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February 27, 2009 12:26 PM

A Housing Minister has come under fire from a senior Newcastle Liberal Democrat over student housing.

IaIn Wright admitted in a letter that the Government had yet to make up its mind on adopting a call by Lib Dem-run Newcastle City Council to change planning law on conversion of residential properties into multi occupancy lets for students.

The Lib Dems are pushing for the Government to adopt "change of use class" powers which would increase regulation of the buy-to-let market by requiring persons seeking to convert family dwellings into private rented student housing to secure planning permission for "change of use".

At present there is no restriction on such conversions in England, although the devolved Northern Irish government has introduced a similar policy.

Councillor Greg Stone, Lib Dem Parliamentary spokesman for Newcastle East, said that residents of the "inner east" parts of the city, including Jesmond, Heaton, and Sandyford were "crying out" for more powers to address the long-term trend of studentification, but the Government was "dithering" over whether to introduce the plan.

In the minister's response to a letter from the city council seeking clarification of the Government's intentions, Mr Wright replied: "We have recently published research work which looked at the issue of the UCO [use class order] and HMOs [houses of multiple occupation].

"The research work was commissioned to identify good practice in areas that manage to cope relatively well with high concentrations of HMOs, to test whether these ideas could have a wider application in those areas which have difficulty with such issues and to determine whether, and if so what, planning policy is a suitable lever to tackle these problems…

"Once we have finished considering the report's recommendations we will consult on possible options for change. I anticipate that this will be soon."

Greg Stone said "People in my constituency are crying out for action on this issue.

"The introduction of change of use class powers for student housing conversions would give the local authority significantly more power to control the spread of private rented student housing and would prevent further loss of family housing stock.

"It would be a vital tool in securing a sustainable balance between family and student housing, to go alongside the city council's policy of increasing provision of purpose built student accommodation.

"However, the proposal appears to be gathering dust in the minister's in-tray.

"The Government has been sitting on this report since September but has failed to act, and the minister is unable to give a timetable for when they will begin consultation on this matter.

"The Lib Dems want real action on this issue as soon as possible on behalf of the people of Newcastle East, whilst Labour are only offering dithering and delay until after the General Election.

"As Lib Dem spokesman for Newcastle East I pledge to make this issue a top election priority."