This piece was published in The Guardian in March 2016.
Once upon a time, students lived in the cheapest and grottiest shared houses a city had to offer. First-year students had it even worse, traditionally confined to bog-standard, barrack-like halls of residence tucked away on the edge of campus.
Today, student accommodation in the UK is big business. According to the estate agent Savills, £5.8bn was pumped into the market last year, and private developments continue to spring up on prime city-centre sites. From the outside, the blocks look indistinguishable from residential flats, except for the giveaway branding that promises a “boutique” or “luxury” student experience.
Nowhere is the student housing boom more evident than Coventry. The city centre is best known, and often maligned, for its radical postwar reconstruction. Yet the maze-like 1950s shopping precinct and 1960s office blocks will soon be surrounded by towering 21st-century student flats. A company called Study Inn offers accommodation at five locations.
Coventry University has been relaxed about the private sector picking up the demand among overseas students for hotel-type rooms, with flatscreen TVs and en suite bathrooms. Four of the five Study Inn locations are made up solely of self-contained studio apartments, with rent ranging from £141 to £181 a week.
Several more big developments are on the way. Work has begun at Belgrade Plaza, where Downing property group’s 20-storey, 597-room student complex will soon become the tallest building in the city. The university is working with Barberry to create another 1200 rooms nearby, while the student housing provider Unite has partnered with a local developer on an ambitious housing and retail project that will open up a hidden part of the river Sherbourne running under the city centre.
The university is enthused by all this activity: it expects student numbers to grow by around 4,000 over the next five years. Coventry city council is delighted, too, viewing the student boom as a handy regeneration tool. Fresh development is under way on long-derelict brownfield sites and the night-time economy is flourishing.
“If you came here four or five years ago, post-recession, there was no buzz in the city centre,” says Kevin Maton, the council’s cabinet member for business. “But since 2013, there have been more people around, more bars open, more restaurants open. Students are the advanced guard of creating that activity, that buzz. They help make it easier to persuade other businesses and investors there is something going on here.”