Universities are facing a perfect storm of new Government regulation, Brexit uncertainty and raised expectations among its core customers – once known solely as ‘students’ – whose fees may soon, it’s speculated, be reduced to around a third, writes Euan Kellie.
The current turbulent conditions are forcing universities to assess their estates for both risk and opportunity. Indeed, in the race to update ageing facilities and future-proof their offer, there is a development and construction boom underway.
These institutions, which range from Russell Group universities such as Manchester to former polys like Manchester Metropolitan, and the newly-registered Bolton University, are now commercial operations rather than old-style public sector organisations.
Capital expenditure in the UK university estate has remained at £3bn a year for the third year running, according to new figures from the Association of University Directors of Estates, with funds being spent on refurbishing old buildings and on building newer, more carbon-efficient premises.
A key driver is the age of the university estate: one third of buildings were built between 1960 and 1979 and are nearing the end of their design life.
The estate size increased by 5.4m sq ft to close to 236m sq ft in 2017, as universities work hard to accommodate rising demand for world-class facilities, ranging from lecture halls and labs to entertainment venues and sports fields.
The University of Manchester’s £1bn estates programme is well under way, while Place North West has reported MMU is set to replace its 70s building on Oxford Road with a new £65m science campus.
Asset management is not the only driver, however, as university estate planning can support the contribution higher education makes to society.
As our recent experience with the University of Salford’s ambitious plans for the Castle Irwell site shows, intelligent planning can unlock social value through placemaking, sitting alongside the need to boost financial value.
Castle Irwell was a popular destination as a racecourse until 1963, before being acquired by the University of Salford in 1973 to create Castle Irwell Student Village. Closed in 2015 and following a fire in 2016, the former racecourse stand and student accommodation was demolished and is currently vacant and overgrown.
The university prepared and submitted an outline planning application to Salford City Council – supported by a masterplan – to deliver up to 500 homes, commercial space and a school on the 36-acre site which will create a new community to attract young families to the city. On the northern side of Cromwell Road, Charleston, the development is due to provide a mix of family homes, apartments fronting the River Irwell, and 25,000 sq ft of commercial space and open space.
EKPS were responsible for co-ordinating a multi-disciplinary team looking at complex matters including flood risk and highways, with the overall masterplan designed by Day Architectural. The critical element was to ensure that the university’s proposals met the necessary planning policy requirements, were commercially attractive, and could be supported by Salford City Council.
As a result, the Castle Irwell plans provide an opportunity to support local and Salford-wide socioeconomic objectives; increasing private sector housing choice for existing and incoming residents, accommodating a growing workforce in Salford, job opportunities for local residents, and high-quality open space for communities.
This scheme will also broaden the housing offer, offering homes for families and ‘move on’ choices for a young city centre population seeking an alternative to the suburbs.
Each university will have its own spatial and development factors to assess. But the University of Salford scheme could, in due course, represent a case study in how a local authority and a HE institution can create opportunities which will lead to new homes and communities, by redeveloping surplus assets which also benefit diverse stakeholders, including the local community.
- Euan Kellie is director of Euan Kellie Property Solutions