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The young ones
Local Government Chronicle – 12 April 2007

What spends 750m a year and vomits on doorsteps? The answer, at least from Nottingham City Council's viewpoint, is 'students'. And in that question lies the dilemma facing a growing list of councils as higher education expands remorselessly.

A university - or even an outpost of one - can make a large and favourable impact on the local economy, as well as create an audience for cultural events and institutions. The benefits can be long-term. Students who choose to stay on in their adopted town after graduation have improved many local economies.

But, as with all silver linings, there are clouds. Students need cheap, shared homes to rent near to where they study, and when a critical mass of them forms in an area, a process known as 'studentification' sets in. This has positive effects, in that it may regenerate a run-down area by creating a housing rental market and a customer base for businesses.

Negative effects, though, tend to be more common and visible. Students rarely have children, so local schools close for lack of pupils. However, they often have cars, so old and narrow residential streets suffer parking problems. They are also partial to late-night parties, which can cause noise and litter nuisance. And their tastes tend to be such that while pubs, food takeaways and mini supermarkets do a roaring trade, other kinds of retail outlets lose their customers. Areas colonised by students can also seem abandoned when most of them leave for their summer holiday.

Community cohesion may be jeopardised because most students will be outsiders to the area, have different lifestyles to settled residents, and cannot easily become part of a community - even if they wish to - in places they will inhabit for only a year or so.

Nottingham does not want to alienate its students nor diminish the economic benefits that flow from the University of Nottingham and Nottingham Trent University. It does, though, want to reduce concentrations of students in areas where landlords have bought up so many homes to rent that the supply of urgently needed family housing has collapsed.

Unscrupulous landlords are also prone to neglect such property, lending areas an appearance of dereliction.

Nottingham convened a conference in January that drew delegates from around 30 councils. The result was a yet-to-be-named organisation, based in the city, that will act as both a centre for the exchange of best practice, and a lobbying hub.

David Trimble (Lab), Nottingham's cabinet member for adult services, housing and health, says: "There are lots of benefits from students. They bring a lot into the local economy and many graduates stay on. In fact, a number of city councillors first came here as students.

"But our problem is that 80% of homes are in council tax bands A and B, and we find landlords buying up homes in bands C and D to rent to students when these are scarce and much needed as family housing. It is a real squeeze on accommodation. We have also had a number of schools close in student areas, shops change nature, and even pubs shut down outside term time."

One remedy being mooted by Nottingham is to use money raised from developers' planning gain payments to buy back houses from landlords for renovation, and then part selling them on to families. The council would keep an equity stake equivalent to the cost of renovations to prevent the new owners from simply selling the homes back to landlords at profit.

Mike Cole, Nottingham's student strategy manager, says the council plans to designate 'action zones' in the Lenton Drives and Arboretum areas, which have a high proportion of houses in multiple occupation. "We want to increase the licence fees for houses in multiple occupation from 340 to 600 so we can employ more staff to inspect the properties and make sure they are properly maintained.

"These are areas that we can still save by having balanced communities and preserving the character of the homes by reverting to family housing," he explains.

Mr Cole works with the universities and their student unions to co-ordinate action around problems caused by students, as well as the problems that affect them.

"Universities do bring huge economic and cultural benefits to the city; we calculate [the financial benefit to Nottingham to be] 750m a year," he says.

"But that is not a tangible benefit to someone who has found vomit on their doorstep or been disturbed by a late-night party, so we try to encourage students to become involved in community projects and volunteer work."

Elsewhere, Canterbury, despite having a population of only around 150,000, boasts three universities and a college. It has set up a protocol on student behaviour with the police, the University of Kent, Canterbury Christ Church University, the University College for the Creative Arts and Canterbury College.

The initiative is intended to improve all residents' quality of life, and demonstrate that the agencies involved take student-related anti-social behaviour seriously. It works the other way round, too, being fair and non-judgmental in dealing with the above, and enabling students to report anti-social behaviour perpetrated against them.

There is also a student accommodation scheme, under which landlords who join must provide homes with an appearance that "is not prejudicial to the amenity of the surrounding neighbourhood". What's more, their physical condition must not be "prejudicial to the health, safety and welfare of the tenants", who must be "treated fairly and in accordance with the law".

Less tangibly, the scheme seeks to promote "considerate neighbourly behaviour". Wayne Gough, who oversaw Canterbury's review of student issues, says: "Because of the change in the law, we no longer licence houses in multiple occupation if they have fewer than five people or three storeys, and a lot of rented property has fallen through that gap.

"The accommodation scheme fills that gap, and we hope it will be widely adopted as it will be the main place for landlords to look for students," Mr Gough says. "The issue is the impact of the increase in numbers, as colleges become universities and grow."

Students can feel that concerns about them are excessively negative.Veronica King, vice-president (welfare) at the National Union of Students, says: "Students can represent an easy scapegoat. Often, they will be criticised for the poor state of the properties they rent, yet their condition is more often the fault of the landlord who fails to maintain them.

"Students are often a massive boost to a community. Their unions tend to run excellent community volunteering schemes and do some important outreach work via local schools and social projects."

Darren Smith, a geography lecturer at Brighton University who wrote a report on studentification for trade association Universities UK, says: "There are good and bad effects from students, and it depends on the perceptions of the existing community, which can see changes to renting, retail and housing as problems.

"We also do not really fully know how the effects of students on the economy trickle down to the local level, or who benefits."

Even cities that have long had universities saw a sudden growth in their numbers in the mid-1990s, as the expansion of higher education accelerated.

Elsewhere, former colleges transformed into universities, while established institutions opened outposts, and there are now surprising university towns, such as Ormskirk in West Lancashire, Southend-on-Sea and Bognor Regis.

Mr Smith points out that changes spurred by students can have good and bad effects on the local community. "Property prices can be driven up sharply by landlords who want to let to students, but that may be no bad thing if you own a property. Though it becomes an issue for those who want to buy."

He commends projects that have sought to bring students and their host communities together, and adds that individual student unions and the NUS itself "have done some fantastic stuff on cohesion where friction could arise".

These include the Sshh! campaign to encourage students to reduce late-night noise, which has run in Nottingham, Manchester and Leeds, and Brighton's Community University Partnerships Project on volunteering.

Ultimately though, it is councils - not student unions - that must cope with the effects. Studentification may cause unpleasant surprises for authorities that do not address the phenomenon.

Mr Smith's report noted that concentrations of students in residential areas could lead to "profound cultural, social, physical and economic transformations". It explained that councils and universities that ignore these issues had seen "resentment among local communities [which] in extreme cases manifested itself in friction, with serious implications for cohesion".

Nottingham's initiative, then, could give councils a fighting chance of keeping such problems under control.