Article Published in Palatinate, Durham's Independent Student Newspaper

Mike Costello’s home is a warm, friendly building nestled far up the Viaduct.

From the comfort of a room adorned with pictures of his grandchildren, in a house where he has lived for the past 25 years, Costello admits that residence in Durham City is not as idyllic as it used to be.

“I should have moved 20 years ago,” Costello told Palatinate, leaning in to make the point. “There used to be a vitality to this area, but you have to have balance.”

Resident Exodus

Costello is one of many residents faced with a recent wave of student accommodation developments around Durham City that he claims is driving residents out.

“These days, on this road, there are only six permanent houses out of about twenty,” Costello said.

Currently, based on the most recent accommodation strategy released by Durham University last year, the combined capacity of all 16 colleges is around 6,600.

Based on the same projections, the number of students is set to increase to 16,500 for the 2015/2016 year, and to 18,700 for 2019/2020.

The official target for the University, set by the Durham City Council is set at a minimum of 50% of students living in college accommodation. This year, the University has missed this target by 7%.

Although the University has recognized the need for increased college residential space, it is unclear what developments are currently in the works.

Palatinate has confirmed the sale of St. Margaret’s Flats, formerly residence halls for St. John’s College to a private developer for £4.41 million. The funds are party to be used for the construction of new accommodation blocks. A St. John’s spokesperson could not be reached in time for comment.

Professor Graham Towl, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Deputy Warden, however, told Palatinate that the University does not anticipate any overall change in student numbers in the University strategy, only an overall increase in the proportion of postgraduates.

For David Freeman, a City Councillor for Elvet and Gilesgate the ‘studentification’ of Durham has been a problem since the 1990s, when Durham originally began to expand.

 “Durham University claims to have an accommodation strategy but this is not leading to any substantial new purpose-built accommodation being built,” Freeman told Palatinate.

“Unfortunately Durham University now has a very poor reputation with many local residents because of its abject failure to plan properly for the increase in numbers.”

In Freeman’s view, the Council itself is not exempt.

“The Council has through inactivity let both permanent residents and students down through its lack of any control over the housing situation in the city.”

Roger Cornwell, Chairman of the Crossgate Community Partnership (CCP), told Palatinate in a statement: “The council never introduced planning policies which would allow city streets to maintain a balance of residential and student properties.”

Cornwell went on to mention problematic areas like the Viaduct, where over 70% of the houses are student-lets, the so-called House in Multiple Occupation or HMOs.

 “[This is] a consequence of long-term residents- families, retirees, local workers – feeling unable to live in streets which have become nothing but extensions of the University campus,” Cornwell concluded.

Student Behaviour

Costello agrees with Cornwell’s sentiment.

“I don’t think they [students] realise that there are residents around them,” Costello told Palatinate.

“Really though, if they’re being rowdy and you approach one of them, they’re really quite nice – I just don’t think they realise sometimes.”

“I suppose you don’t normally meet a lot of local residents, unless you happen to be out in a pub,” Mark Balfour, a student living in Gilesgate told Palatinate.

“When you do meet them though, they’re nothing but friendly and welcoming, I don’t think we’ve ever had any problems.”

Costello took me on a quick tour of his street, past empty beer cans and vomit. He indicated a disused children’s park across the street.

“This used to be very family friendly, but now it’s been abandoned. It’s very sad really,” Costello said.

Pro-Vice Chancellor Towl takes these complaints seriously, telling Palatinate that the University is working with the City Council to establish accreditation policies with private landlords.

Towl argues that these policies will include behavioural expectations for tenants.

“We take complaints very seriously and work closely with the police, the council, Durham Students Union and our wider student body to resolve them,” Towl told Palatinate.

However, for Costello and residents like him, the problem extends further than the occasional group of inebriated students. For them, it is the character of a city that has been lost.

Business Concerns

On the issue of studentification’s impact on local businesses, opinion is divided.

Colin Wilkes, the tall, genial managing director of the Durham Markets Company told Palatinate that although the business landscape has indeed changed drastically, it is not the student influx that is the problem, but the decentralised development.

“In the 70s and 80s, Durham was typically full of independent stalls. You had game, you had butchers, toy stores, hardware. Everything that we’ve now got in the Market was in the city centre in a much bigger way.”

Wilkes said that most of the change was due to normal market forces. However, he mentioned that when the Durham Student’s Union and Elvet Riverside became student destinations in the Elvet area, many of the independent shops lost out to more student-focused businesses.

“You look at the city centre now and you see an awful lot of mobile phone shops, charity shops. So it has changed,” said Wilkes.

The major change came with the development of the Arnison Centre, anchored by Sainsbury’s, and Tesco, which slowly began to pull business away from the independents.

“As they’ve pulled shoppers out of the city centre, the hope is that students will fill that gap. However, as students are starting to live further out, that might start to pull more people away,” Wilkes told Palatinate.

Wilkes admitted that there is a chance that students may drive out local residents, and says that this is not unproblematic from a business standpoint.

My best guess [for a local vs. student breakdown of business] would be 80-20,” Wilkes said.

However, Wilkes said further that most of his customer base comes in by bus, and does not live locally, so the impact of studentification for the Durham Indoor Market is minimal.

Wilkes has been managing director for the past twenty years. A former Grey College law student, he said he understands the desire of students to shop at the large, familiar shops like Tesco.

“With a purely retail hat on, we really have to encourage more students to come in and support local businesses” Wilkes said.

Just ten minutes away from the Tesco Extra is a small, family-run grocery store called Marshall’s.

Mrs Marshall, who declined to give a first name, told Palatinate that big companies catering to students open all the time.

“Every time one of them opens, we think it’s the end, but it never has been,” Marshall told Palatinate.

“We have very loyal customers coming in, and we do welcome students. Occasionally we get to meet students who are coming in from around the world, and over the course of three years we get to know them. They’ve kept us in business.”

Marshall argues that investment has gone mostly to the larger retail blocks, like the Arnison Centre. However, for this she blames the Council, not the student influx.

The Path Ahead

Roger Cornwell’s remarks end with a request that Palatinate start a dialogue with the students to make them aware of the issues and also to understand what kind of housing students want and need.

“City residents have certainly felt excluded from the debate on the future of the housing market in Durham City,” Cornwell told Palatinate. “Perhaps students too would appreciate the chance to give voice?”

Costello sees several problems going forward. Chief among them is division among the different community groups, and the inability to reach consensus.

However, there is also exhaustion apparent among residents. Many, once queried, preferred not to give an interview, simply because they were tired of the process.

Yet another factor is the simple fact that if the University did build extra housing, property currently held by residents would drop significantly in value.

 But Costello still sees value in the discussion.

“This is not an investment,” he said, shaking his head emphatically. “This is my home.”

[Justin Villamil, Palatinate, 27 November 2013]

For the full article (including illustrative photograph and graph) and for links to other articles in Palatinate, see: