REPORT

The British student halls disgrace

By Lewis G. Parker

“They have a master key from the office. They come in with the master key,” says Alison, 23, from Chicago. “There have been times when they’ve knocked, and given not even two seconds and you can hear the key turn, and I’ve had to yell, ‘Wait! Don’t come in!’”

“That’s happened to me before,” says Allison’s flatmate, Hanna, also 23 from New England. It’s usually men, but Hanna says, “A woman barged in on me once.”

We’re on the Caledonian Road in north London, a stone’s throw from Pentonville prison, where barging into people’s rooms unannounced is all part of the experience. But when Allison and Hanna signed up for housing at University College London (UCL), they couldn’t have prepared themselves for the shambles that is the UK student housing stock.

UCL’s New Hall accommodation is often compared to Her Majesty’s Prison Pentonville on Caledonian Road, which overlooks the student digs

UCL’s New Hall accommodation is often compared to Her Majesty’s Prison Pentonville on Caledonian Road, which overlooks the student digs

Since moving into New Hall in February, Allison and Hanna have found themselves living in a building which is famous for all the wrong reasons. In August, their halls won the Carbuncle Cup from Building Design magazine for the worst building of the year, a prize it deserved.

It’s unclear whether a building with such credentials really warrants £165 a week, which is what the cheapest room costs. At this price, one of the least expensive halls in London, a British student would only have around £20 a week to live on from their maintenance loan.

Since moving in, the women’s flat has flooded twice, the hot water in some flats has been off for months, and until recently the common room hosted an improvised water feature.

The architects effectively bricked up some of the windows, leaving students with virtually no daylight

The men who keep coming into their rooms are workmen, there to fix stuff, so they can hardly tell them to go away.

“They still haven’t installed a fan in our bathroom, which I’m pretty sure we need – ventilation of some sort,” says Hanna. But then she deadpans: “At least I’m not one of the people that looks out onto a brick wall.”

The feature that sets New Hall apart from the other monstrosities on the Carbuncle Cup shortlist is the view.

By keeping the Grade II listed façade on the front of the new construction, but failing to line it up properly, the architects effectively bricked up some of the windows, leaving students with virtually no daylight. The rooms round the back are often directly overlooking their neighbours, in contravention of council planning rules.

One of the famous views from a student’s room in New Hall, London

One of the famous views from a student’s room in New Hall, London

At Woburn Place in central London, the views are better (they exist), but they come at Disneyland prices. Rooms here in Bloomsbury, owned by the Unite group, start at £299 a week for a single room with shared facilities. A one-bedroom flat costs £500 a week.

While the one-bed apartment we saw was clean and functional, it hardly seemed to justify what works out at £25,500 a year, which is more than many professional salaries.

Birkbeck student Ali, 18, from Dubai, lives in a studio flat at Woburn Place, which costs £399 a week. “It’s fine, it’s clean, it’s close to campus,” he says. But where does an 18-year-old with no income or student loan get that kind of cash?

“My parents make a lot of money,” he shrugs.

For developers, student accommodation outperforms every other housing sector in the UK in terms of percentage profits, according to estate agents Knight Frank.

Students moving to a new city often have little choice about where they live, and the developers know this.

Unite student halls are such hot property among rich foreign scholars, and domestic students who can’t get into university halls or a house share, that the company advertises its share price alongside the rooms on its website. It’s booming.

Now that higher education has become a global market, the people who knock up the bricks and mortar for students to live are welcomed with open arms by universities and governments, who see the soaring rents as a sign of prosperity. Which it is for international property firms. But it’s also plunging the next generation into even more debt.

Mansell, the contractor responsible for New Hall, was recently sold to global property giants Balfour Beatty for £42 million. But the average undergraduate debt for UK students who started in 2012 will likely top £50,000, and even more in London. You used to be able to buy a house for that.

Like many universities’ marketing material, the front of New Hall on Caledonian Road is one big facade

Like many universities’ marketing material, the front of New Hall on Caledonian Road is one big facade

Even in some less prestigious parts of the UK, private contractors are already raking it in by charging students well above the market rent for often substandard digs. In Bolton, rooms in the Pack Horse and The Bank, run by Primo Property Management, offer “boutique” accommodation for £100 a week, which is the kind of money you would expect to pay for a room in a London house share.

Third-year biology student Emma Salkeld, 20, lives in Pack Horse halls. She claims the building is infested with mice and cockroaches, the gym and gaming equipment is broken, and that students who fail a room inspection are charged £40, while the building’s management are rude and unhelpful when presented with the building’s multitude of nasties.

Emma, who was lured in by Primo’s adverts for “luxury accommodation”, says the problem is endemic. “When landlords or managing agents have the students in their grasp, they seldom care about the contracts or the deposits, they only care about the rent. If you approach these ‘representatives’ with problems about anything, they have a nonchalant attitude, they just brush away your problems.”

New Hall's numbering system. Postgraduate students live in A-wing, while undergraduate cells are in B-wing

New Hall’s numbering system. Postgraduate students live in A-wing, while undergraduate cells are in B-wing

But Ruby Jones, operations manager at Primo Property Management, says the staff does its best to deal with issues that students bring on themselves. She says the old woman was let into the building by a student, which enabled her to bypass the concierge, and that the room she urinated in was left open.

The issue of vermin, says Mrs Jones, is down to the halls’ city centre location and students leaving rubbish lying around. “We are not a distant landlord, we are very accessible,” says Mrs Jones. “We work very hard to provide a positive backdrop to the challenges of academic life.”

£215 for a single bedroom with shared facilities

Mrs Jones also took a swipe at the students who complain about the £40 fee for a failed inspection, saying this only happens after two failed attempts, and only covers the cost of hiring a cleaner to keep the rooms up to standard.

Back in London, the Victoria Halls chain is still trumpeting its award for Best Value Student Halls for the third year running. To put ‘best value’ into the context of London student accommodation, rooms at Victoria Halls Paris Gardens on the South Bank start at £215 for a single bedroom with shared facilities.

Like so many students who spend an inordinate amount of their time trying to deal with issues that distract them from their studies, Hanna can see the problem here. “Housing is dealt with by this corporate entity, a guy in a suit, and he really doesn’t have any concern for student welfare,” she says.

But, like so many students caught in the corporate property web, she is powerless to do anything about it.