Welcome to Cardiff, currently plagued by luxury student flat developments. Over the last five years, 7,400 rooms have been approved across multiple sites in the city centre. However, with student numbers falling and prices far beyond the reach of most, people are asking if developers have a more worrying agenda.
I don't blame you for not visiting Cardiff lately. You're not at the stage in your life where a Norman motte-and-bailey is of sincere interest, and outside of Wales rugby is the preserve of the deeply troubled and privately educated. It's a shame, because besides the castle – a pitifully ironic monument to Welsh erasure – and the stadium, there is little in the city centre you can call distinct, and the pockets that do remain face a familiar threat.
The demolition of Guilford Crescent – one of the last sets of Victorian terraces, home to a beloved nightspot and two family-run restaurants – was proof for many that a great dull wave is flattening Cardiff, washing up high rises and sweeping in crap gourmet burger options. Music and arts venues like Gwdihŵ, The Moon Club, Four Bars, The Abacus – spaces which valued cheap cans, weirdos and rowdy South Wales conviviality – are all gone.
The Full Moon has become "Bootlegger", a prohibition-themed cocktail bar for beard oil enthusiasts, while Gareth Bale has turned Four Bars into a major Jeans & Sheux thoroughfare with an expensive-pints sports bar. But other spaces have made way for large-scale property developments, one type of which is proving particularly loathsome: luxury, purpose-built student accommodation, or PBSA.
Behold Zenith, a 675-room nightmare-in-beige that now towers over the city centre. A room in a five-bedroom apartment is yours for £155 a week (that's £7,905 for the year). If you have the means, you can climb higher up this affront to God and into a "Sky Studio"m for £235 a week (£11,985 for the year). To be clear, this is in a city where £300-a-month rents are still a thing. Zenith has a cinema, a "wellness room", a private gym with private classes, a bar on the 25th floor and a karaoke booth. If it wasn’t for the missing supermarket, you'd be living your best Ballardian life.
Another thing that's missing is students. The day before the start of the September term, at least 25 percent of Zenith’s rooms were still available to view and rent – and it's not the only PBSA in the city to face difficulties. A report from CPS Homes, a Cardiff Estate Agent, said that by July of 2019 several developments had yet to hit 50 percent occupancy. Perhaps it’s because nobody wants to spend their formative year in higher education on a building site, since Zenith overlooks a huge office development. Meanwhile, this was "The West Wing" the night before its September opening:
But there's a more fundamental problem. Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows that combined enrolment at Cardiff's three universities has fallen year-on-year since 2014/15, by 9.2 percent overall. International students, a target market for such obscenely pricey accommodation, have fallen off even harder over this period, with a 25 percent drop in non-EU nationals. Brexit, coupled with an increasingly hostile environment for internationals, means you'd be daft to bet on these figures picking up again soon.
None of this has stopped new developments going ahead, though. "Prime" is the latest, literally sandwiched between two existing developments and due for completion in September of 2020. It comes in spite of hundreds of objections, not least because it’s being built on rare parkland: an old bowling green conveniently allowed to fall into disrepair, in a ward with very little green space.
Cardiff council argues that developments are necessary because the number of purpose-built rooms in the city still lags far behind the number of students. How it hopes to fix the deficit with unaffordable flats is a fantastic question, but there's something else to consider, which, admittedly, nobody normally dwells on: what do the students think?
"I live in a shared house in the Cathays ward, and my rent is £340 a month," says Ben Leonard, a third year Politics student at Cardiff University. "For me, the shared house in a student neighbourhood is an essential part of the university experience, so even if I could afford to, there’s no way I'd pay to live in a tower in the city centre for the luxury of a private gym or a games room."
"I don't know any students who could afford £150-a-week rent, or who'd want a private cinema or bar," agrees Hannah Tottle, a recent Film Production graduate from the University of South Wales. "The impression I get among people I've met is that they're not too sociable either. Cardiff has a strong sense of community. This kind of accommodation pulls away from that."
It all seems like stupefying business illiteracy on the part of developers, and it's not unique to the Welsh capital. Last year there were warnings that Plymouth, where multiple student skyscrapers have been thrown up despite plummeting enrolments, could soon end up with some 2,000 empty rooms. Yet plans are still being submitted for new developments. Meanwhile, earlier this year, a nationwide scheme of 19 buildings collapsed under the management of A1 Alpha Properties, which by February had only managed to fill half its rooms. Such miserable failures have done nothing to stem the explosive growth of PBSAs in cities like Coventry and Liverpool.
In Cardiff, at least, an alarming pattern has emerged. Two years ago, the "Eclipse" development was given permission by the council to fill up empty rooms with short term lets for non-students. This year, several other developments have all made similar applications. Zenith and The West Wing were successful, the latter despite objections from residents and safety concerns from a local primary school.
Here’s the rub: building student flats is a cheaper business than building residential flats or hotels. They don’t have to make the normal S106 contributions for affordable housing and surrounding infrastructure. In addition, rooms can be built to lower standards in terms of space, lighting and outdoor areas.
In short, developers know exactly what they’re getting into: the buildings go up, and when it turns out nobody wants to fork out £300-a-month extra for the pleasure of a shared ping-pong table and some vendies, they insist the council lets them like an Airbnb on the cheap. The temporary nature of The West Wing and Zenith's change-of-use, for example, means it will not make S106 contributions.
By now, it's beyond the point of conjecture. "It's clear that some developers opt for PBSAs to cut corners and escape the costs and regulations faced by other developments," says Jo Stevens, Labour MP for Cardiff Central. "Last year, one PBSA development in my constituency permanently changed to a residential hotel after it was unable to fill a quarter of its rooms. We are now seeing developers apply for change of use before buildings are even completed."
"We're told by planners that the business case for PBSAs is there, but it's evidently not," says Councillor Owen Jones, who represents the Adamsdown ward – where Eclipse, The West Wing and Prime can be found. "Time and time again we see these change of uses. If you consider the West Wing, it hasn't had to build one parking space. It’s an example of the types of things that developers get away with, and people will obviously think they’re trying to get around the rules."
The arrangement at Zenith and The West Wing may be temporary, but it's impossible to see where sustainable numbers could come from in the future. Enrolments will drop further, and new PBSAs will mean more competition. The fear is that, in the long-term, in order to get investors their returns, developers are gunning for residential use – and that Cardiff is on course for a live-in Novotel dystopia.
It’s not something the city rules out, although Councillor Caro Wild, Cabinet Member for Strategic Planning and Transport, insists it won't be as grim as this. Permanent conversions would be subject to contributions and substantial refurbishment, he says: "We have a housing crisis, and more properties are needed. Larger modern developments are generally more readily converted to alternative uses than traditional buildings."
In many cases, he adds, developers would be liable for significant redesign to the inside and outside of the building. "We have our eye on ensuring the system cannot be played."
This hasn't stopped the Welsh Government from making an overdue intervention. Housing Minister Julie James AM wants future developments to meet social housing standards at a minimum. Stevens likes the idea: "Empty or unused PBSAs could then be converted into social housing, which is a move I fully support," she says. "Cardiff, like most major cities, is challenged by a short supply of social housing, with over 8,000 families on the waiting list, and this is one way we can bring that down."
But it's surely too little too, late in Cardiff, with the likes of Zenith already polluting the skyline and several more developments under construction. Truly infuriating is the council's position that PBSAs can't be stopped on the basis of declining student numbers, unaffordable rents or the failure of previous developments to open on time and fill up their rooms. "Applications from developers are market-driven, based on their own commercial assumptions of the market," says Wild. "We cannot refuse an application because we don’t believe there’s demand for the development."
Exactly how developers are arriving at certain commercial assumptions is bewildering. "I've reached the view that our city has almost certainly reached the capacity for PBSA," concludes Stevens. "Changes to the legislative and regulatory framework are needed in our council to enable them to refuse unnecessary new developments."
It's absurd that a capital city should be so flavourless, that one can land in its centre and be overwhelmed by the underwhelming. It's gross that while these profoundly unimaginative horrors are going up, the tents of Cardiff’s homeless are being torn down. It’s appalling that what little character is left in Cardiff is at the mercy of speculative investors with zero connection to the city.
Without structural change, this is the way things will stay, and Cardiff – a city with so much potential – will exist merely as a cautionary tale.
All photos courtesy of the author.