Infrastructure and Planning

Student housing

The expansion of Northern Ireland’s two main universities has opened the door for expansive investment of infrastructure in the shape of student housing.

The development of the new Ulster University campus and further growth of Queen’s University means that Belfast has been a focus for infrastructure investment. A further £11 million expansion of the Magee campus in Derry, announced earlier this year, with potential surrounding infrastructure has meant that student housing developments have attracted significant investment in a time when infrastructure has fallen down the priority list of the Northern Ireland economy.

Over 1,200 student bedrooms are expected to be delivered in Belfast after Cookstown developer McAleer & Rush agreed a deal with Queen’s University estimated to be in the region of £72 million, described as “the most significant property development deal in Northern Ireland”. A 16 storey high and 476-bedroom development with ground floor retail space was given the green light in February for the McClintock Street and College Avenue area. Planning permission is expected to follow for a further development on College Avenue of 775 bedrooms. With a scheduled completion date of summer 2018, the developers said the building work would support 550 jobs with 75 long-term jobs also expected.

Interest in student accommodation across Belfast has been fuelled by the £250 million new Ulster University campus being developed on York Street which is expected to attract 12,000 students. In total 16 planning applications for managed student developments have been submitted to Belfast City Council but in January council planning officials rejected three major developments totalling almost 700 rooms. Two of the proposals came from private developers but one of the schemes rejected fell within the scope of the Northside Regeneration scheme, A Department of Social Development (DSD) project, which the former department (now Department for Communities) has since withdrawn from.

The £200 million scheme, which included a regeneration of North Belfast, proposed to build 300 apartments and houses, mostly for students, as well as retail outlets and a hotel. A consortium led by local property developer Kevin McKay, supported by Balfour Beatty, an infrastructural development company, was selected by DSD in 2014 but the department withdrew their support in April 2016 following an assessment. The scheme had been a catalyst for private developers to invest in properties in the surrounding area and it has not been revealed whether the scheme will be carried on privately without department investment our whether the department plans to launch a fresh scheme for the area.

Outside of the scheme, plans which have been approved include a 380-bedroom development at Little Patrick Street and 682 rooms on York Street to be developed by English firm UniCiti. Recently Belfast City Council granted planning permission for a 317-room development at the former Athletic Stores on Queen Street.

Planning experts Turley who have supported dome of the managed student accommodation applications suggested that Belfast’s need for similar accommodation is far from met and fell behind the proportion of purpose-built managed accommodation in cities such as Cardiff, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Belfast office director Michael Gordon said: “By compiling the figures we were able to demonstrate to planners and politicians that even if all 16 proposals were approved, Belfast would still lag far behind most other UK university cities. According to two independent reports, even if the council approved all the proposed developments, Belfast would still be playing catch-up with just 23 per cent of student beds in managed accommodation. For context, a study by Liverpool City Council found the typical saturation point for managed accommodation was circa 40 per cent of all student beds in a city. That leaves plenty of head room for the number of student beds in the city to grow, and with it, significant social and economic regeneration.”

Although no extra student accommodation has been announced to support the Ulster University’s campus expansion in Derry, it is believed that the £11 million extension will have both a short-term and long-term impact on the infrastructure sector. The new teaching block is expected to increase the university’s capacity by 1,000 students. The university projects that by 2025 the overall provision at Magee will rise to 9,400 full time equivalent students. Increasing full time undergraduate places by 2,636 and bringing the total to 6,000 by 2024. A partnership with the North West Regional College will hopefully achieve an additional 750 full time undergraduate places by 2024.

Ulster University Vice-Chancellor and President Paddy Nixon said: “Long-term sustainable funding provision for students and infrastructure investment is essential to deliver these ambitions. Expansion at Magee will not happen in isolation. It will require a concentrated, collaborative effort by all stakeholders. With these building blocks in place we will help this University city to realise its full potential.”

Impact of higher education on the Northern Ireland economy

  • Over £1 billion in economic activity annually
  • 6,500 jobs directly and a further 6,500 in the labour market
  • Improves the skills base attracting inward investment
  • Supports new investment and high value jobs through innovative initiatives
  • Attracts external research funding, doubling public investment in the leading universities
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