Tiny student digs: a snip at £548 a week

Jack Grimston and Chris Hastings

A SINGLE-BEDROOM flat with no bath and a kitchen squeezed into a cupboard has been marketed to students at £548 a week, leading to charges of profiteering by landlords.

It is on the seventh floor of a privately run hall of residence, whose owner is endorsed by University College, London (UCL) in its official brochure.

The £28,000 annual cost of the flat highlights the soaring cost of student accommodation. Traditional halls of residence with heavily subsidised rents are being replaced by blocks built and managed by highly profitable companies, which have hiked rents by 8% in the past year alone.

Some of the steepest increases outside London have been imposed in Edinburgh, Bristol and Durham, both by universities and by private landlords.

The London flat, in a block at 19-29 Woburn Place, is run by Unite Group, the UK’s largest student housing firm. It has nearly 39,000 bed-spaces, with buildings in most leading university cities. Unite’s founder, Nicholas Porter, 39, has a fortune estimated in the Sunday Times Rich List at £42m. He left the company this year and is now based largely in Jersey.

Ben Whittaker, vice-president for welfare at the National Union of Students, said: “Rents over the past 10 years have risen well above inflation and increases in student loans. It is often more profitable for private providers to supply high-end housing for the very few. Universities, responsible for making affordable accommodation available to all students, should take this more seriously.”

The rent at Woburn Place shows how much money some students have to spend. Last week, Kevin Sharpe, an academic at Queen Mary College, London, wrote that he was surprised by the spending power of many modern students, who often inhabit “posh pads” instead of traditional “fleapits”.

Last week, a Sunday Times reporter shown round Woburn Place posed as a UCL student with rich parents living abroad, looking urgently for a flat a short walk from the campus.

The building is a red-brick block with nine floors plus a basement about 10 minutes’ walk from UCL in the Bloomsbury district. It also houses students from other institutions, including Westminster University and the London School of Economics. Prices start at £213 a week. The reporter was shown about 10 rooms, including two at £548, including bills.

The smaller of these was about 180 sq ft, its bedroom had a single bed, a small table and a narrow wardrobe. In addition to a shower room with no bath, there was a small study with a desk and chair but no room for other furniture. The kitchen, including cooker and fridge, was contained in a cupboard in a recess at the side of the flat.

The same money would rent a flat twice the size in a converted house in nearby Judd Street. But Woburn Place and buildings like it trade on the desire of students to be in fully serviced flats close to their university.

Martin Blakey, chief executive of Unipol, a student housing charity, said: “A first-year student is not buying housing, but safety, security and sociability. With international students, it is even more pronounced. They want as little uncertainty as possible.”

Lawrence Plaschka, from Austria, a first-year computer science student at UCL, is paying £213 a week for a room in a flat he shares with a stranger at Woburn Place. “Of course it’s overpriced. They’re trying to make money,” said Plaschka.

Mark Allan, chief executive of Unite, said universities had not had enough money to build accommodation for the extra 500,000 students admitted since the early 1990s and had also cut subsidies for housing, leading to rising rents.

He said that fewer than 5% of the flats offered by Unite in London cost anywhere near £500 a week and that students valued their central location. “The fact that these sell out first clearly shows a demand,” he said.

Data gathered by The Sunday Times University Guide show Edinburgh is the costliest city outside London, with a maximum rent of £216 a week at John Burnett House, a new hall run by Edinburgh University. Elena Santoro, 20, from Milan, said: “It is really expensive when you compare it with what you get in town.”

A spokeswoman for Edinburgh said: “We aim to provide for a wide range of requirements from different types of student.”

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