Cities across the North are finally filled again with the jibs of cranes in a rush to create new landscapes and new seas of student housing. Indeed, those who travel rarely outside the M25 may struggle to understand that many of these skies would continue to be almost completely empty if it were not for these cranes.
But how can a dash to the sky deliver a Northern Powerhouse?
Former graduates of a certain age look back, often misty eyed, at their own past times spent living for two years or so in a cramped, often mouldy, damp and freezing, dilapidated Victorian house with few home comforts. Then a standing-room-only bus ride through congested streets on many a winter’s morning before often arriving cold, wet and late for their lecture.
These retrospective Luddites complain that the new student housing we now see emerging is just too, well, ‘modern’. How can today’s students afford these rents they ask? And surely, they predict, there has to be an end at some stage to this mania for never-ending construction.
The benefits of new student housing
It’s time to think again. New housing provides a far stronger contribution to the wider student experience. It’s safer, much better equipped and much greener. It also makes good use of unused plots of brownfield land within walking distance of lecture halls and seminar rooms.
The primary economic benefits are obvious, providing much needed jobs for construction and maintenance workers. Local shops are re-opened. City centres are no longer deserted after dusk.
Housing elsewhere in the residential suburbs formerly inhabited by students is released back to established residents, reducing social tensions that sometimes occur, increasing relative supply and so putting downward pressure on prices, delivering much needed affordable homes within reach for many more local residents.
Universities either alone or in partnership with private finance are minimising risk, building and diversifying their businesses, and making returns that can be fed back into teaching and research.
But the benefits go much deeper. The economic theory of agglomeration which underpins the Northern Powerhouse emphasises that the most successful modern economies are built on the transfer of intangible knowledge.
That kind of knowledge doesn’t transfer easily down a fibre optic cable to India or China. Nor can it be taken offshore. It needs to travel face-to-face.
Moving people is expensive so it can only necessarily travel short distances. This type of innovation needs patterns of social interaction, labour supply and trade between firms to be dense, diverse and complex. It requires firms, universities, many other institutions in the local state, and a wide variety of cultural assets to be based as near as possible to each other.
This forces up prices, costs and rents for individual firms but these costs are outweighed by wider collective positive benefits to both that firm and the wider economy that arise from this agglomeration.
Putting students directly into the heart of these dense and complex relationships can only serve to build those benefits.