University students in St Andrews have vowed to fight houses in multiple occupancy (HMO) fee rises of almost 800%.
They say the new council policy will make it more difficult for young people to live in the town.
Students’ Association president Jamie Rodney has slammed the local authority’s move to hike the university’s HMO fees from £54,000 every three years to £512,000 as “bizarre and irresponsible”.
It has emerged most of the increase applies to university student halls of residence, David Russell Apartments, where the council will now charge a separate HMO fee for each of the identical 224 purpose-built flats, rather than charging per block as previously.
St Andrews University has confirmed it is seeking legal advice over the move.
The decision has been formally condemned by the Students’ Association Student Representative Council, which has backed a motion calling for the council to reconsider the new charging regime.
An open letter to the local authority has accused council chiefs of trying to make a “significant profit” at students’ expense.
Mr Rodney said: “The potential impacts of this are huge.
“It means increased costs for students, forcing them to move out of university halls and into rented accommodation.
“This means in turn that competition for rented accommodation will increase, making St Andrews less affordable and less liveable for local residents and students alike.
“It will do further damage to community cohesion and make it even more difficult for young people to afford to live here.
“At a time when both students and local residents are crying out for cheaper accommodation, this places extra costs and barriers on everyone, whether living in halls or rented accommodation.”
Mr Rodney suggested if it is imposed at David Russell Apartments, it could happen at student accommodation elsewhere or any self-catered, flat-style accommodation.
In April, Fife Council rejected proposals to increase the number of HMO licenses in the town, with approximately 86% of the 1,200 HMOs in Fife located in St Andrews.
Srdja Popovic, St Andrews University rector, has branded the fee increase as “ridiculous, an absolutely terrible idea”.
A spokesman for St Andrews University said: “For several months, we have been quietly asking Fife Council to explain and justify this sudden move to impose a massive rise in fees. We have also repeatedly sought a sensible resolution.
“To date, they have been unable or unwilling to do so. In these circumstances, the anger of our students is entirely understandable.
“To our students it appears that the council is effectively seeking to fill its own pockets, damage a key local employer and inhibit our ability to provide affordable housing for our students. It is inexplicable.
“The council has now offered to talk to us, but these discussions have yet to take place. Meantime, we have been left with no option but to commission legal opinion.”
A spokesperson for St Andrews Community Council has also called for a rethink, suggesting the new policy was “counterproductive, unfair and unhelpful”.
Council defends its new policy
Fife Council has defended its decision, saying the charging regime needed to be amended because of an increasing number of HMOs and changing rules.
Vania Kennedy, housing service manager, said: “Fife Council needed to revise fees because of an increasing number of HMOs and changing legislation over time.
“Our previous HMO charges pre-dated 2006, and needed to be updated.
“This meant HMO fee income wasn’t covering the HMO licensing scheme, with council taxpayers covering service costs.
“The new charging structure and fee levels cover the full cost of the HMO licensing service, including administration, visits for inspection and verification, democracy and compliance costs.
“The council moved from a flat-based fee structure to one that takes account of the number of occupants in an HMO, and the resources spent on each application through a sliding scale of charges.
“Fife Council’s fees are in line with those charged by other councils with a high number of HMOs.”
“The council now charges a HMO fee for each flat within David Russell Halls – this is because of property size, number of HMO occupants and the work required to process the HMO licence.
“While each apartment may have a similar footprint, property condition and health and safety issues can differ across apartments.
“The council is working with the University of St Andrews in developing a robust maintenance approach, with a view to broadening the sampling regime at a future point.
“The impact of increasing HMO fees is most significant to HMO owners with the fewest occupants and largescale HMO providers are shown to benefit from economies of scale.
“The costs of HMO licensing represent a small percentage of the income that HMO owners will receive through rents and there should be no need to pass on the increase in HMO fees to occupants through rent increases. This is entirely at the discretion of individual HMO owners.”
Local Conservative councillor Dominic Nolan fears the rise risks pushing up student rents when affordability is already a major issue.
“The result will be to push students towards alternative forms of accommodation and put even greater strain on the town’s already limited housing stock.
“The university and Fife Council must come to some arrangement on this issue, especially regarding the ludicrous charging of fees for every flat in David Russell Apartments.”