The 150th British Open was a historic occasion for golf and for the town of St. Andrews. An estimated 300,000 tourists visited a town of just over 17,000 people. This brought an enormous amount of trade to the town as these people supported local cafes, restaurants and retail businesses. These people also needed places to stay during their visit and hotels, bed and breakfasts and private landlords also enjoyed the economic boom from The Open. The University of St Andrews, the town’s largest single landlord, was anticipated to be the largest single group to profit from The Open housing as many halls of residence also operate as hotels during the summer.
Unfortunately, the possibility of earning large amounts of money can incentivise unethical and illegal behaviour from landlords and letting agencies. Short-term holiday lets for The Open can clash with existing tenancy agreements of locals and students and run the risk of breaking Scottish law. Specifically, Lawson & Thompson have added clauses greatly increasing the monthly rent of July to as high as GBP 7,000 in one instance. Premier Lets have added clauses to their contracts that force tenants to self-evict during The Open period. These student-centered letting agencies tried to maximise their profits during the tournament. While profit maximisation should be expected from a business, it is unacceptable for them to use unethical or illegal methods to profit at the expense of tenants’ well-being and safety.
The Premier Lets issue is immensely personal to many students because several were nearly the victim of illegal evictions. Some contracts included a clause obliging students to vacate their residences for ten days during The Open, ostensibly so the landlord could reoccupy it. This clause made zero provisions for rent and utilities reductions, flat cleaning or inspections to prevent unfair deposit reductions. Students were also explicitly told to leave personal belongings in the residence.
Many tried reaching out to the University’s Student Legal Advice which, unfortunately, has been closed for the past two years due to the pandemic. Thankfully, the Student Union’s Advocacy, the Campaign for Affordable Student Housing and LivingRent Scotland were able to offer help, and this clause was determined to be illegal and unenforceable.
The law states that for a landlord to legally reoccupy a residence, they must provide three months' advance notice and intend to make the property their primary residence for a minimum of three months. Clearly, a 10-day vacation period does not meet this test. These advocacy groups who helped students were essential because they were not sufficiently aware of British tenancy laws or their rights. Although Premier Lets’ contract seemed unusual, students had no reason to doubt the legality of an official letting agency contract.
Moreover, fully understanding local and Scottish tenancy laws is a challenge to many University community members given that over 45 per cent of students and staff come from abroad. Tenancy law is tedious and complex and it is the obligation of corporate letting agencies to ensure their activities always obey the existing laws. The University's decision to suspend their free legal service eliminates the most convenient way for students to understand their rights and, for foreign students, the differences between laws from their home country. Thankfully, tenant's unions such as LivingRent exist to help students and workers of all backgrounds, foreign and domestic, understand their rights and fight for them.
These illegal evictions during The Open, unfortunately, are only one element of the extremely competitive St Andrews housing market. One in ten students now reside out of town, in Leuchars or Dundee, almost certainly a product of the University’s rapid growth. For the most recent 2021-2022 academic year, the total student population is listed at 10,425. In 2000, the year His Royal Highness Prince William applied, the total student population was 6,000 while in 2013, the University's 600th year, there were 7,500 students. The university population has grown by over 25 percent in the last ten years alone. This has created increased demand in the town’s housing market.
In this same period, the supply of housing has decreased. Since 2000, the University has sold off the Hepburn and Hamilton Halls properties. Hamilton Hall is now the luxurious Hamilton Grand, the impressive red hotel overlooking the Old Course. The University additionally demolished Albany Park, its cheapest residence, to construct a new high-end apartment block. This new complex will not be finished until at least 2024 and will have fewer overall beds than Albany Park. The Fife Council has also greatly contributed to this problem by blocking new HMO licenses in 2019, the permits that allow a residence to be sublet.
It does not require an economics degree to recognise the effects of decreasing supply and increasing demand in a housing market. Today, St Andrews is one of the most expensive towns for students in the UK. The University’s own research concludes the effect of this housing squeeze is that lower-income students risk being priced out of town. All of this is occurring against the backdrop of Britain’s wider cost of living crisis, where high inflation and stagnant wages compound the rising costs of rent. Housing is consistently the largest single expense for any individual or family. In Scotland, growth in the cost of housing has outpaced the growth in wages many times over. Within St Andrews, 20 percent of homes in the town center sit empty, with 10 percent empty across the entire burgh. There has been a failure in housing policy in St Andrews where students fight in an extremely expensive and competitive housing market. The illegal evictions and profiteering during The Open did not create this environment but are symptoms of a widespread housing crisis in St Andrews.
What constructive steps can be taken? The University needs to ensure growth occurs at a sustainable level. Higher numbers of students demand more teachers, more library spaces and above all more housing. As long as growth outpaces the availability of housing, every student will suffer. Shipping students to accommodation elsewhere, such as Dundee, is not a viable plan when these other locations already face a student housing shortage. The University student body is uniquely international and foreign students are particularly at risk of exploitation. The Student Legal Clinic needs to be reopened immediately. This lifeline enables students to understand their rights related to housing or any other issue. The need for student legal aid did not magically disappear over the last two years. COVID-19 is not a valid reason to suspend an essential service that can be conducted entirely online or on the phone, putting aside the issue of if the pandemic is over or not.
University policy needs to reorient itself to recognise the housing crisis in St Andrews. It must take steps to ensure the welfare and legal rights of its students in this always competitive and frequently exploitative housing market. Housing impacts everyone’s university experience and at St Andrews, these failures in housing policies negatively affect every student’s life.