s universities are, and the huge contribution they make to the local economy. I agree, and would also want to highlight how students contribute to the diversity and vibrancy of the Southside.

However, we have to acknowledge that the student population is highly transient, and too high a concentration can lead to more unstable communities. Properties are often left empty during holiday periods, while school provision and other community facilities will be affected. The student lifestyle can cause friction within the community. I suspect many students themselves would acknowledge these issues.

Part of Edinburgh’s charm and strength is that we have retained a substantial permanent residential population in our city centre, and this is exactly why the council has a policy on student housing. So while I welcome some expansion in student housing, we also need more homes for families and older residents.

Let’s hope the council’s planning officers take note.

Sheila Gilmore is MP for Edinburgh East