Increasing student population in Belfast outstrips local housing supply

Queen Street, Belfast, building

20 May 2016

On 17 May Belfast City Council’s planning committee granted permission for a further 671 purpose built managed student accommodation (PBMSA) beds.

For our Belfast office it has been a matter of five successful consents from five applications, and four new PBMSA approvals in as many months. Our success suggests not just a trend in developer proposals but a pent up under-supply that is still far from being sated.

Lacuna/Watkin Jones’ Queen Street permission for the conversion of the former Athletic Stores building, and UniCiti’s new build at Little Patrick Street adds to the 3,607 total beds previously consented by Belfast City Council since it took responsibility for planning determinations in April 2015.

Proposals for student accommodation have flooded into Belfast planners since Ulster University announced plans in 2009 to move its campus, including a transfer of 15,000 students and staff into the city from its former campus in Jordanstown. In little under two years, some 3,607 beds across nine separate projects have been granted consent within the city.

On the face of it, an almost doubling in the amount of purpose built accommodation could suggest we will now see a slowdown in proposals for private accommodation. At the time of writing there are just three further remaining proposals that have yet to be determined by Belfast City Council. With completion of the second phase of Ulster University’s campus now delayed until September 2019 it might be easy to assume that PBMSA supply has begun to peak.

Take a closer look however at the supply and demand figures and it’s clear that this assumption is wrong. Unlike other similarly sized university cities, Belfast started from a zero base with practically no privately managed student accommodation in the city.

In 2012/13 according to Belfast City Council, there were approximately 43,688 students in the city. With provision for just 3,759 university managed beds, this equated to around 8.6% of the student total. Since then the university population has grown substantially and this trend looks set to continue with a net increase enrolment from overseas students and those from the rest of the UK. 

2015/16 figures show there are now some 52,640 students registered at Belfast’s four university campuses including QUB, Ulster University, St Mary’s College and Stranmillis. A further 5,000 plus students are registered across Belfast Met’s further and higher education campuses. However, according to Belfast City Council just two of nine schemes will be open by September 2016, bringing the total up to an estimated 7.3% of total beds. As a result, this amounts to an estimated 1.3% net loss in managed beds over the past three years.

In contrast Cardiff, Edinburgh and Glasgow, against which city planners have benchmarked Belfast, have 17%, 25% and 32% managed beds respectively. Without considering the deliverability of existing consents that have not yet been delivered, it’s clear that Belfast will lag far behind similar sized universities for some time.

Even if all existing and proposed beds plus those under construction are taken into account, only 16% of all student beds in Belfast would be PBMSA. A 2015 study by Liverpool City Council on the other hand put the saturation point between demand and supply of PBMSA at around 40%.

It’s clear against even the most conservative estimates and in spite of the recent clamour for consents, Belfast as a city has a lot of headroom for further development.

If it is to meet its aspirations to both increase the city centre population, and meet the demand for quality student accommodation, a prime opportunity for developers will persist for some time to come.