Back to school: key planning themes impacting the Purpose-Built Student Accommodation Sector in England

As the new academic year kicks off, students across England are packing their bags and preparing their reading lists ahead of moving away from home. So it seems like the perfect time to take a look at some of the key themes which are impacting the Purpose-Built Student Accommodation ("PBSA") sector from a planning perspective, especially given reports about a chronic shortage in certain university towns and a supply and demand imbalance which looks set to increase.

Affordable Student Housing Policies 

The picture around the need for affordable housing in PBSA is an inconsistent, and often complex, one.  The London Plan policies require the provision of affordable student accommodation and state that, to make use of the Fast Track Route (allowing applications to be determined without the need for viability assessments), at least 35% of the development must be affordable. This requirement increases to 50% if the building is on public land. Affordable in this context, according to the London Plan, "is a PBSA bedroom that is provided at a rental cost for the academic year equal to or below 55% of the maximum income that a new full-time student studying in London and living away from home could receive from the Government’s maintenance loan for living costs for that academic year".

Affordable student housing is also something other local planning authorities are considering with some requiring a commuted sum as payment in lieu of onsite affordable accommodation. This is a requirement that developers will need to bear in mind as they consider how to balance the expectations of the services expected to be included in  PBSA, (see below), with the need to maintain affordability.

PBSA, housing need and location

An insufficient supply of student accommodation can lead to strains on supplies of other types of housing. In many parts of the country, housing which might otherwise be used as private family housing is converted to houses of multiple occupancy to accommodate students . Both the London Plan and the National Planning Policy Framework recognise the need for student accommodation as part of general housing need. Despite this, some local authorities still require developers to justify the need for PBSA, and developers must address these requirements when preparing planning applications.

The location of PBSA can also be an important consideration: some LPAs prefer them to be located in the grounds of or near to academic institutions, while others prefer PBSA not to be concentrated in one location. Similarly, whilst some LPAs require PBSA to be linked to a particular institution (or institutions), others are keen to maintain independent PBSA, that can be used by a wider range of students.


It is no longer enough for PBSA to just provide a bed to sleep in. Indeed, students are increasingly  expecting social spaces and study areas, with many buildings providing games rooms, communal outside spaces and even cinemas. Which, although maybe not your classic social cause, certainly does put the "S" in ESG.

The "E" in ESG has also grown in importance for the PBSA sector. Not only are many PBSA schemes car-free (which they are required to be in London), developers often pledge to reach net zero by reducing both the embodied as well as operational carbon in their buildings. This is particularly important to operators in relation to PBSA, as rooms are offered with all-inclusive rents providing an impetus to keep buildings running as efficiently as possible.

Alternative and ancillary uses

By its very nature PBSA usually only has tenants during the course of the academic year, so what happens to the rooms over the summer? Section 106 agreements often restrict how the properties can be used and so, if developers want to be able to utilise these spaces when not otherwise occupied, they should address this early on in the planning process. For example, they may want to consider ensuring the permitted use has adequate flexibility to allow for alternative and ancillary uses such as occupation by attendees of conferences or as short term lets for members of the public, as well as ensuring that any conditions or section 106 agreement restrictions around use accommodate the full range of uses anticipated.

If you would like to know more about the challenges facing developers of PBSA, or indeed any of our other sector specialisms, please get in touch and don’t forget to sign up for regular Engage alerts so that we can keep you updated.


Authored by Rosie Shields.


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