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Students & Community

National HMO Lobby



Students, Communities and Sustainability
for presentation at
Unipol, Students & Communities Revisited, Conference, Nottingham, 12 May 2006
in the event substituted by Ten Point Plan.

I want to consider these three notions, Students, Communities and Sustainability, in different combinations. I want to look at Communities & Sustainability, and ask the question, What is a sustainable community? I want to look at Communities & Students, and ask, Why do they go wrong? And I want to look at Students & Sustainability, and ask, What can we do about it?

First of all, Communities & Sustainability: What is a sustainable community?
The motto of the new Dept for Communities & Local Government (formerly ODPM) is Creating Sustainable Communities. But there are two things wrong with this motto. # First, there is the centralist assumption that government can create sustainable communities. But sustainable communities can’t be created externally. If a Community is to be sustainable – it must by definition be self-sustaining. The best that government can offer is to Support Sustainable Communities. # The second thing that’s wrong is the Department’s understanding of what a sustainable community is.

The Department offers a definition of sustainable community – which essentially comprises eight components.*
Ø With regard to community cohesion, a sustainable community is Active, inclusive & safe.
Ø With regard to governance, it is Well run.
Ø With regard to green issues, it’s Environmentally sensitive.
Ø Regarding the built environment, it is Well designed & built.
Ø Regarding communications, it is Well connected.
Ø It’s economy is Thriving.
Ø In public services, it is Well served.
Ø And regarding the respect agenda, it is Fair.

This is fine as far as it goes. But it’s not a definition. It’s a description. It’s a list of the features you would expect to find, if a community was sustainable. But it doesn’t tell us why? – what are the structural features of a community which makes it sustainable. It’s a list of effects – but it says nothing about causes.

Communities & Students: Why do sustainable communities go wrong?
If we want to know what sustains a community, then we might well look at those which have ceased to be sustainable – then we can (a) identify the causes of the problems, and (b) begin to prepare solutions.

Let us imagine a neighbourhood which is unsustainable, which does not demonstrate these eight components.
Ø First of all, with regard to community cohesion, it has Lost its community spirit.
Ø With regard to governance, it is apathetic, there is Minimal participation.
Ø Regarding green issues, it is simply Polluted.
Ø Regarding the built environment, its users see it as no more than a Mine for rents.
Ø Its communications are Congested.
Ø Its economy has become a ‘Resort’ economy.
Ø Its suffers from Depleted services (like closed schools).
Ø Most distressing of all, those who use it show it No Respect.
But of course, those of us here who are community activists don’t need to imagine such a neighbourhood. We live in it! That’s why we are here – we live in communities which have lost their sustainability.

Why have they done so? What are the structural features they have lost, which have taken with them the neighbourhood’s sustainability? (a) First of all, we know the reason is not students. We know this because we have lived in these neighbourhoods for years. And students have also lived in these neighbourhoods for years. And we have not experienced these symptoms. Indeed, students have added to the diversity of our communities. (b) Something has changed. And what has changed is the balance of the community. Once, ours were mixed communities – but now they are polarised. And the polarisation is away from a mix or balance – of old and young, of families and single people and shared households, of home-owners and tenants – towards a neighbourhood dominated by one type of household. In our case, this is shared households or HMOs. Now, it’s irrelevant who are the occupants of these houses. The point is that people live in shared houses for short periods only (for eighteen months at most, usually for half that). What underlies our un-sustainability is the transience of HMOs, and the fact that they dominate our neighbourhoods. (c) Regrettably, the main driver towards HMO polarisation is the demand for student housing, following the expansion of Higher Education. It’s not the quality of students which is the issue, students as such – it’s the sheer quantity.

So: # One of the key changes which undermines sustainability is social polarisation. # Polarisation can take many forms, such as the exclusive gated community or the excluded sink estate – and another is studentification. # But it’s essential to emphasise that studentification is quite different from students – studentification happens when students cease to be one component in a vital social mix, and become instead a dominating monoculture.**

Students & Sustainability: What can we do about studentification?
Universities UK has published a Guide to Studentification (2006) which aims to offer an answer to this question. Its great value is that it recognises that studentification is a problem: “It is incontrovertible that the negative effects of studentification are evident in several towns and cities across the UK” (para 3.12). Its great weakness as any sort of solution is that it is fundamentally flawed. It fails in three respects. It fails to identify why studentification is a cause of unsustainability. It fails to identify the effects of this cause. And it fails to identify the essential solutions to the root cause of the problem of studentification.

First of all, if we are going to address the problems of studentification, which is a special case of the general problem of un-sustainability – then we have to identify its causes. As we have seen, the cause of studentification is demographic imbalance, in particular the polarisation of the population. We all know cases where this happens – a single street may be polarised, made up almost entirely of HMOs; or a neighbourhood of several streets may go the same way; or a whole community may be overwhelmed. We can all produce statistics to demonstrate this. And we do need statistics, because those who have not experienced it find it difficult to believe. But the Studentification Guide hides these statistics. Instead, we get figures for whole cities, which hides the scale of the problem for the local communities within these cities. In Appendix I, in Leeds as a whole, students are shown as 11% of the total population – but not the fact that they are 60% of Headingley Ward – or 51 out of 54 houses in Chestnut Avenue.

Secondly, the effects need to be made clear. To be sure, there can be ‘positive effects’ of students in a university town – and these are laid out in Table 1 of the Guide. But there is a clear distinction between students and studentification. It is students which bring ‘positive effects’, not studentification. Studentification brings only ‘challenges’, as these are euphemistically called in Table 2 (but which more honestly should be called ‘problems’). The positive effects are no compensation for the challenges. It’s no consolation for a community made unsustainable that someone somewhere else in the town may be picking up some benefits. There are no benefits to studentification, there is no profit-and-loss balance to be made. To pretend otherwise is to fudge the issue.

Finally, the problems can’t be solved unless you look for the right solutions. To be sure, you can bring in measures to tackle the effects. But you are on a hiding to nothing if you don’t tackle the root causes. Addressing a polarised population, or demographic imbalance, requires planning measures. And up and down the country, different Local Planning Authorities are trying different planning strategies to tackle the problems. Not a single one of these is mentioned in the Guide. The Guide does mention that “there are a number of powers available to local authorities to ameliorate the effects [of studentification], for example, the Use Classes Order and HMO Licensing” (para 4.13). But the Guide doesn’t mention that these are quite inadequate, and their inadequacy emasculates the best efforts of local planning policies. And the Guide doesn’t mention that this inadequacy is universally recognised, and that changes have been sought for years – but the government has turned a deaf ear to the lobbying, and a blind eye to the consequences.

So: there are real issues arising from Students, Communities and Sustainability. Communities themselves recognise these – we live with them 24/7 as the phrase goes (literally). What we need is for all those on both sides of the HE sector (universities and students) and for all those in both levels of government (local and national) to recognise them too. This takes us back to where we began: will the government really Support Sustainable Communities?

On Tuesday of this week (9 May), Tony Blair wrote to Ruth Kelly, the newly-appointed Minister for Communities & Local Government, about the role of her Department. Among other things, he said, “We need to ensure that local communities have the powers they need to respond to challenging economic, social and cultural trends, and to create cohesive, thriving, sustainable communities capable of both fulfilling their own potential and of overcoming their own difficulties, including community conflict, deprivation and disadvantage ... Empowering local communities is central to achieving our wider objective of democratic renewal” Wouldn’t it be great if we could believe a word of it?

Dr Richard Tyler, National HMO Lobby, 12 May 2006

*ODPM in fact cast around for some time searching for a definition, until the Egan Review on Skills for Sustainable Communities (2004) came to the rescue. The present definition adopts Egan’s seven components, and adds an eighth.

**It is entirely overlooked by the government definition, but it is self-evident that the pre-requisite for a sustainable community is a resident population willing and able to sustain that community. Local populations can be disabled in a number of ways, all of which are types of polarisation. Polarisation can mean opposition – in which case, the neighbourhood becomes a site of contest between competing factions. Or polarisation can mean one-sidedness. Again, this can take a variety of forms – exclusive communities (gated developments) or excluded communities (ghettos). Another is transience. A transient population lacks the ability to maintain sustainability (community campaigns often take years of concerted action). It also lacks the will (necessarily, members of the population are only briefly committed to the neighbourhood). (Of course, one type of polarisation can readily slide into the other.)


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