“Studentification” and HMO policy in St Andrews: a case of bad public policy?

Tuesday 5 December 2017

Dr Ross Brown, Reader in the School of Management at the University of St Andrews, has conducted the first ever independent assessment of the economic and social impact of the growth in student occupied houses in multiple occupation (HMO) within the town of St Andrews.

“Studentification” is the complex socio-spatial process resulting from the major influx of students into specific spatial localities in certain university towns and neighborhoods. A key issue driving studentification are student occupied HMO. The studentification process within parts of cities and towns is a highly contentious issue within local communities and a topic receiving growing levels of academic and media attention, especially as it raises populist concerns and media-fueled fears of “student ghettos” within local communities.

Drawing on a range of different sources of evidence, this exploratory research examined the economic and social consequences of studentification and HMO policy within St Andrews. The current liberalised policy framework implemented by Fife Council has fueled the rapid growth in HMO activity within the town. Despite a partial moratorium in place the numbers of HMO in the town centre has risen sharply. According to the data obtained by Dr Brown through a Freedom of Information request from Fife Council, since 2011 there have been 753 new HMO licenses granted within the town. The majority of these have been granted in residential areas outside the town centre (435) while the remainder (318) have been issued to landlords in the town centre. This large increase in HMO activity has heightened the studentification in parts of the town, although it should be pointed out that approximately 200 of these licenses applied to university halls of residence.

The University itself has been a prime mover in efforts to develop a sustainable housing model for St Andrews. It part-funded and directly supported two previous major studies of housing need in St Andrews, and has sanctioned investment of over £70 million to provide 900 new places in its halls of residence for students to ease the pressure on the private rental market. It is also developing a 64-bed affordable housing scheme for its early career staff and postgraduate students.

When the partial HMO moratorium was first introduced, the University warned that it would lead to the types of problems now identified in Dr Brown’s study.

The initial findings from Dr Brown’s study suggest that growing levels of studentification in private residential areas and HMO policy changes may be having quite significant, and in some cases deleterious, effects on key residential areas of the town’s housing market, resulting in lower levels of owner-occupied properties; restrictions in affordable housing for local residents; reduced opportunities for University staff to live locally; house price inflation in affected areas; and increased tensions between local residents and the University – all of which is coupled with a growing sense of community disempowerment.

These impacts on the property market are sometimes accompanied with “scarring effects” associated with large-scale student HMO, such as litter, poorly maintained properties and a general downgrading of the physical environment in certain neighbourhoods.

Dr Brown stressed that these housing issues should be seen in the context of the University’s overall contribution to St Andrews, and to North-East Fife. It currently generates £480 million a year for the economy and local businesses, and directly supports over 8000 full-time jobs in Fife and Tayside.

Reporting these findings Dr Brown noted: “The University of St Andrews is one of the UK’s most successful and attractive universities in Europe, bestowing huge benefits for the local community both in terms of employment and cultural dynamism. However, its success also brings with it some “growing pains” for the local community within which it is situated. These need to be properly managed and addressed.”

“Large concentrations of HMO within local housing markets such as St Andrews can have highly complex, destabilising and counterproductive effects for local communities. Most importantly are the displacement effects and crowding-out processes which result from these market-led processes. This could potentially have longer term implications for the viability of public services such as schools, causing feelings of anxiety and disempowerment within the local community.”

Rather than remedy the situation the policies enacted by Fife Council appear to be amplifying and deepening these effects. Referring to the policy frameworks which govern the HMO process Dr Brown notes: “The implementation of the partial moratorium within St Andrews is having a range of unintended and, in some cases, negative consequences which incentivise rent-seeking private landlords to move into residential parts of the local housing market. The outcomes of these distortions within the housing market are a host of negative spillover effects which may ultimately restrict access to affordable housing for local residents.”

The paper concludes the market-oriented HMO policy within St Andrews propagated by Fife Council features all the hallmarks of poorly constructed and perhaps ill-conceived policy making which could collectively represent “bad public policy”.

According to Dr Brown: “The Council needs an urgent rethink. Given the gravity of the situation it should impose a comprehensive moratorium across the whole of the town on new HMOs. With the exception of dedicated student housing and university halls of residence, no further private sector HMOs should be licensed until the Council has devised a proper, coherent and evidence-based planning and housing strategy for the town of St Andrews.”

The paper calls for the need for greater recognition by politicians and policy makers of the need for stronger levels of strategic planning, stakeholder engagement and community participation by both the Council and the University to help tackle the negative spillovers associated with rapid student population expansion within St Andrews.

Dr Brown concludes: “This study is very exploratory and aims to provide some preliminary evidence on the nature of studentification and HMO activity within the town of St Andrews. More comprehensive and detailed evidence is urgently needed to further examine the full impact of these complex and heterogeneous processes.”


A copy of the full paper, Is the St Andrews Bubble About to Burst? Assessing the Economic and Social Impact of Studentification and HMO Policy in a Small University Town is available.

Dr Ross Brown is available for interview on 01334 462202 or 07947 190175.

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