Much of central Durham is populated by students, and this will only rise as the University expands. In a student-dominated town, one may assume the University would wield substantial power to negotiate with landlords. But so far, neither the Students’ Union nor the University has established any accreditation bodies to regulate landlords, whilst the rising costs of college accommodation discourage many from returning to college.
Lizzie is one student who has subsequently fallen victim to a poor quality tenancy this year. She told Palatinate “We’ve had two different inspections from the council so far and both times the house has failed to be deemed fit for multiple occupancies. We’ve told anyone that came to view the house… but someone’s still signed it for next year”.
The housing situation in Durham is not unique
Durham Students’ Union has been continually focused on accommodation and private housing, but issues are still yet to be conquered. The Student Union’s new President-Elect, Kate McIntosh, has a manifesto that is resiliently similar to her predecessor’s in promising to “oppose reckless rise in student numbers”, “expand and refocus the Ripped Off Campaign, to include direct action when appropriate” and “deliver accountability for rogue landlords and letting agents”.
The housing situation in Durham is not unique. At University College London, rent strikes began in 2015 under the ‘Cut the Rent’ Campaign and have continued alongside UCL Student Union’s efforts, resulting in successful negotiations with their University on rent prices. In Edinburgh and Glasgow, the tenants union ‘Living Rent’ has been established to unite local residents and students “to redress the power balance between landlords and tenants” (according to their website). Both these organisations show strong leadership, with a united base of supporters.
As JCR President of St Aidan’s College, Clara Ohayon sees how any pan-college student unity could falter without proper JCR support. “A lot of JCR presidents see their role as apolitical, and I think this is why the protests have had so little turn out”, she told Palatinate.
The question is what kind of Durham you want to have
At St Aidan’s, there is a strong tradition of a politically active JCR, leading to the prominent St Aidan’s Ripped Off Campaign which has been distributing stickers throughout colleges. Palatinate met with the Campaign’s executive committee, to discuss how the student population could be mobilised into forcing the changes that have been achieved at other universities.
“The question is what kind of Durham you want to have. The university has an obligation to the area, to the local people, to be conscientious. They tell us time and time again that we’re a part of the community, but they need to act like it. It devalues education to make it selective”, argues Beth Molloy, the Campaign’s President.
“Durham is deliberately pricing people out of university and having no problem with being the fourth worst university for social inclusion”.
Elsewhere, Lancaster University Homes is a service free to all their students which includes advice and a database of university-approved properties. According to the property resource Zoopla, the average house in Lancaster is more expensive than the average house in Durham. However, catered student accommodation in Durham costs £201.89 per week (including holidays), whilst Lancaster-owned accommodation charges £142.10 per week (based on the cheapest rooms at both universities). For self-catered students, this decreases to £102.97 per week to live in Lancaster city centre versus £141.32 per week in a Durham self-catered college. Students looking to Durham university’s website for advice on private renting will be informed that “There are a number of online advertising platforms and letting agents that can be found via any internet search engine.”
Meg Haskins, Student Wellbeing and Support Officer, said: “We recognise a gap in provision currently in that there is no way for students to effectively hold their landlord/agent to account for unfair practice in Durham. Following a survey I carried out earlier this year, we are scoping the possibility of hosting a ‘Rate My Landlord’ scheme, similar to Leeds Students’ Union.
“Last year, the SU hosted some Tenants’ Union activist training for interested students which was carried out by national Tenants’ Union, ACORN. A student-led Tenants’ Union was then established in Durham and is something that the SU will be continuing to support.” Durham ACORN held their first meeting in February 2018, then hosted a training session in May, but this was their last publicised activity.
Like any other enterprise, the University’s running costs increase each year
Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stuart Corbridge, told Palatinate: “Like any other enterprise, the University’s running costs increase each year. College fees are set to reflect rising staff, utility, and building costs.
“We know some of our students face real financial pressures. We offer a bursary scheme, known as the Durham Grant Scheme. This is available to undergraduates – throughout their course – who are Home Students, studying their first degree, and who have a household income of less than £25,000 a year.
“We’re constantly seeking to expand these forms of support as much as possible.”
The Durham Students’ Union Advice Service is available to provide individual advice and advocacy for students on housing issues.
Photograph: John Whitehouse via Flickr