Students no longer welcome

Undergraduates have moved into areas of Britain's big cities, ripping the heart out of communities and leaving devastation. But now the universities are beginning to make amends. Lucy Hodges reports
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The Independent Online

In the past 10 years students have colonised whole swathes of Britain's inner cities. As student numbers have grown, so parts of Leeds, Birmingham, Nottingham and Newcastle have been taken over by a transitory population of young people who aren't interested in tending the gardens or cutting the hedges. Moreover, they keep odd hours, throw late-night parties and spend much of their time elsewhere.

In the past 10 years students have colonised whole swathes of Britain's inner cities. As student numbers have grown, so parts of Leeds, Birmingham, Nottingham and Newcastle have been taken over by a transitory population of young people who aren't interested in tending the gardens or cutting the hedges. Moreover, they keep odd hours, throw late-night parties and spend much of their time elsewhere.

The result has been catastrophic, according to Harold Best, Labour MP for Leeds North West. Some streets resemble slums; the roads are potholed and litter-strewn, the grass uncut and the fences broken. One school in Headingley has had to be closed because of changing demographics; another school is threatened with closure. "All you see is dereliction and devastation in the four months when the students are not there. That's why we have among the highest burglary and robbery rates in the UK."

So concerned was Best that he invited the former housing minister, Lord Falconer, to Leeds to see for himself and presented him with an eight-page document. There was no plan to accommodate the explosion in student numbers in the 1990s, he complained. The market was left to provide. That meant that private landlords moved in, bought up family houses and turned them into multiple units.

The irresponsible attitude of many landlords led to a rapid decline in the standard of housing, he told Lord Falconer. "Properties converted to multiple occupancy are frequently neglected and poorly maintained internally and externally."

Richard Tyler, a retired academic, who has been campaigning for eight years to have a more balanced community in Leeds, says: "We're not anti-student. We're pro-community. The community is in a minority at the moment. We're outnumbered by students. When you are outnumbered it's difficult to tackle the problems created by having so many students."

The campaigners are pushing for changes in the Housing Bill, now before the House of Lords, which would require most, if not all, student landlords to be licensed and adopt new standards.

Leeds city council is taking more drastic action. It plans to delineate an 'area of student housing restraint' to cover Headingley, Hyde Park, Woodhouse and part of Weetwood to stem the tide of "studentisation". New building in the four-mile exclusion zone will be stopped along with converting houses into units, unless the owners undertake not to rent to students.

Best, whose constituency covers Headingley, welcomes this action but says it is belated. "The prospect of it having a substantial effect is minimal," he says. "The damage has been done. We have seen what were once organic, whole communities destroyed. The two universities, Leeds and Leeds Metropolitan, didn't give a fig. After I was elected I organised conferences to air the issue but it was like pissing in the wind."

Tyler is more hopeful. Although little can be done about Headingley, he believes that the measures outlined, as well as plans for a student village the other side of Leeds and other private developments for student accommodation, could do the trick for the rest of the city.

"It's a matter of carrot and stick," he says. "We need to make it difficult for landlords in Headingley and develop other outlets for student accommodation in other parts of the city. We want balance in Headingley and balance throughout the city."

The signs are that the universities are beginning to take notice. Leeds has developed a community strategy - in fact it was the first university to have a community strategy. It has also drawn up a housing strategy. It was the first university to have a neighbourhood helpline and a dedicated community liaison officer.

None of this will be much comfort to Best, and Tyler points out that the community strategy was produced without consulting the community. But it has meant that the university has better relationships with the city, says Ceri Nursaw, head of the city and regional office at the University of Leeds.

In the months of June and July, when the previous year's students are leaving their accommodation and the new lot is coming in, the university mounts special events - jumble sales, recycling and donations to charity - to ensure that student belongings are not left to litter the environment. In addition, a Leeds University community initiative provides a conduit for students to undertake voluntary work, basketball for inner city schools, fashion design for the homeless, a healthy food co-op or hip-hop awareness week. Most, if not all, universities have volunteer projects for students.

Last year Sheffield Hallam University had 400 students volunteering; this year the number is 600.

"Many universities have been seen as apart from their local communities," says Diana Green, Sheffield Hallam's vice chancellor, who will be chairing a Universities UK conference next month on the role of universities in the community. "Some have tried to bridge that gap."

She, and others, argue that students have a substantial positive impact on local communities. Many stay on and work in the locality when they graduate, setting up their own businesses and helping to regenerate run-down inner city areas. "Students are a diverse lot," says Simon Kemp, code of standards officer for Unipol, which provides student housing and is holding a conference tomorrow (22 Oct) with Leeds City Council entitled 'Students, Housing and the Community - Opportunity or Threat?'

"In Leeds there are a lot of different types of students. We have mature students with families and local students from round and about who want to move into Leeds. They can't all be lumped together."

Most universities have learnt that complaints from the public about students being noisy or indulging in drunkenness need a swift response.

Stephen Waring, head of external relations at Southampton University, says that, if students are spoken to about antisocial behaviour, they will normally mend their ways. "Most of them are very reasonable and sensible," he says.

It is important that universities have a good neighbours policy, says Peter Reader, director of marketing and communications at Bath University. They need to talk to local people. They should provide information to local residents about how university plans will affect them, for example, how plans for a new hall of residence might affect a local area in terms of parking, litter, noise and so on. Second, they need to tell local residents about university events. Last year the end of session ball was held on campus. Local people were told when the fairground would close and when the event would move indoors. "We made sure they knew what to do if they had a problem," says Reader. "In the event, there wasn't a problem."

Everyone agrees that Leeds has particular problems because of the number of students - more than 60,000 - at the two universities and others at the teacher training college and institutions of further education. Representatives of other universities talk as though there is very little divide between town and gown.

One is Professor Graham Henderson, vice chancellor of Teesside University, who says that the university's and Middlesbrough's futures are symbiotically linked and that one of the university's jobs is to help to regenerate the economy of the North-east. "We don't get a lot of complaints as a result of students living in private accommodation in town."

The university has just put up a new sports building complete with an all-weather pitch. It made sure that houses overlooking the sports centre were double glazed so that local people were not bothered by noise.

Another new university that sees its role as one of invigorating the town is Plymouth where the vice chancellor Roland Levinsky is breathing new life into the cultural scene. By putting the conductor of the local Ten Tors Orchestra on the university's payroll he has secured music for the South-west and boosted music at Plymouth University. He plans a £35m arts building and hopes thereby to create a cultural quarter in the town with an arts centre, a gallery and a restaurant, sponsored partly by the city council.

"It is my belief that a university is more than just a teaching and learning and research repository," he says. "You need to engage with the community and you need to be a cultural incubator and a generator of ideas. It is a very important part of what a university ought to be."

Plymouth University has an incredibly good relationship with the city and its council, he says. "This will make the city more attractive, bring people in and create better shops and more of a café society."

In Leeds, however, relations have been soured by the impact the students have had on Headingley and other areas. Tyler says that the universities are out of touch. "They live up there in their ivory towers and are oblivious to the rest of us." To which Professor Simon Lee, vice chancellor of Leeds Met, replies that both Tyler and Best have benefited from the presence of students in the shape of rocketing property prices.

'Students, Housing and the Community - Opportunity or Threat?', 22 October, Morley Town Hall, Leeds. A joint Leeds City council and Unipol conference

'The Role of the University in the Community', 2 November, Woburn House Conference Centre, London WC1. A Universities UK conference