At the start of last term, campus was awash with scandal as it was revealed the University had pushed students into living in unsafe and unfinished accommodation at Caton Court, despite knowing weeks in advance about the problems. Lancaster University Students’ Union was also in the firing line, as they were gleefully encouraging students to rent from an offshore landlord that they had been warned against months earlier.
For students travelling into campus in the past few weeks, it has been impossible to miss the metal hulk opposite the nearly-complete Health Innovation Campus. This property belongs to a developer called Oasis Holdings, working in partnership with operator CRM Students, who are marketing it as ‘Filterhouse Studios’. Filterhouse will consist of 168 en-suite student rooms across two buildings. CRM Students are also behind the 430-room student accommodation block currently under construction on the banks of the River Lune at St George’s Quay. Both developments, whilst still unfinished, have started accepting bookings for tenancies beginning in September.
CRM Students is a company with a terrible reputation, delivering dodgy student housing at ludicrous prices at over 60 properties across the UK. An Exeter student complained that CRM never told them their accommodation was not finished. When they arrived to start their academic year, they had nowhere to live and just £150 compensation from CRM. Another CRM resident, this time in Leicester, was left without heating for over two weeks. CRM told them to wear warm clothes. One former tenant (writing in October) complained that they had yet to receive their deposit back.
One Bristol tenant wrote that ‘this place is not worth your money and time.’ A Preston resident said, ‘I would not recommend that place to anyone.’ Students at Caton Court would be able to relate to the testimony of Portsmouth CRM tenant Georgia Savva: ‘This is a poorly managed overpriced building. Totally misrepresented advertising cinema room gym etc. ... Spent the majority of the first year in darkness with scaffolding and dust. The rooms were not ready.’
Edinburgh student Millie Jensen expressed all-too-familiar sentiments: ‘You might like it if you are a teenager who loves to live in dirt, and don't mind to wake up during the night because of slamming doors or fire-alarms. But if you are a serious student you should find another place.’ A Durham resident left a clear message for any potential CRM tenants: ‘I can't recommend the company due to corrupt management, misleading advertising, and fraud.’
CRM Students is already trying to enter the consciousness of potential future tenants. A Facebook page called ‘Student Living Scotforth’, created in December 2019, is simultaneously running six adverts for Filterhouse, targeted at Lancaster University students. One claimed that tenants would be living ‘in the heart of Lancaster city centre’, which seems more than a little misleading.
CRM Students is likely to take a very similar approach to marketing as Caton Court owners Aparto did. They have previously sponsored university sports team kits, a tactic used by Aparto at Lancaster. In 2019, they won a ‘quality mark’ in the ‘National Student Housing Awards’, alongside Aparto (and Lancaster University). The trustworthiness and accuracy of these awards has been questioned by SCAN in a 2017 article. CRM has also contracted Huge Media, an outdoor advertising specialist, to literally drive round Lancaster marketing their accommodation.
Unlike with Caton Court last term, students now have an organisation that will defend them from dodgy and unscrupulous landlords (no, it isn’t LUSU). ACORN Lancaster and Morecambe launched in November 2019 to great success so far, with nearly 100 members. They take up member defence cases, and have a history across the UK of defending tenants by getting deposits back, stopping unfair evictions, and standing up to callous letting agents.
Spineless spoke to their Communications Officer David Murphy, who is also a Master's student at Lancaster University: ‘ACORN Lancaster and Morecambe are committed to empowering renters to ensure a rebalance of power between tenants and landlords. As part of this we are campaigning to empower students and make the appalling situation student renters are put into better through community action. Therefore, we will be monitoring this situation in order to ensure that student renters in this new accomodation have a decent standard of living and affordable rent.’
CRM Students’ owners are Luxembourg-based Corestate Capital Holding, who bought it for £15.5 million in 2018. It was reported as an expansion in its ‘micro-living offering’. One website predicts Corestate will bring in over £250 million in sales in 2020, and it is reported to have assets under management of over £22 billion.
The investor behind Filterhouse is Oasis Holdings, a trading name for Oasis International Investments, owned by Saudi Arabian investor Salman AlMashari and Warwick University finance graduate Vivian Watts. All of their companies are registered at 40a Manor Road, Potters Bar, Hertfordshire. Watts, who runs a ‘collective investment club’, used to work in Saudi Arabia, likely explaining his partnership with AlMashari. AlMashari's own company, eponymously named, is registered to King Abdulaziz Road in Riyadh.
The relationship between Oasis and CRM is much like the relationship between Henderson Park Capital and Aparto at Caton Court: one provides the money, while the other one runs the show. Filterhouse's links to Luxembourg and Saudia Arabia mirror Caton Court's links to Luxembourg, the Channel Islands and Kuwait, which Spineless reported on last month. Similarly, we have reported on the Dutch and Chinese ownership of UPP, which owns over 4,000 rooms on the University campus. It's clear that student accommodation in Lancaster is being built with the interests of foreign investors in mind, rather than providing quality, affordable homes within students' budgets.
Lancaster University was ‘extremely concerned and disappointed’ when Filterhouse was granted planning permission by Lancaster City Council in 2017. They argued that an ‘assumed connection’ between Filterhouse and the Health Innovation Campus across the road ‘is wholly misguided and at best premature.’ They also emphasised the vitality of the first-year ‘accommodation guarantee’. Fiery words from the University in 2017 do not reflect the reality of what University policy has now become. A 2019 email by interim vice-chancellor Prof. Steve Bradley published by Spineless noted that the University ‘continue[s] to grow and use city-based accommodation’, and that rather than any long-term solutions, such as building new campus accommodation, short-term stop-gaps should be employed.
Other consultees in the planning process expressed concerns about the safety implications of having the accommodation squeezed between the busy A6 and the West Coast Main Line. Network Rail told CRM Students that they would have to provide ‘a suitable trespass proof steel palisade fence of at least 1.8m in height adjacent to Network Rail’s boundary’, while Scotforth Parish Council pointed out ‘serious safety implications for the student occupants as they would have to cross the A6 to reach the footpath to the University.’
There are also concerns about the developers' commitment to sustainability. The council granted planning permission subject to several conditions, including a requirement for the provision of electric vehicle charging and bicycle parking on the site. However, according to letters from the council's planning department in September and November 2019, the developers have so far failed to provide details of how they intend to meet these provisions.
This is all to say nothing of the extortionate rents being advertised for future tenants. Rooms in Filterhouse, which are all ensuite, are being marketed from £140 per week. This is pretty much the same price as the superior ensuites on campus - except with them, at least you know they actually exist! £140 for 50 weeks, currently Filterhouse's cheapest option, will set students back £7000. Considering the average maintenance loan is about £6500 per year, this is hardly a statement of affordability. If you are £500 in debt after paying your rent, affording luxury items like food, clothes, and transport will be no mean feat.
Spineless will be watching very closely over the coming months as the Filterhouse construction continues, especially to see how they decide to market the accommodation and whether any Lancaster University institutions will end up being drawn in - despite the wealth of evidence to suggest things are bound to go wrong!