- MLA Gerry Carroll made this claim based on a story in the Belfast Telegraph
- That story was based on a report from insurance firm CIA Landlords – but scrutiny of that report’s figures showed it is unreliable
- This is an example of how seemingly-plausible sources can spread terrible information far and wide, including into our daily newspapers and even Stormont
During the Assembly debate on electing a new speaker held on May 30, People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll said:
“We have an unbelievable situation: the average rent in Belfast is extortionate, and people are struggling, but most landlords are raking it in. Furthermore, consider the fact that rent went up again last year and continues to soar while landlords in student areas such as the Holylands and the like are pulling in £1·8 billion from renters, making this city — Belfast — the most lucrative for landlords.”
This figure is untrue.
However, it is easy to understand why Mr Carroll thought it was correct.
In fact, this is an interesting case of how bad information can become laundered to the point where it seems legitimate.
When asked about his claim, Mr Carroll directed FactCheckNI to a (since deleted) May 11 story from the Belfast Telegraph, which begins: “Student landlords in Belfast are raking in £1.8bn every year, making it the most profitable university city in which to own rental property in the UK.
“And while the average student rental price per calendar month of £832.40 per property only makes it the 21st most expensive to stay in while studying, the sheer number of students who want to live in the city means the overall profit for landlords ranks alongside Durham as the most lucrative.
“A new survey from CIA Landlords estimates that 22.1% of the city centre population are students, with Belfast placed second behind London when it comes to money taken by landlords.”
This appears to back up Mr Carroll’s claim. However, what happens when you take a closer look at the report on which this news story is based?
Let’s go on a journey.
CIA is a UK insurance company with a significant interest in tenancy and property packages. It is regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. CIA Landlords is, as you’d expect, the arm of the company that insures landlords.
On April 14 it published a short piece of research titled The Best UK Cities for UK Landlords.
That research claimed that the student rental market in Belfast is worth an estimated £1,766,103,096 annually (the figure that made it into the Belfast Telegraph and that was ultimately quoted by Gerry Carroll). It contains equivalent figures for several other UK cities.
The research was quite open. It included tables of figures of what is, effectively, its raw data and outlines the methodology it uses to calculate its headline rent figures.
It then ranked cities by the estimated yearly rental market for student landlords:
Although London heads the table, the research itself noted that: “Both Belfast and Durham do not have the most expensive average student area rent costs, but the percentage of their city’s residents that are university students gives landlords here an abundance of opportunity with a much higher demand for student-friendly properties.
Though London technically comes out on top for the highest estimated yearly rental market for student landlords with approximately £2,661,110,735 revenue each year, we must take into consideration that London can also be an extremely costly place to invest in multiple properties.”
But take a look at those numbers.
Belfast, apparently, has 176,808 student households.
Meanwhile, London – yes, that London – has 86,449 such households, half as many as Belfast.
According to figures published by the Department for the Economy on March 22, there are only around 65,000 higher education students at Northern Ireland’s handful of universities (note that this number will not account for Open University students or those living in NI but studying over the border – but the CIA research itself says it takes no account for people involved in remote study so they would not be included in its figures either).
So, 65,000 total students in NI – but almost 180,000 student households in Belfast?
The method used to calculate the size of the student rental market is this: take the estimated number of student households and multiply that by the average yearly rent of properties in student areas – i.e. assuming that each individual student pays the entire rent for an average property in student areas, rather than having a shared house.
For Belfast, CIA sets this figure as £832.40 per month – around ten grand a year. This figure, multiplied by the 176,808 student households, arrives at their claimed total of almost £1.8bn.
We contacted CIA Insurance on June 15 to point out some significant flaws in their research. They didn’t get back to us.
However, a few days later – according to the Wayback Machine, which saves and collates changes to web pages – they changed some of the figures in their research.
Some, but not many.
The current version of this “research” now looks like this:
So, Belfast now has 26,687 student households (which is at least plausible) and the estimated yearly rental market has been scaled down in line with this.
Does that mean this research is now OK?
Take a look at the two cities above Belfast. London still has 86,449 student households. Durham has 82,225.
London, population around nine million, which has dozens of major higher education institutions (and many more specialist schools, albeit those are usually not as large as mainstream unis).
Durham, population just under 50,000, which has one university (albeit the city’s New College offers some Higher Education as well as Further Education options).
These figures are not credible – and even the CIA report agrees.
Further down in the body of the research is a table with total student numbers (rather than student households) in all the relevant cities.
Here the report notes that Durham has 20,645 students (and that Belfast has just under 61,000). If it were to have 82,225 student households, then each individual student would be renting an average of four properties each.
We are well past the stage where anyone should take this report seriously. It is junk – and, even after we pointed out some of the glaring issues with the work, all CIA seems to have done is chop down the estimates for Belfast (we are FactCheckNI, after all) and leave it at that.
Pass it on
Unfortunately, bad information can travel far.
CIA Landlords should know a thing or two about student rental markets and when they produce a report one might think, at first glance, that it is fairly robust.
The Belfast Telegraph reported on the findings in good faith without fully scrutinising the figures..
Later on, we queried the report with CIA and, while our query was never acknowledged, the report quietly changed (but still remains worthless).
The Bel Tel also caught wind of some issues with this report and, at some point after the research was altered, their story disappeared. It is now a dead link.
But by then the misinformation was in the public domain. Many people will have read the article, including one of our MLAs – Mr Carroll – who thought the details were interesting and also took it in good faith, even bringing it up in a debate at Stormont.
And that’s the story of how one particular piece of bad information ended up in Hansard.