Comment: student council tax is a circular lose-lose situation

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Last week a motion passed by Bath & North East Somerset’s Council stated: “[the Council]will consider asking the Members of Parliament to lobby the Government to fully compensate the council tax lost from student properties…[and]consider the possibility of asking the government to allow owners/landlords of student accommodation to be charged business rates.” There was also initial discussion of directly charging students council tax.

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The proposed council tax would be levied on housing businesses, the council says

As last year’s Community Officer, the remit of which include housing and the local community, I  believe it is important for students to understand the context around this discussion, and also to give some of the facts that may be missing from certain commentaries. 

Firstly, students do not pay council tax. When you register online at the start of each year, you tick a box that says the University will pass on your information to the council so they can register you as exempt. For those in private accommodation, there are occasionally problems but it’s only due to rectifiable bureaucratic mistakes.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the council does not miss out from this. They submit to the Government the number of exemptions who in turn reimburse them this amount. It’s a win-win situation.

Thirdly, the student housing situation in Bath is difficult but by no means rare. The ‘city’ has approximately 22,000 students, making it a bit less than a quarter of the population. This includes anyone who lives at home, or who commutes in from slightly further out, or who is a postgrad with grand-children who is doing a part-time Master’s degree. Obviously a significantly lower number of these students will be living in student properties where three or more unrelated people live together, known as Houses of Multiple Occupation (HMOs). HMOs are also used by young professionals, graduates, ordinary working individuals; all kinds of people.

Loughborough, Leeds, Leicester, and other cities whose names do not begin with L, all have similarly high, or worse, proportions of student populations in the city, and have all adopted their own ways of dealing with it without resorting to this ridiculous method. I used some of their examples last year when working with local residents to develop a proposal to take to the council to implement in their long-term housing strategy.

The leader of the Council meets regularly with the University Directors of Policy and Planning and of Estates to discuss their planning strategy, their predictions of student numbers, and their plans to accommodate them. Information is readily shared as it is in the interests of both, and this information is taken into account at every step. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but as far as I know, no one has been left homeless due to a complete lack of any available rooms.

But this is not the first attack on student accommodation. In July 2013, the Council employed an Article 4 Directive. This was on the back of growing anti-student rhetoric where long-term local residents complained about the numbers of students in Bath and wanted to limit the number of HMOs. As a result of this, a number of purpose-built developments – similar to halls – have begun to pop up around town.

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Students with accommodation on campus are automatically exempt from council tax

Said local residents do not like the purpose-built developments because they are uglier than houses and there is a higher concentration of students in one building. It is from this that the belief that believe that someone, be it students or owners, should pay tax on them.

Finally, whenever someone does pay council tax, it is paid by the occupier to the council. Not the owner or landlord.

If students were forced to pay council tax, saving the government from having to take it out of taxpayer-funded money, it would be roughly £2000 extra per year, depending on where they lived. This change would probably have to happen on a national level and so student loans would be increased to allow for it. Taxpayer-funded student loans. This seems a bit circular to me.

If students weren’t forced to pay council tax but landlords or owners had to pay business rates, or a council tax equivalent, the increase in costs for landlords would most likely be passed onto students through increased rent. This would affect any of the aforementioned users of HMOs.

Without students and young people in Bath and those who use HMOs, most of the industry in the city would suffer. Bars, restaurants, shops, public transport; almost 25% of their customers are this group.

Purpose built developments are currently listed as ‘sui generis’ in town planning, which means they are exempt from traditional planning legislation, used for hotels for example. The council is aware of this and in the long-term strategy is developing ways to ensure they are correctly managed to allow for harmony between students and long-term residents while maintaining a good standard of living for the occupiers.

I do not see what the council expects to gain out of this other than to deter students. If this is the plan, they’re thirty years too late as students have become an essential part of the infrastructure of Bath.

If you have any problems with housing, you can get in contact with Tommy Parker, SU Community Officer, on SUCommunity@bath.ac.uk. 

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Sally Williamson is a former Students' Union Community Officer (2013/14). She writes about Bath community and equality issues.

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