Never mind rising tuitions fees, or the bleaker-than-ever job prospects: if hearsay were to believed, new to our list of socioeconomic maladies is a local council hell-bent on getting rid of us. In a controversial bid to increase revenue, Nottingham City council is now considering charging students £70 per year for parking permits (which are currently free) — while local residents are left unaffected.
Outcries came almost instantaneously. In a video address to students, Alex Corck-Adelman, President of the University of Nottingham’s Student Union, claimed, “This is outright discrimination. There is no way the council an argue otherwise. We were told we were going to be informed when the consultation period was. We haven’t been and we found out yesterday that it closes tomorrow, Friday.”
That Friday having been the 9th September, which conveniently enough, was during the summer holiday period, when most students were most likely not keeping up to date with university-related matters. The Students’ Unions of both our university and Nottingham Trent fortunately managed to mount a big enough last-minute campaign that led to the council extending the deadline for the consultation period to the end of this September. Nevertheless, as letters from fist-shakingly angry students are flooding our local council’s mailbox, serious questions are being raised as to kind of treatment we are facing in seemingly student-weary Nottingham: in short, are Nottingham students being victimised?
According to a poll conducted by our Students’ Union, 74% of students believe that it is unfair that only we should have to pay for parking permits. But isn’t it all too easy for students to spout ‘discrimination’ when our own Union makes proclamations as uninformed as “UNFAIR PARKING PERMIT CHARGES JUST FOR STUDENTS”?
I recently caught up with the leader of Nottingham City Council, Cllr Jon Collins, who made it clear to me that this “unfair” charge was not “just” intended for students. “We are introducing payments for properties which do not pay Council Tax, this includes student properties but also businesses”, he explained.
Fair enough. In all their haste to get students on board of their campaign, the Union was being a bit effusive. Still, why would the council decide to introduce a charge specifically for non-council-tax-paying groups and not residents?
The Union argues that, “This charge is being levied at students because the majority of students are full time and are therefore council tax exempt, the argument being used is that students should pay for parking. This is a redundant argument because Central Government subsidises the local authority for the equivalent of your council tax if you are exempt — the Government pay for you to access the services that established residents do through paying council tax.”
Yet, while acknowledging the unpopularity of this move, Cllr Collins explained to me that the current financial situation of Nottingham City Council essentially left them with few alternatives: “Last year the Government cut Nottingham City Council’s budget by £60m, this year by £22m, meaning we have to make tough decisions. We also have to make difficult decisions on parking such as introducing City Centre charges till 8pm in the evening and on Sundays. Therefore, sadly, we have to make hard choices to protect front line services such as Community Protection Officers, street cleaning and events such as Goose fair and Splendour.”
He went on to add that, “I believe we’re one of the only Councils in the country that doesn’t charge students for permits currently.”
And this isn’t the first time Nottingham students feel as if they are being discriminated against by our local council. Cast your minds back to earlier this year, in April, when the local council was consulting on changes to housing regulations that were going to significantly affect students — again, during the diaspora of the holiday period, when protests were going to be few. The bone of contention of that time, the Article 4 Direction, was going to be implemented to force landlords to seek building permission if they wanted to convert a single property into a house of multiple occupation (HMO). This would largely have an impact on the student demographic.
Teddy Smith, the then Accommodations and Community Officer of our Students’ Union, accused the council of discriminating against students by limiting their choices for accommodation, particularly by turning down HMO conversion plans in the student haven of Lenton. Though more than 1000 students signed a petition to oppose the Article 4 Direction, the council still went ahead with it and it is now set to be introduced on the 11th March 2012.
Interestingly, the whole debacle dated back to before the Coalition came into power, when the old Labour government tried to curtail the ‘studentification’ of residential areas by reclassifying HMOs as 2 or more households, thus forcing landlords to seek planning permission. The new Coalition government swiftly removed this legislation and instead, via Article 4 Direction, put local councils in charge of housing regulations.
I spoke to Cllr Sarah Piper of Lenton and Dunkirk and according to her, Nottingham is one of the last cities to introduce this change in housing regulations: “The Article 4 Directions were controversial with some students but it hasn’t yet been implemented and we are one of the last councils to proceed with it — if you Google it, you will see it has been implemented in every student city in the UK.”
Meanwhile, Cllr Collins was adamant that the Article 4 Direction would benefit students. “The issue of the Article 4 direction on housing is not about victimising students. We believe that giving the Council some powers to review properties becoming new student homes will allow us to consider the suitability of the property for students and stop bad landlords creating more substandard properties for students.”
Considering that Lenton is fairly notorious for rogue landlords and ramshackle, leaky-roofed housing, this wouldn’t be such a bad thing. But amidst constant clamours of discrimination, are relationships between students and councillors really as tense as the rhetoric of certain individuals would have us believe?
“Do you think there is a bad relationship between students and the council?”, Cllr Piper asked me. “I’m not sure there is or whether the idea of one is being manufactured to exert influence over financial and planning matters. Personally, Dave Trimble [also Councillor of Dunkirk and Lenton] and I get on with the Labour Club students very well and had several social events with them last year. I also enjoy speaking to students when canvassing and I’m hoping to come along to Freshers’ Fair to help the Labour Club later this month as well.”
And according to Cllr Collins, Nottingham City Council is and has been doing a lot to make students truly feel welcome. “I am always in support of improving the relationship between students and the Council. Only the other week I met members of both Nottingham and Nottingham Trent Universities Student Unions, and they are meetings I want to continue to happen. We’re also producing our new Student Survival Guide to inform students about what Nottingham and the City Council has to offer. We purposely put two bus routes through the University Campus and made sure Line one and now the extension of the Tram goes via the Universities, after student requests as well as introducing a one year unlimited bus pass for £179.”
So, unless Cllr Piper and Cllr Collins are just another pair of charmingly deceptive politicians, Nottingham City council might really not be trying to victimise us after all. But against a backdrop of social unrest, students can be a little forgiven for ‘feeling like the entire world is against us’. Nothing good can come out of acting with a sense of self-entitlement, however. Rather, to combat the current maelstrom of economic pessimism and anti-student sentiments, we students need to ask ourselves what we can do the benefit our local community. Perhaps by spending less time acting like the victims of society, and more time helping genuine victims (i.e. the homeless, poverty-stricken regions), we could truly learn some valuable lessons about privilege.