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.
As 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)