The everlastingly strained relationship between students and locals was tested when a petition calling the Bath and North East Somerset Council to address “the student crisis” was launched and quickly gathered signatures (at the time of writing, it stood at 557 signatures).
Student crisis, in this context, describes an increasing number HMOs (homes of multiple occupancy) at the expense of residential homes and the use of available land to prioritise student housing. The petition launcher, Joe Scofield, points out that students do make a positive contribution to Bath, and that the petition is “not an attack on students”. Somehow, it makes us look like we are on the winning side of this, when it is as clear as daylight that we are not. This does not mean that residents are benefitting from it, either: the starting point is to stop thinking about the relationship between residents and students as a zero-sum game. Although the price rise can be partially blamed on the population pressure fostered by increasing student numbers, carelessly pointing fingers will do no good. As the chair of the International Students Association, Ezgi Aksakal, pointed out, “finding affordable housing is a concern for us all”.
Another symptom of this student crisis, the petition continues, is the surge in “ugly and overpowering buildings” in areas like Lower Bristol Road. Surely it is clear that students have no influence in the design of buildings. I am sure we can agree that in a unique city like Bath modern buildings should fit harmoniously with the Georgian architecture. It would be exciting to see our architecture students and graduates cooperating with the council on the plans for new dwellings. If they did, we probably wouldn’t be facing these issues now.
Other developments, unrelated to student accomodation, threatened Bath’s unique status as UNESCO heritage site: Southgate’s commercial zone, and the Western Riverside block, were never built for the purpose of being student residences. I am yet to see any opposition to the new development standing in front of the Theatre Royal: the building’s cube-like structure, surrounded by places like the Theatre, Kingsmead Square and Queen Square, creates strident discontinuity and is as pleasing as a punch in the face. The stark clash of the city’s heritage with student residences only appears to be half of a much more complex story.
Just months ago, a housing development in Combe Down threatened to dislodge residents from one of the few remaining council homes in the city, the Fox Hill Estate. The plan was to demolish hundreds of Fox Hill homes; however, only 30% of the new residential area was going to become affordable housing, leaving many residents without a home and without the money to pay for another in the same area, effectively threatening the community’s existence. The demolition project was abandoned after vocal opposition and activism from residents. When I come to think about this event, I can only use the very words used in the petition: “Any council that has the interests of the people at heart should oppose this injustice”.
The perspectives of students and locals converge in more points than we may initially imagine. Disharmonious housing developments, unaffordable services and little support to deal with the city’s issues are all symptoms of a national Government which has stripped local authorities of their funds. The proposal of patching this hole with a learning tax, as recommended by MP Hobhouse in an open letter to the University of Bath, is not the fix to the problem: students already pay outrageous amounts of tuition fees for the right to education, money which should arguably be supporting our learning. Not that the plea to the university is an entirely unexpected one: we cannot forget that tuition fees were tripled under the coalition government between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, Hobhouse’s party, as mentioned by former SU President Ben Davies in his response to the open letter. By merely pointing out that students do not pay council tax, a picture is painted in which the huge contributions students make to this city are belittled in the face of dry economic statistics.
Students and residents have the chance to show solidarity to one another and understand we must be united through this crisis: students should stand with Fox Hill residents who are seeing their livelihoods at risk; residents should fight with students whose education and life in this city is compromised by greedy landlords; finally, we all must urge the Government to take ownership of this mess and give the authority of fixing it to those who know most about it – those who live here.
Residents who are pushed out of their communities, students who do not know how to stay above water until the end of the month, independent shop-owners who wonder whether they are still going to be in business by the end of the day… we cannot deny that this crisis is something that affects us all, and therefore, we have to resist it together. If all of the petitioners believe that students do make a positive contribution to the city, and admit to themselves that fighting against each other is only going to make our community weaker as a whole, the time has already come to stop calling this a “student crisis”.