Owners of student housing will have to prove there is no longer a need for that accommodation when seeking planning permission for a change of use, according to a new circular issued by the Department of Housing.

The circular, which was sent to An Bord Pleanála, local authorities and the Planning Regulator, comes after it emerged that several student accommodation buildings have received approval for a temporary change of use as tourism accommodation.

The development was strongly criticised by students, who have protested over a lack of student accommodation.

In the circular, which was seen by Prime Time, the Chief Planning Adviser at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, said that there is a "critical need" for purpose-built student accommodation to be available to meet the needs of the higher education sector.

"The removal of student accommodation from availability for student use runs contrary to the National Student Accommodation Strategy," said Paul Hogan.

Mr Hogan wrote that the onus must be on anyone applying for change of use to "demonstrate that there is no longer a need for such use in the area in question".

He said that, unless an applicant can prove there's no demand for student accommodation, existing facilities should be retained for the use of students.

Last week, Niall Collins, a Minister of State at the Department of Further and Higher Education, told Prime Time that each local authority would be instructed to carry out a needs assessment in relation to student accommodation in their area.

The Minister said the change of use of student accommodation when there was an obvious demand was not acceptable.

"The notion of entertaining any more change of use applications simply isn’t on," he said.

Critics say that the cost of student accommodation is simply too high and that is the reason that some facilities are not operating at maximum occupancy.

Housing Expert Lorcan Sirr recently told the Dublin Inquirer that the planning system was being used to "maintain high prices" for developers, by facilitating changes of use from student to the more lucrative tourism accommodation.

Government sources told Prime Time that they hope the circular, which was ordered by Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien, will put a stop to student accommodation being turned into permanent housing or tourist accommodation.