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National HMO Lobby



Dr Richard Tyler
'Love Thy Neighbour'
Campus Life, #02, October 2007

Love thy neighbour as thyself is an exemplary exhortation for community relations. But not much love is lost between town and gown. Studentification is in the media, numerous conferences have addressed the issue, and front line campaigners have set up networks of residents, councillors and MPs.

Why does the ivory tower cast such a shadow over its host communities? And what can we do about it? With the expansion of higher education in the last decade, huge student colonies have developed in most university towns. And residents in the host communities have lost the ‘quiet enjoyment’ of their homes. No-one doubts the good works done by student volunteers, but the vast majority remain oblivious to their neighbourhood. The latest UNITE survey (Student Experience Report 2007) finds that “half of students consider themselves as part of the community.” Of course, the other half does not. And of those who do, most think that patronising local shops is enough.

Some problems arise directly from the student presence, some indirectly. In the social sphere, student neighbourhoods suffer from endemic low-level antisocial behaviour, mainly noise. But they also suffer inflated crime – in which students are not perpetrators, of course, but victims. Concentrations of student houses offer soft targets and rich pickings. Meanwhile, as the local population changes, school rolls decline dangerously.

The environment suffers too. Students are ‘rubbish at rubbish’! And their cars congest the streets. Meanwhile, landlords (maximising profits) either neglect their properties, or over-develop them. Letting boards, flyposting, taxi horns, inflict street blight. The economy changes too. The reality of the student pound is that student demand promotes a resort economy - shopping centres are dominated by letting agencies, bars, take-aways; other shops re-orient their lines; all are affected by seasonal fluctuations.

Many measures have been adopted by councils, universities, student unions, the police. Information is made available – directories of services and telephone help lines, to support students and residents. Exhortations are made to students to be responsible neighbours (like the SSHH campaigns promoted by several unions). The National HMO Lobby advocates a simple Community Code: Say hello, keep the peace, clean up. Direct interventions are mounted, by the police and wardens, and by university disciplinary processes.

So, the issues are pretty intractable. But even if all students said hello, and kept the peace, and cleaned up, would the problems even then be solved? Two recent publications have surveyed the issue – Universities UK’s Studentification: a guide (2006), and NUS’s Students in the Community (2007). Both are useful up to a point, but neither addresses the basic structural problem: “the replacement and/or displacement of established residents with a transient, generally young and single, social grouping” (UUK Guide). Both reports tackle only the symptoms which arise – not the underlying cause of these effects, demographic imbalance. An example: in one quarter-square-mile of 72 streets in Headingley in Leeds, with a population of 10,000, students outnumber residents by two-to-one.

The loss of a balanced community is the real problem posed by studentification. A community polarised towards youth and transience is fundamentally destructive of sustainability. It replaces the older generations who preserve the community’s history, the adults who maintain it, and most seriously, the children who are its future. It disrupts the social networks on which ‘community spirit’ (or social capital) depend. And not least, it demoralises the resident rump – ‘aliens’ in their own neighbourhood.

It is an indictment of HE policy that such situations have been allowed to develop, leaving those involved struggling to cope with the consequences. Leeds and Nottingham, for instance, have set up multi-agency groups, comprising council and community, university and students, and landlords. They can pursue housing policies, especially licensing of HMOs (shared houses) as provided by the Housing Act 2004. They can pursue planning policies – areas of restraint and thresholds for HMOs can be used to resist demand in occupied areas, while promotion of purpose-built accommodation (suitably sited) can ease demand and redirect it to different locations. But local authorities are hamstrung by their limited powers. Fundamentally, we need the government to give HEIs the resources to accommodate their students, and local authorities the powers to protect their communities. The National HMO Lobby has proposed a Ten Point Plan to address the basic issue of studentification.

Meanwhile, therefore, residents’ message to students is not only, love they neighbour as thyself, but also (much as we might love you), leave our neighbourhood alone!

NB the text was slightly edited for publication.


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