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Hot on the speculative heels of Cavern Walks being put up for auction, we notice that Grand Central faces an uncertain future too. Whether you’re more Tie-Die tees or Alice Temperley, Dead Goat or Cricket, they’re both vital – and much loved – retail hubs.

So it’s alarming that both are locations touted to become the city’s latest student flats.

Cavern Walks is to be auctioned this month (guide price £1million) – and Allsop (agents for London-based Warner Estate Holdings, who went into administration last month) suggest: “The upper floors becoming vacant over he next 12 to 18 months will create a number of new possibilities for the building…which could include student housing.”

This week, a planning application has been submitted for Renshaw Street’s Grand Central (aka Quiggins). The proposal: “To change use to create 41 bed student accommodation on 1st, 2nd and 3rd floors laid out in 9 clusters with shared communal facilities and construction of circulation walkways at rear.”

Owners, the Liverpool-based privately owned O’Brien Group (OBG) comprises several companies, with its Nextdom (property letting) arm registered at Ayrton House, Parliament Business Park.

Tenants we spoke to, currently trading at Grand Central, were unaware of the application.

hotelAs we type, the Scandinavian Hotel in Chinatown (which was set to be a huge independent food market, until Geraud got wind of it), the Hahnemann Hospital on Hope Street, the Bridewell on Cheapside, the Tinglings Buildings and Crosshall Building on Crosshall Street and Victoria Street, St Andrew’s Church on Rodney Street, Josephine Butler House, Windsor Court on London Road, Camden Street, Gradwell Street in Ropewalks, Grenville Street…(the list gets a bit boring from here…) are all being transformed into student accommodation.

There’s one snag, though: university admissions are down 10-15% and most analysts confirm that the student housing bubble is over.

“Increased costs such as tuition fees are forcing student numbers to fall,” says Simon Thompson, the co-founder of Accommodationforstudents.com. “Reports suggest that the student housing bubble has burst, as some of the larger accommodation providers failed to fill their bed space for the 2012-13 year,” he adds. This year there was another record fall. The vice-chancellor of Liverpool University revealed a shortfall of 11,500 students at Russell Group universities, with overseas student numbers (those with cash to splash out on city centre living) are falling too.

Yet, still, developers such as Vita (behind the Tinlings development) are assuring investors a 9 per cent return in the first two years, and the offer of a fair market price for the unit, should investors want to sell on. But what price stable communities and the council’s wish for a city centre of distinctive neighbourhoods?

Ten years on, much of the turn-of-the-millenium apartments are starting to look as unloved as they are unlived-in – with owner-occuper levels in some developments less than 5%. With Liverpool Council unrelentingly passing planning permission for student accommodation (5000 student new student beds were approved for development over the past year) the city’s in the grip of another buy-to-let land grab.

Exactly one year ago this week the council launched, with huge fanfare, its SIF (strategic Investment Framework). A ten year ‘masterplan’ for Liverpool’s physical regeneration. So what, exactly are we building for? A two year yield for investors, or a sustainable future for the rest of us?

The catastrophe of ‘Pathfinder’ has left huge swathes of Anfield, Wavertree and Toxteth boarded up and bloodless – the result of a collapse in the last speculative boom. Now the tinned-up houses are yours for a quid.

The irony of a city that willingly took the wrecking ball to decent, characterful housing stock, only to turn a blind eye to the cancerous advance of partition-walled rabbit warrens masquerading as luxury apartments isn’t lost on us. Nor on anyone who believes, as Ed might have said, we can do better than this.

We took a close look at the city’s last masterplan, launched in 2000, to see how much of it came to fruition. We estimated it was less than 50%. So, with each new student flat development replacing the SIF’s wish-list of city centre “independent retail, higher quality outlets, housing for families as well as for young and old, converting apartments back to single dwellings…” we see the masterplan for what it is. All talk (there’s not a single mention in the SIF about student flats. Funny that).

This isn’t about students. We love students (although the more that move into the city, the more fragile ecosystems like Smithdown suffer). We just don’t love our city refusing to learn from lessons of the recent past, and becoming – yet again – a speculative investment opportunity for absentee landlords and the dead-eyed advances of developers intent on selling our soul for a quick ROI, only to leave the scars – and ticky-tacky boxes – when the inevitable next crash comes.

There’s no suggestion this is the guaranteed outcome, but what happens to the businesses if they’re turfed out of their retail units? Will they be able to afford to set up shop in Liverpool ONE? The Met Quarter? Central Village (if it ever happens)? Or how about The Bluecoat (who demanded £2,500 a month for one unit – forcing yet another tenant out recently)? Or will Liverpool lose even more of its independent traders (as it did when The Palace vanished?) – because for every city centre building converted into student flats, that’s one less place to have a genuinely great food hall, or a craft village, or independent market: places most forward-thinking cities now take for granted.

Building a world class city means having a vision of a future beyond the next boom and bust cycle. It means saying no to short term opportunism in favour of long-game confidence. And despite what planning says, there are ways to limit the over-development of student flats. But it’s up to us to raise our objections)

It all begs the question: when is our planning department going to say ‘No. Enough.’?

(with thanks to Richard Davies)

  • deedee81

    usual short sighted fast buck merchants.Liverpool has too many students never mind too much ‘luxury ‘student accommodation funded by mummy and daddy in the home counties.Hope the scheme blows up in their faces

  • Neil Worrall

    I sincerely hope so. As someone who has lived in a city centre apartment (rented) for the past 3 and a half years I’ve seen even in that short time just how limited the residential accommodation offering is in Liverpool’s central zone. This is an issue that has been raised several times in local forums such as those organised by Engage Liverpool.

    I really don’t see any solutions to this, and to the related problem (in my opinion, I accept others may like them) of the weekend rented apartment (favourite of stags and hens everywhere) other than with a real active engagement between the planning department and residents/prospective residents.

    There seems to be a large and as of yet largely untapped demand for high-quality housing in the City outside of the student flat/1-2 bedroom apartment. Where for example are the larger apartments with 3 or more bedroom and more than one living area for young families with children?

  • bornagainst

    The £9K fee is still having a ‘new’ impact on student numbers and behaviour.. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me not just to see a fall in overall student numbers, but also a fall in students leaving home to study. £4k+ halls fee adds an extra sting that can be avoided by simply studying at a home uni…

    Of the existing halls, I wonder that the occupancy rate is? 75%? Higher? Where does the profit line get drawn and how close are they to it?

    Didn’t LJMU sell off their halls as they were simply a money pit to run?

    It’s an absolute bubble.

    (…there’s also a debate to be had about students personal behaviour, whereas University owned halls have penalties and processes in place, private halls won’t have this stick to keep students in line… cue another debate about them being adults..)

  • MrD

    It is worrying that commercial developments are being looked at as potential student investments. I have less issue with vacant/derelict plots/properties being brought into such use. If they fail, they can be converted into apart/hotels easily enough and could service the growing tourist sector. We still have insufficient hotel capacity.

    I have issue with converting those that already have an active purpose that adds to the city’s character/retail performance. There are wider questions though if places like Quiggins are not generating enough business for the owners to be sustainable. Do we actually have enough demand to create an Affleck’s Palace type development? I’d love to think so, but catch myself thinking “Well if we did have the demand, then we would already have one, wouldn’t we?”. What are the obstacles? It can’t be business rates as these are set nationally. Is it rent? Well, what are the rental charges in other independent centre’s nationwide? Are indies locally being fleeced? If not (or no worse than elsewhere), why else are we not generating enough demand for space to keep landlords happy?

    What are we doing wrong that can be improved upon?

  • Philip Stratford

    Liverpool University is investing a fortune building fancy new Halls up on Crown Street, I don’t understand how there is so much demand for student housing. Perhaps, as you suggest, there isn’t.
    Convert derelict or abandoned buildings outwith the city centre into student housing if you want, but turfing out business to convert buildings is just stupid.
    I was of the opinion that Liverpool Council’s planning department was smarter and more forward-thinking than Wirral’s (where I live) but maybe they’re just as myopic.

  • Louise Muddle

    but where does the student money come from anyway? something I wrote a while ago on this subject http://loumuddle.wordpress.com/2013/03/27/all-just-a-little-bit-of-history-repeating/

  • Spider

    I’ve also noticed the shift of a lot of students moving into privately rented housing either living with non-students, or with their parents signing the contracts. You get a lot more space for a lot less money generally. I live in privately rented accommodation and would never go back to living in a claustrophobic box or run down hole of a house.

  • Charlie Shoes

    Some good questions here. Why do the owners of Grand Central believe they can get a better return from student accommodation – risky – compared with the current retail usage ?

  • Niall Walsh

    This is a such a complex issue.

    I’m really split on the issue but student noise in residential communities is a large and ongoing issue. It is such a long winded and competed process to deal with by the time you have all the evidence to support your issue they have moved out and you have to potentially start again with the next set.

    As a home owner in ‘The Dales’ off Smithdown Road I have attended numerous resident meetings where if you did a straw poll I’d say over 90% of people there would much rather students housed in purpose built/converted student accommodation in Liverpool City Centre rather than up to 6 students jammed into terraced houses in highly populated residential streets. Many people don’t see Liverpool City Centre as the be all and end all of their city. They would like to be a focus back on their local communities.

    The issue is much bigger than Council Planning.

  • MrD

    I spent over 10 years in the Dales, as a student, then as a real person. I too have mixed views. Yes, student’s kept many areas alive when nobody else would live there. But they do bring problems. Noise and (a less trumpeted issue) parking. 4 cars to one house usually. If students head into town, the landlords will sell up or offer private rented to couples/families, which could benefit the area through reduced noise and continued spend.

  • MrD

    Not sure at all. I’d love to be able to own a property that simply offered rent free space to indies, with some kind of profit sharing arrangement in place.

  • Kiron Reid

    I agree with nearly all of the article and with much of what the commenters have to say. This is really important and good that you have set it in the context of what is needed to help the city develop in a balanced way. That is what the planners should be facilitating.

    I also agree with most of the points made by Louise Muddle in the blog post that she flags up here.

    There is an important debate needed about how flats can be brought into general use if the student or luxury flat bubble collapses (if the latter hasn’t already) – a point I raised with them when still a city councillor in 2006. There is also an important debate about how Smithdown Road can be sustained by new stable residents if the students move out. Students moving out of Kensington into city centre flats sparked the sudden decline of that area in the mid to late ’90s.

  • jim & chris

    We are looking for a large property in Liverpool to establish education through sport, a small sports arena for boxing, martial arts & dance clubs to use. Along side these we want to introduce lots of apprentice opportunities to the younger people of Liverpool with the older generation being able to teach them their skills. It will be a multi-function centre with a community hub & a training centre for all ages but every time we find a building it is either sold or the council are in talks with developers who then in turn reduce a once beautiful old building that has been abandoned & left to rot and make it flats!!
    Our city has fabulous architecture that should be cherished & brought back to life but also be used for the Liverpool people to use & NOT let Liverpool be known as the city of hotels & student accommodation.
    If we have too many surely this will only make the problem worse because we cannot fill them & then in turn the property will fall into disrepair & be abandoned.
    The Grand central halls would be ideal if not perfect for our venture, it would be a disgrace to see that divided up into flats.

  • MsL

    To both Niall and Mr D- I live in the city centre on the edge of L8 and in the middle of the Georgian quarter- an area full of listed buidlings and one the council is celebrating the regeneration of. In the past couple of years I have experienced 6 beautiful buildings near to me converted into student housing with another one being built from scratch right behind my house and another one on the way. You both seem to forget that people live in the city centre as well, have ‘local communities’ there and experience the same problems as you in the suburbs. Even more so due to the proximity to town and the volume of students now living in the area. I am also concerned about the ‘vision’ of the council and ruining beautiful areas of heritage with ill considered architecture with no concern for long term residents or a long term plan for the success of Liverpool as a city by enhancement and playing to its strengths. This is aside from the number of piles of vomit and noise close to my home.

  • Birgit

    I have been waiting for an article like this for too long! Thank you for writing what everybody with a partially functioning brain should shout, into the council’s ears, about.

    Such shortsightedness and you know what else it effects? All those young-ish people who bought to live & let outside the city centre. Who rely on a student tenant (and likely would charge less) also affected are other landlords. Thinking one step further: landlords are by law required to provide more safety checks and services. Those cost unprecedented sums of money. (Oh and thanks for the VAT increase … yay) If there is a surplus of properties on the market then what happens? Rent is pushed down.

    Now in the past ten years material costs for refurbishments have risen as have expectations of what tenants now expect to find in their accommodation (fridge, washing machine are an absolute requirement now, who even owns their own appliances anymore – oh and guess how that affects how they treat these things..?).
    * Effectively this brings the income on apartment rental BELOW what a landlord could have made 10 years ago.
    * NEXT problem: increased number of non-paying tenants who drag out the non payments and then vanish, leaving (I have seen this several times now) a seriously unacceptable filth.

    I can’t call it mess, I saw it and it was disturbing to me how tenants in my house departed from their apartments after just a year (and less) of being there. Each time when a tenant leaves, the place has to be fixed up for the next tenant or the quality of a prospective tenant is even less likely to be; let’s call it; ‘respectful, clean and paying’.. This is such a can of worms!

    As the council continues to agree more and more property development they put into serious jeopardy the livelihoods of landlords and who depends on them? Local workforce’s full time employment, those who clean up after tenants and refurbish ready for the next.

    So by making available an obscene surplus of rental places non-paying tenants have an easy way to bop from place to place as I assume they do. Stretching out each stay for as long as possible. I assume this because of the changeover in tenants in my house and I can’t even see how people can afford to live anymore and pay all the costs that jump at them and because since I have moved to a new apartment 3 years ago almost ALL of my fellow tenants have moved on. 40% in significant rent arrears or not paying at all. 30% leaving the places that had been refurbished for them before moving in, like a pig-style, with grease covered walls, nicotine infused carpets, cigarets stains on surfaces that had been painted just 5 months before. Toilets blocked so they wouldn’t flush, fridges with life forms growing in them and washing machines broken by neglect / abuse..

    I know I moved off topic somewhat but this interrelates to the abundance of accommodation being developed. (as does the economy, and the new Dickensian culture that is sweeping across these lands.. as does a plain disregard for other people’s property or for that matter even their own property… )

    Sorry this got a little long.

    Thank you again!

    B.

  • Birgit

    Just quickly with regards to student noise: well if they are integrated in the general fabric of the city rather than in hoards in one place then I am sure they wouldn’t be as disruptive either. – I see that my view is completely different on this.

    Perhaps we should go back to parenting classes. I sometimes wonder who raises the rude and disrespectful ones…. Sorry to hear that you are having issues. But I think it’s not just the students, it’s a complete culture of disrespectful behaviour in the breeding. The people who yell and scream and make a racket outside my place at night range through all ages… It just seems to be a culture of self-centered disregard for everything and anything.. (Just look at the littering.)

    sorry that got longer than I meant to.

  • Birgit

    The business tax and ownership taxes would suffocate you.

  • Niall Walsh

    I didn’t forget anything. I lived as a city centre home owner for 4 years so know all about a city centre community. I was pointing out that based on attendance of resident meetings in my community many people would encourage the movement towards the city centre, I didn’t say it was the correct view.

    People who live in terraced houses in L15 (or wherever) can’t mention heritage areas or listed buildings to help their cause but doesn’t make their home or community any less important to them.

    Where do you put the 50,000+ students?

  • worried tenant

    hi thank you !!!!! as a tenant of grand central hall this is the first i have heard off this !!!! and it has left me very worried !!!! this building provides my livelihood and that off my staff , were do we go in liverpool ????????? is there no-one willing to help the smaller businesses ???????? we r being driven out !!!

  • JD Moran

    Too many students? Funded by mummy and daddy in the Home Counties? You’re saying you’d rather they just kept all this money down there rather than bringing it to Liverpool to spend in the local economy?

  • Paul Fleming

    We had. It was called Quiggins on School Lane, which was forced out by Liverpool One’s development. The local press went to town telling everyone Quiggins was gone, closed, finished. No, the majority of small retailers moved inside the Grand Central Hall building and have fought to survive only now to discover that (yet again) they are being ousted in favour of another big development.

    With the whole prospect of the Central Village project it was only a matter of time wasn’t it? Time for Mr O’Brien and his group to cover the costs on the building by having the little traders in there until things were improving – then time to sell it on for a huge profit! 🙂

  • Kiron Reid

    One thing I forgot. The students staying in ‘luxury’ (certainly expensive) purpose built or converted city centre accommodation are not just from well off backgrounds in the Home Counties, or international students (who subsidise the city / Universities a lot), they are a whole range of local / North West / students from across the country from a wide variety of backgrounds. I always recommend living in the traditional halls for Liverpool University in the lovely areas around Sefton Park (Penny Lane / Mossley Hill) but students do say they save money on other costs being in the centre. I’m not convinced. Of course very many others live at home and commute (some very long distances now) or live in poor accommodation in rough areas like many of us used to in different towns and cities.

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  • Mike Homfray

    Agree entirely with this. The problem is we don’t have creative dialogue because there is a mayoral system which encourages boss politics.
    When is someone going to launch a petition to get rid of the mayoralty as an institution?

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  • BrentW

    There’s been such an explosion of student halls in the last few years in liverpool. Surely there isn’t that much of a demand from students to live in these things? I remember when I was a student and with the high rents being demanded by these student halls, I wonder type of students they are attracting? I just can’t see how it can be sustainable in the long term for anyone concerned.

    Even some beautiful buildings such as Josephine Butler House site in Liverpool are being demolished to make way for such things. We should be protecting our heritage buildings for the long term and not taking them down.

    It also seems that there’s been a slowdown on investors buying into this, which I think is a good thing:

    http://astoneaves.com/student-pod-investments-liverpool/

    This type of news needs to be spread to stop everything in Liverpool being turned into so called student pods from the developers.