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Building for university students will boost Northern Ireland's economy


New build: Work currently under way in York Street

New build: Work currently under way in York Street

New build: Work currently under way in York Street

The time has never been better or more appropriate for the development of purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) in Belfast city centre.

Queen's University, the University of Ulster, St Mary's University College, Stranmillis University College and Belfast Metropolitan College all have growing student populations. As Belfast is now a destination of choice for students, there is a real shortage of PBSA in the city which, when coupled with the rising demand for accommodation by the universities, has created a very real problem.

With the completion of the new University of Ulster Campus at York Street scheduled for 2018, the total number of students living in Belfast and attending the four universities is set to rise to approximately 28,500, excluding students attending Belfast Metropolitan College. This is comparable to the numbers of students living in university cities like Oxford, Cambridge and Southampton.

Research carried out by CBRE shows that 13.1% of students reportedly live in university-provided accommodation with 0% living in private-sector halls within Belfast city centre. Thirteen per cent of students live in parental homes. The conclusion that can be drawn from this data based on anecdotal evidence is that given the lack of university-provided accommodation, the remaining students are either commuting into Belfast or living in the private rented sector.

In the private rented sector, students generally live in houses of multiple occupation (HMOs). The largest concentration of students (estimated at 7,000, of which 60% attend the University of Ulster) live in and around the Holylands area of south Belfast in rented houses, which has caused significant issues for Belfast City Council, the police, Queen's University and local residents. According to recent reports it costs approximately £3m per annum to deal with such issues.

A significant mass of PBSA developed in Belfast city centre could not only help alleviate the problems faced in the Holylands by re-locating students out of the area and returning families into the area but deal with the inevitable issues which will arise for residents living near the new University of Ulster Campus who may well become displaced. A development of this nature is of great importance not only in terms of job creation but would also act as a catalyst for the economic regeneration of Belfast city centre.

In an attempt to address the issue, Belfast City Council has taken the lead by commissioning research which considers the overall opportunities relating to the provision of PBSA in the city.

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Critical to these deliberations is consideration of the future contribution universities make to our city and how students should be accommodated in a manner which complements the regeneration of the city.

However, making any development proposition work will need the collaboration of the universities. With formal commitments from the universities, the development of PBSA becomes a very attractive proposition from a funding perspective.

The work now started on the university site at York Street may be the first step in a full regeneration of this area if all sectors can work together.