Co-living has grown up and moved out of London – and a flurry of applications from developers across the country make efforts in the capital seem tame.

Sheffield Council recently approved 1,230 co-living units from Code Living, including student accommodation. Downing Developments has submitted plans for 2,224 bedrooms using a similar strategy of studios combined with clusters of shared suites.

Student developers driving forward mixed-use sites have high ambitions. First-movers are defining the product for others free from policy restraints and the watchful eye of the Greater London Authority.

“There is much more opportunity for negotiation for a large scheme outside of London than there is within – any developer would recognise that,” says Ian Fergusson, a London-focused partner at Barton Willmore, a planning and design consultancy.

“Until the government gets involved, you have just one planning authority to deal with and one set of councillors. The London Plan has given a clear sense of direction and gives less opportunity for applicants to make a site-specific case.”

But although developing the first schemes in a regional city comes with benefits, there are challenges too.

Low barrier to entry

Australian developer Scape Living opted for Guildford for its UK co-living debut. It got the green light for the city’s first co-living development, and one of the first outside London, at Kernel Court in 2018, following a smaller student scheme on the neighbouring site.

Paul Newton, a partner at Barton Willmore, says: “In the regions there are more players. It may be the financial entry point, that land is more freely available, or that people are realising there has been a student accommodation boom in lots of these cities and the question of whether that has reached saturation point.”

Guildford Borough Council has no policy on co-living, even in the emerging Local Plan. Newton and colleagues at Barton Willmore advised the application and revision in 2019 to boost the co-living numbers to 113, alongside 403 student beds at the scheme.

“There was the initial piece about trying to get the council comfortable with the concept,” says Newton. “Because it was linked to a student scheme, it was a logical extension.”

He said concerns tended to focus on unit size and affordable housing provision. “The difficulties you face are not necessarily around promoting the concept, it is about people understanding it,” he adds.

“There would be some merit in evolving national level policy, or at least an acknowledgement that there are different products. It is making sure that policy keeps up with the market; at the moment there has been a significant lag.”

Student roots

Bristol approved its first co-living scheme in December. Council members voted unanimously in favour of Summix’s Unity Street scheme in Old Market, which comprises 189 student beds and 102 co-living beds in a standalone block.

“Conceptually, local authorities are very supportive of it. It then hits a barrier,” says Stuart Black, Summix’s development director. “With the exception of London, they don’t know how to categorise it. The big debate is affordable housing, because even though it is categorised as sui generis it is clearly not student accommodation.”

Summix worked closely with the council, with the scheme guided by the scale of the site and lessons from London.  It offers the familiarity of student accommodation with the extension of co-living for young professionals and 20% affordable housing provision on site.

“The holy grail is to have your undergraduates finish one year and walk across and move in next door,” Black says. “They’ll know the operator and the environment.”

Summix is targeting university cities for continued expansion, with its eye on Edinburgh in particular, as well as cities in the South East, such as Oxford and Cambridge. It is actively pursuing sites in London, attracted by a demand for affordable housing, but has yet to lock one down.

“London is just harder,” Black says. “Your hurdle at entry level is high, it is expensive to get in, expensive to deliver and guidelines on co-living from the emerging London Plan still have to filter down to the borough. Different boroughs have a different appetite for it.”

Yet, as co-living explodes in some cities, calls for regulation are emerging. Manchester City Council is wary and is investigating the “new and untested product”, which could have implications for Downing and its 2,224-bed co-living village.

With more developers chasing co-living opportunities and councils looking for consistency and guidance, the first-mover freedom in the regions may be short-lived.

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