'We don't want students on our doorstep'

September 19, 2003

Robin Cook isn't alone in fearing antisocial neighbours, Olga Wojtas reports

Former foreign secretary Robin Cook has failed to stave off the threat of student neighbours in his Edinburgh tenement flat despite pointing out that he "remains very prominent in public life" and values his privacy at home.

Last week, he and other residents of the building unsuccessfully lodged objections with Edinburgh City Council to plans for a house of multiple occupation (HMO). Mr Cook complained about "the likely hours and noise level from the youthful tenants".

Rhoda Campbell, student president of Napier University, one of whose campuses is a few streets away from Mr Cook's flat, said that wild partying among students was a thing of the past.

"Students today, unlike in Robin Cook's day, don't have grants, and lots of them have to work their way through university. There are only 1,000 residence places provided by Napier and there are 12,000 students. To say they're not allowed to live in a nice area like his is ridiculous."

But there is concern among residents about how nice an area remains once students proliferate. The expansion of higher education means there are now 42,000 students at Edinburgh's four higher education institutions, of whom only 9,400 are in university-managed accommodation. In the first six months of this year, there were 374 complaints to the council about HMOs.

Marilyne MacLaren, Liberal Democrat councillor for Marchmont, said: "It's an acute problem and it's deteriorating. My ward must have nearly the highest proportion of students in the city. It's been a student area for generations, and that's accepted. But the balance has been tipped from being a good, integrated community of all ages to having a majority of short-term tenants. It has produced very strong tensions."

Chris Wigglesworth, Labour councillor for nearby Tollcross, said the capital's spiralling property prices had made HMOs big business. This has fuelled resentment because neither the owners nor the tenants paid council tax despite being a heavy drain on services such as refuse collection.

And, said Sue Tritton, Liberal Democrat councillor for Mr Cook's ward of Merchiston, young couples with families were being priced out of city-centre flats while groups of students could afford the higher rents.

Although Glasgow seems able to limit the number of HMOs in a building, Edinburgh's legal advice is that this cannot be done.

Ms MacLaren is contemplating a petition to the Scottish Parliament on controlling the density of HMOs. She said complaints about HMOs formed the majority of her casework. A key problem was the "abysmal shortage" of student accommodation in the city, she said, and if the Scottish Executive wanted more students, it should be working with the universities to increase the number of places in residences.

"Tenement living is a unique way of living," she said. "You're all on top of each other. There are social responsibilities: stair cleaning, putting out the rubbish, being aware that all the noise echoes. You have to be more aware of your own behaviour. I think for a lot of young people, who are leaving home for the first time, it's completely foreign."

The council and police this summer launched a joint pilot scheme to combat rowdiness and antisocial behaviour in Marchmont and Tollcross. In the old days, many students lived with landladies who acted as "a good shock absorber, guide and mentor", Mr Wigglesworth said, whereas flats were now full of young people with no long-term stake in the area. "My frank opinion is that the universities don't really give much thought to this."

Not so, insists Patrick Hughes, Napier's director of facilities services.

Students are given a pamphlet on good neighbourliness, and this is underlined during student induction. "We touch upon noise, the disposal of refuse, antisocial behaviour," he said.

An Edinburgh University spokesperson said it took its role in the community very seriously, citing its leaflets offering advice on, for example, common obligations and where to go to resolve problems. Campaigns by higher education institutions included a series of posters, one picturing a bin bag with a somewhat controversial slogan: "Always remember the old bag downstairs."

Ms MacLaren praised Jonathan Meenagh, last year's student president at Edinburgh, for helping set up a community forum to improve relations. Sarah Nicholson, this year's vice-president, has pledged to continue the work.

She aims to combat what she considers an unfair stereotype of unruly, drunken students by flagging up their voluntary work.

"A diverse mix in a community can only be a good thing," she said. "I live in an HMO. We have a nice flat, and we tend to keep it nice. We haven't had any problems with our neighbours."

Alistair Risk, hospitality manager of Queen Margaret University College, said new students could be expected to be "a little rowdy" in the first few weeks of term. The college has letting agreements for about 600 places in flats around the city. "We have had no reports of bad behaviour from local residents, who see the students as a benefit to their area," he said.

And Ms Tritton has words of comfort for Mr Cook. "Some students are bad neighbours. I think most aren't. There are student flats that are absolutely no problem at all and the neighbours are delighted to have them.

"I had one (constituent) complaining about a student party. I asked how often it happens, and she said once - at the end of term. They had put a note through her door saying they were having a party. I think a complaint like that really is being intolerant."

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