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UK Co-Living's Next Big Test: Does Birmingham Say Yes?

Vision of the future: Curzon Wharf at dusk

Birmingham planners are pondering the first serious challenge on co-living: Will the city join London and Manchester in the co-living fast lane, or will the local council apply the brake?

The early signs are that the council will slam its foot down in an emergency stop.

Woodbourne Group's 1M SF Curzon Wharf development at Dartmouth Circus is the testing ground.

In April 2021 Woodbourne applied for permission to develop up to 265 co-living units along with residential towers of 52 and 40 storeys, 732 student beds, and 120K SF of office and research floorspace.

A just-released email chain between Birmingham City Council planners and CBRE, which is advising Woodbourne, revealed planners will not support co-living.

In July 2021 planners raised concerns that “insufficient evidence has been submitted to demonstrate the need for co-living,” and that the city council had no specific policy or guidance on co-living. 

CBRE argued in response that the presumption should be in favour of sustainable development where no policy prevented it. And since the council’s policy guidance was silent, co-living was suitable because “there are no identified adverse impacts that would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits” of providing more housing. 

“Market signals, through operator interest who have identified Birmingham as a suitable location for co-living, demonstrate that there is a need,” CBRE added.

However, Birmingham City Council’s planners did not buy this argument, and they expanded their objection to argue in addition to being unwanted, co-living apartments were too small.

“While there is no policy specifically dedicated to co-living within the adopted Birmingham Development Plan, there are policies which are relevant to the application. The most important being Policy TP30 ‘The type, size and density of new housing,’" a senior planner wrote in response.

Curzon Wharf in the setting sun

The council argued the assumption that the target population of one-person households would want co-living was wrong. It added that the Curzon Wharf plan “therefore does not robustly demonstrate demand for co-living.”

Council officials were also unimpressed with claims of "market signals" in favour of co-living from developers. “While there may be operator interest in co-living in Birmingham, the Council will need to be satisfied with evidence demonstrating need for the development to ensure that the proposed scheme meets local housing needs,” a council official wrote.

The conclusion, relayed to Woodbourne in late July 2021, was that Birmingham City Council "are not in a position to support co-living applications.”

CBRE responded on behalf of Woodbourne with rental data showing “that Curzon Wharf co-living offers a more affordable housing product for those earning £30K per year and choosing to live on their own, particularly when compared to one-bed BTR accommodation.

"It should also be noted that there are few new schemes in Birmingham city centre being delivered with studios, and therefore the stock of studios is generally older and without any communal or amenity schemes," the response continued. "Co-living, whose rents are inclusive of bills, subsequently offers an alternative, more affordable and inclusive opportunity.”

The final decision will rest with the city’s elected planning committee meeting later this autumn. Unless elected members take a radically different view, the Curzon Wharf application is likely to end in front of government-appointed planning inspectors.

When Manchester planners reached the same point in the debate about co-living in June 2020 they stamped their foot on the brake pedal.

A report to the council’s ruling executive revealed that co-living will be capped at 5,000 units across the city, will only be allowed in some areas, will require long-term management contracts, and payment of council tax and financial contributions toward affordable housing — a long list of conditions developers hoped to avoid.

The report concluded that co-living could be a flop in the wake of social distancing rules. 

Since then Manchester council have nonetheless approved several co-living schemes.