Accommodation – it is always going to be a main talking point at uni. The pay, the facilities, the people – it plays a big part in your life at university, there is no doubt about it. Therefore it is important to make the right choice as to where you want to live through the academic year.
The Maltings is private student accommodation run by multinational corporation Campus Living Villages (CLV). The accommodation has only very recently been built, with half of it built in time to open for the 2014/15 academic year and the other half opening for 2015/16. With both halves open, it houses a total of 800 students – all from the University of Essex. The lowest rent payment required to stay in the Maltings is £5,808.00 for 44 weeks, paid via three termly instalments. This works out to £132 a week and includes utilities and Wi-Fi.
It has recently advertised itself as the destination for those on a “tight budget”. But how true is this?
On campus, the lowest fee for accommodation is £2,929.29 for 39 weeks, or £75.11 per week – just over half the cost of the cheapest room in The Maltings at £129.50 per week. The highest is £6,884.50 for 50 weeks, or £137.76 a week. This is excluding the cost of accommodation for more than one person. The most you’ll pay at The Maltings is £8,415.00 – or £165 a week for 51 weeks.
So in terms of price, it pales in comparison to the accommodation provided on campus. But what do you get for your money? First of all, utilities and Wi-Fi are included as part of the rent. However, this is already the case with on campus accommodation. When it comes to the Wi-Fi, you get one device connected to the Wi-Fi network “on the house” and then need to pay £15 for up to four additional advices. The Wi-Fi is advertised as “free 30Mb Wi-Fi”. A recent speed test of this Wi-Fi (via http://www.speedtest.net) resulted in a download speed of 10.22 Mbps and an upload speed of 0.43 Mbps.
There had been issues previously with the Wi-Fi, with it not even being operational for a period of the 2014/15 academic year. Once it was operational, some students complained that the Wi-Fi was slow.
What else does The Maltings offer you? Access to a sheltered car park is another thing. This is an advantage over university accommodation, as spaces can be limited on campus with the sheer amount of users of the car park. However, this does not come for free for residents of The Maltings. Despite beginning the year as a car park where there was an option not to pay for a parking space, and being sold to potential residents as a car park that could be used for free, in January 2016 a decision was made to make paying for the car park compulsory if you wished to use it. Use of the car park requires a permit that costs £5 per week – without this permit, car park users face fines. This is, of course, on top of the rental payments.
Potential residents were also offered the promise of an on-site shop, bar and restaurant in advertisements from June 2014. Whilst you may very have been excited by the prospect of not even having to leave the site to shop, wine and dine. Your excitement may have died down a little by November 2015, the date when the on-site shop opened. It may have died down even further by April 2016 (the time of writing), when the bar and restaurant are still yet to open. In fact, you may be feeling a little gutted had you booked your room specifically due to the advertised discount of ‘20% off selected food and drink in the on-site restaurant’ available for potential resident who made a booking in March 2014.
The Maltings also offer 24 hour security. Key cards are needed to get into blocks and access flat corridors. However, according to some residents of the accommodation, some of the locks stop functioning fairly regularly – allowing access without the use of a key card. These are both locks for doors to get into a building and locks for doors into the flat corridors. They do generally get fixed, but it is not long before they stop working again, according to some residents. However there are security cameras and staff are constantly on site monitoring them.
At the accommodation, a maintenance team are also on hand. Issues can be reported online or in person at reception. Issues logged online are aimed to be fixed within one week of being logged. However, maintenance does not always appear to happen within that time frame. One person reported that after moving in, their bathroom light wasn’t working, their main light was barely functioning, their cupboard had a door hanging off, one of their drawers was broken and they were missing their combination oven that comes with the room. Despite filling in an inventory list, detailing the issues upon moving in for the maintenance team to review and repair, and being advised to wait 72 hours for the maintenance team to deal with the issues, help only came after nine days – and a stiff email of complaint. Another student living there told us that they needed to chase the maintenance team up via a phone call after a report of a blocked shower wasn’t responded to after a number of days.
In order to get the perspective of Campus Living Villages, the operators of The Maltings, I interviewed village director Seth Clifford-Banks. I got some further background on the accommodation and I put some of the complaints we’ve received to him.
AM: One of the main complaints that people have is the price. Recently, we’ve seen a further charge for parking introduced which affects quite a number of students. What was the thinking behind this?
SCB: We’re two years in, in terms of this site. We charged parking from the beginning of last year, but also it was on our website as being chargeable this year. My view was that we shouldn’t be charging students, as there were delays in terms of any enforcement being put in by the owners.
This was initially because of the fact that there’s plenty of students who will pay for car parking and were paying it for last year as well, but we also became aware of obviously there’s more cars parking in the car park and students or visitors that were in the car park and not paying. It’s very difficult to manage those without any enforcement. So rather than have some people disadvantaged by paying where other people weren’t, we effectively said ‘Right okay well people won’t have to pay until we can guarantee we’ve got that enforcement system in place.’ So that then happened in January and as a result we gave a month’s notice and emailed people in December, giving people a chance to decide if they didn’t want to bring their cars back after Christmas.
But it is a private car park; technically it was always supposed to be chargeable. You can look at it two ways, some people are not happy that they have to pay, but the way we see it, we actually we gave people a discount in the first term, we didn’t charge people, so it’s always been on our website that it’s £5 per week for parking. It would have been ideal to have the enforcement or barriers or something from day one, we wouldn’t have had the issue of some people being able to not pay and others paying, so we just decided to wait until it was in place.
AM: Do you think that the timing was a little bad, being midway through the year. Indeed a lot of students have said that when came to view the property earlier in the year they were told that they can park for free with the only risk being that you may not be guaranteed a free spot. Realistically that was never really a risk, with a relatively low demand for the car park – even with the introduction of the Co-op. So, do you think that bringing in the charge in January (in the middle of the contract) was a bit unkind to students, 1) who are already lumbered with quite high fees and being in the middle of the contract, and 2) with such low demand for the car park?
SCB: Yeah, I understand that. We want to make it as affordable as possible, but we also have a responsibility to the owners to be charging car parking. We had told people prior to arriving that the car park was chargeable, so, as I say, we postponed charging for a few months. Ideally, it would be nice if we didn’t have to charge car parking at all, but it is something that, as it is a private car park – and as we are the operators of this site – we have a responsibility to enforce the charges the owners want us to enforce. Ideally it wouldn’t happen midway through the year, but in reality it could have been at the start of the year.
AM: I can understand visitors and users of the Co-op being charged for parking, but with the already high cost of rent, would it not make sense to say, ‘Well, if you’ve got a car, you’re paying enough for that, you’re paying enough for rent, you’re having your maintenance grant cut from next year, you can use the car park for free. It’s a private car park, but as a resident of the site you can use the car park for free.’ As would be the case with a lot of flats and accommodation where you have a car parking space as part of the rental agreement.
SCB: I guess it’s a decision that’s not really in my hands I suppose. The owners of the site determine what’s going to be charged for and it’s our responsibility as the operating company to manage that. I guess nobody likes to pay for car parking unfortunately, but if you look at the campus, if you live on the campus you can’t actually park there and for those that do, the charges there are much more expensive as well. So it has been kept relatively low in terms of the charge, £5 per week is fairly minimal when you compare it to what you could be paying elsewhere. The best that we could do is give a discount at the beginning and keep the prices as low as we could.
AM: £5 a week would work out to £260 a year, a season ticket at the university for student parking costs £107 for the year, so parking is in fact a lot cheaper on campus. Realistically, someone could say ‘Well I’ll live on campus, I’ll buy a season ticket as that would be cheaper for paying for parking at The Maltings, plus there’ll be lower rent’.
SCB: Well obviously it’s entirely up to them if they choose to do that – we have a product and nobody is forced to have a car here – but it’s up to people’s individual pockets what they can afford to do. We want to keep the car park, ideally, as free as possible, but we don’t want to have too many visitors coming so we’ve put the enforcement in to ensure it doesn’t get used as an area for locals to use as a car park, and as I say, we’ve kept those prices flat from first year as well, so we haven’t put any increase on those.
AM: I think what some people are finding difficult to comprehend is, how you say that the charge is partly there to ensure that there are no unwanted visitors or locals using the car park and filling it up at no charge, yet half the car park at the very, very least was completely unused when it was free. People are finding it difficult to comprehend how it is feasible to charge for a car park for this reason, for when it was free not many people were using it anyway.
SCB: I have seen it, particularly last year when there was building work going on, there were a lot more people using the car park —
AM: — with only half of the car park built —
SCB: Yes, well it is difficult to say, what kind of retailers were going to be here which would have brought additional people to the car park as well, and I guess it’s just the unknown really. At the end of the day, it comes down to the owners’ prerogative really, if it’s their car park they’re entitled to charge for it and my job is to enforce that.
AM: From speaking to some students who live at The Maltings, there have been a few concerns relating to maintenance. For instance, (explained the case of the student moving into a room with several things broken/missing and waiting nine days for it to begin to be fixed). How does the maintenance work?
SCB: Normally we require students to log their issues on the portal and report them that way. In the beginning, we do an inventory form. People fill it out and what tends to happen is that you’ll get a lot of those back in the first week or so and we work through them in terms of priority. It’s difficult to comment on an individual case, obviously I’d need to look at what happened and why, but we have two guys in maintenance here whose primary job is to make sure they address any issues that are reported as quickly as they possibly can.
It’s never great if anybody has to wait for longer than a day or two for something to be fixed, so we always try and get there as quick as we possibly can. Sometimes there may be parts missing and because it’s been a new build as well, there’s been a number of snagging issues as well that you get with any new build. You get things that either stop working or break or go wrong initially. In the first few weeks, we had the on-site builders to address those issues separately – to something that might be a wear and tear issue that would be our responsibility. So there were some delays in terms of them getting round to all the snagging issues, but on the whole we got to all of them pretty quickly.
AM: There have also been reports of issues with the door locks, whereby you can just open the door simply by pushing it – rendering the key cards useless – and that they seem to be fixed and just back broken the next day, have there been any issues with the door locks that you’re aware of?
SCB: The door security in between flats, on one hand, is a really excellent system – the primary reason for having the access control (ability to open door without key card coming out of flat) on it is to be able to deal with the fire situation really quickly and efficiently and make sure people have got access out of the flats as quickly as possible, and, as I’m sure you can appreciate, in student accommodation – we have a lot of, thankfully, false fire alarm activations. But very rarely you do have the odd occasion where someone’s burnt some toast and there’s flames or whatever. The system is designed that it releases with a magnet as soon as it detects a fire, but because it effectively closes on a magnet, the fail-safe for that is that you’ve got to have the push button to release the door just in case. It’s always worked up until now and we test it every week to make sure it does work and of course you’ve got to have the fail-safe in place. But the counter-challenge to that is that it’s very easy for someone to push the ‘break glass’ and just leave the door open and that’s something we’re constantly going around reactivating them on an almost daily basis. So it’s quite challenging in terms of doing that, but in many ways it’s better to have the system that way, as we know it’s safe and that people can get out. For us, the most important thing is that the building is safe and secure for students and that’s the primary responsibility I guess of me and the team. But it’s a constant bit of a cat and mouse game sometimes, because people can unfortunately deactivate those keys and those locks.
AM: I have also been told about times where entrances from the outside, from the car park and so on, have had their locks not working so as to not require a key card to be opened. This means that theoretically, if the locks into flat corridors aren’t working as well, any old member of the public could just walk in and find themselves with only an old fashioned key locked door between them and a student’s flat without use of a card or anything.
SCB: We check those exits several times a day as we’ve always got staff going around the building, security overnight will do their patrols every hour, sometimes more frequently than that. One of their prime focuses is to check those doors and make sure they’re locked. That really is our number one issue or concern – to make sure the site is secure – so we take that very seriously. We certainly have to reactivate them, but that is the number one thing we look out for when we’re doing our walk arounds.
AM: In terms of the cleaning – what is the cleaning operation, how regularly is the site cleaned?
SCB: We’ve got four cleaners in total, who effectively work on a rota basis, we usually have two – if not three – on any one day. They will then go round and do the blocks on a schedule.
AM: From the size of the accommodation, four is a slightly surprising number. Has that been an issue at all?
SCB: No, I guess the high traffic areas will get done on a daily basis, some areas – a staircase in a block doesn’t have to be done every day – will get done every couple of days, but they’ll do a visual check and we’ll have a job of the day where you’ll focus on certain areas. So it’s so far so good at the moment. As we get into next year – and if we’re full – we’ll have more students, so then we’ll get an additional cleaner. There will be a number of hours within the budget that we’ll move up to depending on the occupancy of the site.
AM: From speaking to students, cleaning doesn’t seem to be a huge complaint but they have told me about a few things, from sick being left uncleaned on a staircase for three days to food lying on a floor uncleaned for a number of days. Obviously there has to be some blame for students causing such things to end up there in the first place, but also you wouldn’t expect it to stay there uncleaned for a number of days.
SCB: Again, it needs investigating and understanding where it is, we don’t deal with anything in the students’ flats as that is their responsibility to clean. When we do get complaints about situations where flatmates may not be pulling their weight in terms of cleaning we assist them in resolving the issue. If it’s an area in the staircase that should be picked up, we don’t have cleaners on over the weekend, so it could be over the weekend that that’s happened. There’s always the potential that the block maybe wouldn’t be cleaned until the Tuesday so there could be some delay in terms of that, but we do try and get round to all areas as often as we possibly can. We do sometimes rely on students to make us aware of things as well.
The Maltings is a fairly abnormal Campus Living Villages accommodation in that the owners are not CLV, instead they are a business called KEQ Maltings. The difference in operators and owners seems to be what has driven a few of the issues with the site. CLV advertised features such as a bar/restaurant and shop as available, but development was delayed past the date they were supposed to be available. KEQ Maltings are responsible for the development of the site. In the interview with Seth, he mentions that “ideally it would be nice if we didn’t have to charge for parking at all”, before going on to say that “it is their responsibility as operators to enforce what the owners wish to charge”. It seems that if CLV both owned and operated the site they may be able to run it in a way that enhances student experience, instead of running seemingly primarily as a business looking to make money ahead of creating the best possible student experience.
You can’t help but think that some of the issues, such as the door locks not always working and the food/sick lying about uncleaned for a while, are partly down to students and you can’t really blame The Maltings for it too heavily. However, the instances we’ve heard about should surely have been sorted out a lot sooner.
One of the biggest issues in my opinion is the parking situation. The Maltings say that it has always been “chargeable” and that they’ve always advised this is the case. However, this word was not used when some current residents I spoke to came to view the accommodation. The only negative point to using the car park is that you weren’t guaranteed a space if you didn’t pay. There was no mention of the fact you had to pay for parking in some of the older advertisements. It used to be advertised as that there was “parking available”, this has now been changed to that there are “parking permits available”. Surely the addition of the word “permits” shows the parking situation has changed, or at the very least the advertisement was a little vague? Okay, so The Maltings gave a month’s notice in December before the parking charge was formally introduced, but what good is this to students who are two months into an expensive contract? This is especially after an email was sent round to all residents in November clarifying the parking situation as “chargeable”, but that you were able to park without paying for a parking space.
There was no mention of an imminent change in parking policy. Fair enough it was described as “chargeable”, but surely anything can be chargeable? The definition of chargeable is “liable to be charged”; this magazine, words of advice, your mum doing your washing – these could all be charged for, or chargeable, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they will be (unless your mum is a bit of a stinge)! I think it would have been better for The Maltings to have told potential residents whether a car park charge was likely or not – whether they were planning on doing so or not – instead of merely saying that it could be charged for.
I have to say, from the residents who I asked and from those who reached out to me, it was not all negative reviews and experiences. The majority were, but at least 1 in 6 were positive. Seth mentioned in the interview that they had conducted some testimonials and had garnered a lot of positive responses. The Maltings certainly do appear to have some stuff they need to work on; it is only new accommodation. If they can work on ironing out some of the issues experienced by dissatisfied residents, that will only be a good thing.