Councillors and residents question whether Leeds city centre is right for students as planning for thousands of new flats is approved

With a boom in planning applications for student flats in Leeds city centre - is our 'town' about to become the new Headingley or Hyde Park?

Thursday, 11th March 2021, 6:00 am
The former Debenhams building in Briggate.

Leeds Council says there are currently 15 approved applications for student accommodation schemes in the city centre - with five more planning applications submitted recently.

This means there will be a further 3,691 self-contained residential units in Leeds, with an additional 463 flats added if newer applications are given the go-ahead.

One of the recent applications is for the second and third floors of Briggate's redundant Debenhams store to become student flats - so what would this mean for our city centre?

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Barry Anderson, Leeds' Chair of Scrutiny Board for Environment, Housing and Communities, said an increase in student flats in Leeds has been on the horizon since the Government wanted to give rights to developers for previous retail premises, but believes 'whether it's right or wrong depends on what Leeds will be like in a post-pandemic world'.

He said: "My personal view is that we need to give this good thought and actively support a number of the student accommodation applications, but Leeds Council's planners are going to have to go to the Government and get clarification on a number of policies before this happens.

"Is there going to be enough room for the size of the blocks?

"Is there any proposal for green space to be provided for students? The pandemic has proved we need that. Will the Council be given money to invest in this?

"Are we going to keep retail units in use in the same place as student flats, like with the Debenhams application for example?

"We have got to think of the students themselves as well. Are there enough leisure facilities there for them? Where would they be able to meet socially other than in their living room space?

"In principle, I support the concept because we're using assets that may end up standing empty - but once these units have gone, they're gone."

Coun Anderson expressed concerns about logistical issues such as where and how students will be able to drop off their belongings if all arriving in the same week, and how they could exercise properly in the city centre with traffic and difficulty of crossing roads.

Also, where Headingley and Hyde Park cater for most students, up-market restaurants or shops with earlier closing times in Leeds city centre have not had to consider students as carefully previously - meaning a possible change in the functionality of retail and hospitality in Leeds.

He wants to ensure the city 'gets it right first time' by thinking through possibilities and strategies for dealing with them - including whether owners of shops in the Victoria Quarter for example would feel a conflict between having people living so nearby that are not necessarily compatible with their clientele.

Hayder Ahmed, a 23-year-old Fashion Design student at Leeds Arts University, lives in a studio flat in Park Square because the 'work environment' in town gives him a sense of maturity which motivates him to take his work seriously.

Hayder said: "I'm living in an environment where people are thriving and making something of their career.

"I do live quite far away from most of the other students at the University or on my course, but I'm paying a more expensive price for the luxury of location convenience.

"I think unless new city centre student accommodation matches cheaper prices in Headingley and Hyde Park, most people will still always go for the cheaper option."

Dan Cohen, a member of the city's plans panel, said: "There have been a significant number of applications recently for city centre student accommodation, and barely an application for the city centre comes to us that doesn’t have student accommodation as part of it.

"It is accurate to say that myself and a number of colleagues are concerned to make sure that there is a balanced development and balanced community in the city centre and we want to make places that are vibrant all the time not just term time.

"It’s amazing that Leeds is a major and leading student city and I'm really delighted that we’ve got superb accommodation and superb facilities for students but it's important to have a balanced economy of dwellings."

'I think housing students away from the residential areas is a good idea'

Mary from Moorland Residents Group said: “I'm an ex-student who has lived in Hyde Park for over 10 years. I think housing students away from the residential areas is agood idea as litter, noise and parties are increasing. But is Debenhams the right building to house students? It's an iconic building."

'Can we leave some parts of Leeds untouched by gentrification please?'

Student Jake Moran said: “Can we leave some parts of Leeds untouched by gentrification please? It would no doubt turn the city centre into a new hive for students. I think students need to remember that this isn't their city - it belongs to the people of Leeds.”

'Only affordable for the wealthy ones'

Politics student Catheryne Sturgess-Fairbairn said: “Realistically the only students who’d be able to afford those flats would be wealthy ones too so the rest wouldn’t even get a look in.”

'I go to the city centre for a nice day out drinking and shopping, not to be surrounded by students'

Ashleigh Curtis, who lives in the city centre said: “Where would the parking be? Who would be able to afford it? Who would even want to live there? Would it devalue everything around it? I go into the centre for a nice day out drinking and shopping, not to be surrounded by students in accommodation."