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5 Jun 2007 : Column 26WH—continued

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) not only on obtaining the debate but on
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inaugurating the all-party group. For those of us with university campuses in our constituencies, the issue that she raises is a particular problem, and it has increased over the years.

The world-renowned Brunel university is situated in my constituency. Indeed, I remember the time before the university was there, because I live in the same street where I grew up, and I remember walking around the disused dahlia nursery. I have therefore seen the university grow up, and we have always been immensely proud of the fact that it is situated in Uxbridge. Personally, I think it is a shame that it was not called Uxbridge university, because we could not only have got Uxbridge on the map, but could have got money from American donors who did not get the vowels quite right and thought that they would be making a massive donation to Oxbridge. However, that is the commercial side of me coming up.

For many years, Brunel existed almost literally in my back garden, so I should declare an interest as a local resident, as well as the constituency Member of Parliament. For many years, it has also been regarded as an asset to the local area, although it has been somewhat isolated as a campus university. Its impact did not really filter through into the town of Uxbridge, and the students kept themselves to themselves.

Over the past few years, however, there has been a massive expansion, as the university has sold off some of its other campuses around London and moved on to the Uxbridge site. That is quite exiting, and there are some wonderful sports facilities there; indeed, there is an excellent sports hall, where I was declared the local Member of Parliament for the first time about 10 years ago, in 1997. Brunel is therefore also close to me politically.

However, the university has brought problems, as the hon. Lady said, and I am sure that other hon. Members will say the same. Those problems have come to a head lately and almost led to confrontation between residents and the university, which is of course regrettable, because confrontation is the last thing that we want.

The first and most obvious form of annoyance for many local residents is parking, although the Minister will be delighted to hear that that is well outside the Government’s remit. Uxbridge had pretty good public transport links, but changes have happened for a variety of reasons, and students will not necessarily live on campus, but in private rented accommodation or at home. When I was a student in London, there was no need for a car—I did not want one and I doubt whether any of my fellow students had one—but things seem to have changed, and there is now a huge parking problem. Of course, residential areas in suburbia have parking problems anyway. One morning, after Brunel decided that it would not let students park in the university grounds any more, we found roads blocked. Buses could not get down them. At that time the university said that it was the local authority’s problem, and the local authority said that Brunel was causing it, but it was the local residents and the poor old bus drivers who suffered. That did not do a great deal for good relations.

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Over the years we have gone through periods in which the university has taken a more confrontational view of its relations with the local authority and residents. I am pleased to say that we are currently going through a good patch. That is indicated by the minutes of a meeting—I have the minutes, because I could not attend—held on 2 May. The pro-vice-chancellor of Brunel university, Professor Linda Thomas, is in charge of external relations, having taken over from Professor Steve Hodkinson, and a lot of effort is made to work with the local community and get everyone on side. The former vice-chancellor, Professor Steven Schwartz—who may be known to hon. Members, as I think he helped out the Government with some advice—was, I should say, an interesting character, who believed in getting things done in his own way. As we in this House are all consensual in our approach and never resort to anything but debate and good argument to get our ideas through, that came as a bit of a shock to those of us who were more used to a non-American or non-Australian—I do not know which Professor Schwartz claims to be—approach. He is a very interesting man with many good ideas, but I think that he saw people like the residents and me as standing in the way of progress. That era has gone, however, and I hope that we are now in a better period.

The parking problem is quite severe. As many hon. Members know, I was once described as a Dickensian mill owner, and at Christmas, I go to see retired members of staff, to give them Christmas cheer. I found one man, the widower of someone who used to work for us, who wanted to get his guttering fixed, but could not get anything done in his street because none of the local tradesmen could park there. Such problems happen regularly, if not daily, which causes great annoyance. Gradually some problems are being looked at. We now have a parking regime, which again causes a little annoyance, because there never used to be one, and we are all pretty dyed in the wool in Uxbridge—we do not like change. However, that has to be considered.

Another problem occurs when students park their cars all term. They do not make much use of them but park them so that they block streets. There has been some bad parking, too, so that people’s drives are blocked, and so on. However, the university has been helpful, and if incidents are reported, it takes action. I think that the key to handling many of the problems is ensuring that there are good communications between the residents, the local authority and the university.

Houses in multiple occupation are another major problem, which the hon. Member for City of Durham mentioned and which I am sure will be mentioned again—I notice, in fact, that there is a half-hour Westminster Hall debate on it this afternoon. There are a variety of effects, such as the pushing up of prices in the private rented sector. We do not have enough private rented accommodation for those who need it, because there is not enough social housing around. That is obviously good for landlords, but it is not particularly helpful. Communities with a sense of having been established in a place for a long time see it as a problem when quite a large number of transient people move in, with, probably, a slightly different view of the hours of operation of their social lives. I was of course a model student—or I think that that is what I
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was told. What worries me a great deal is that students are blamed for much more than they are really to blame for, because they are an easy target. There is antisocial behaviour, and students are often blamed for it, when, I am pretty certain, it is not students who are responsible. They may be sitting at home making a bit of noise, but they are certainly not out on the streets causing some of the problems that we have.

The things that I have described are causing people concern. Things have now got to the stage of confrontation. I said that the local authority had organised a positive meeting. Today I received an e-mail from the local residents group, complaining about the university. I shall not go through it, but it involves a planning issue that will have to be dealt with. Much of what the group says is true: the university destroyed an old hedge a couple of years ago, without planning permission, and built on the site. I remember that because I took the matter up and was escorted off the premises by security for daring to photograph what was happening. Also, promises that are made are not always kept. There is a feeling, which I want to make public, that such large institutions must do more than be seen to keep, like everyone else, to the letter of the law on these matters. They should go beyond it, and, to use the current buzz word, be beacons of good behaviour and practice.

Nevertheless, the university provides concerts and culture and all sorts of things for local residents, who do not know about much of what is available to them. I think that is a shame. I suggested a few years ago that a friends of Brunel group should be set up, so that residents could be kept in touch with what was happening on campus, and enjoy it more. The local papers could play more of a role, because little information about what is happening in the university appears in them. As I mentioned, a lot of sport is played at the university, and some of its teams do extremely well. A Brunel team was in the netball premiership, and became so popular that it had to move away and play elsewhere to accommodate more spectators. We should be proud of that. There is still a great desire among residents of Uxbridge and the surrounding area to be proud of Brunel.

I cannot come up with solutions. For once I really just wanted to get the matter off my chest. It is something that concerns many of my constituents—and me, too, on mornings when I am particularly grumpy.

11.28 am

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) on obtaining the debate, and on bringing together the all-party group on balanced and sustainable communities.

Those were the words with which I opened an Adjournment debate on this topic in 1992, and I regret that we are still in the same situation, having failed to grasp, under two different Administrations, this very simple issue, and do something effective about it. Time
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has now moved on so much that I now have to add that my daughter is a student and will be living in a shared student house next year.

The problem on which I want to concentrate is straightforward and simple and does not involve any objection to students per se. It is the reality that, if there are areas in which the concentration of student housing is very great, there cannot be a balanced and sustainable community. If the great majority of the population changes from one year to the next, the number of settled, long-term residents is too few to sustain, try as people will, the community organisations and sense of neighbourhood—the social capital, as it is called in the academic jargon—that make our communities work. Now that the Department in which my hon. Friend the Minister works is called the Department for Communities and Local Government, it has the responsibility to grasp the nettle.

In my 1992 debate, I called for a change to the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987, which would have brought houses in multiple occupation into the planning regime. That route, and the route advocated by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), remain the way forward. HMOs have to be brought within the planning regime.

There has been significant improvement in the responses of many authorities in the past 15 years. At a conference of university accommodation officers, 15 years ago, I was told that, if local people did not like having students in their area, they should move out. However, that has not been the attitude of either of the universities in Southampton in the past few years. Within their powers, they treat this issue responsibly, as do the student unions. Liaison between local residents and students and the local night-time economy have improved vastly in the main areas of Southampton that are inhabited by students, so there have been real improvements through people working well together.

Of course, it is the antisocial behaviour of only a minority of students that causes the most extreme problems, but the sheer numbers living in a single area make it impossible to have a strong and vibrant community there. None of the relevant agencies can deal with this matter unless there are planning powers to constrain the spread of HMOs and thus send signals to the housing market that will encourage families back into those areas, over time, to turn rented houses back into family homes.

This issue is not just about students. The great majority of the perhaps 750,000 new migrants from eastern Europe who have moved to this country in the past few years will not have been in a position to buy their own homes or to rent self-contained accommodation. Most of them have been accommodated in HMOs, most of which, I think, although I cannot prove it, have been newly converted from family homes in the buy-to-rent market. I do not make a case for the wider benefits, but also costs, of that migration; this issue is changing the nature of the communities in which people live, and it is a major planning issue.

My hon. Friend the Minister might find, in the notes that have helpfully been provided to him by his civil servants, this comment:

I say, in friendship to the Minister, that if he has those words, they did not sound any better in the mouth of the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), who was the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment in 1992, than they would today, although he would deliver them perfectly. It is nonsense to say that the change in character of a neighbourhood by a wholesale shift from family housing to shared rented housing, whether by students, migrant workers or whoever, is not a material planning consideration. If we are interested in communities, those are indeed material planning considerations.

My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham mentioned the high proportion of flats and the redevelopment of family housing for flats as examples of the changes affecting this issue. Such changes are altering the nature of many urban areas in a way that leaves local people feeling that they do not have a stake or a say in what is going on. I ask the Minister to reflect on the fact that, although Southampton’s population is estimated by the council to be 225,000—about 30,000 more than at the time of my last Adjournment debate on this issue—the city is closing two secondary schools because there are not enough pupils. That shows the scale of the changes in the fabric and nature of not only my city and the city of Durham, but the many other towns and cities in the country with significant new populations or expanding student populations. We have to get a grip on this issue.

In 1992, I aspired to a limit of 10 to 20 per cent. on family homes being converted to HMOs in particular areas. Now, there are several streets in my constituency on which one would be hard pressed to find 10 per cent., let alone 20 per cent., of family housing. All the rest has been lost, and the trend continues. The Government must accept that such a change in the character of a neighbourhood is a planning issue. They have to accept that local authorities must have legal powers to set limits, in their local development plans and policies, on the spread of HMOs in particular areas of towns and cities. That will allow, in the areas in which change has been over-concentrated, an inevitably slow and gradual movement of properties back into the family sector as houses come on to the market, so that we can achieve a wider spread.

Ministers in previous Conservative Administrations and, I am afraid, in my own Government, have repeatedly made two arguments, the first of which is that these issues are not proper planning issues. Without labouring the point, I hope that I have set out why they are planning issues: they affect the nature of our communities and where we live, and they affect the people whom we represent. If planning is not about issues that affect communities, where people live and the nature of the communities in which they live, then I do not know what it is for. These are planning issues, whatever some planning lawyers say.

The second argument that I have come up against is that, if local authorities had such powers, they would
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use them irresponsibly and say, “We don’t want to accommodate these people, so we’ll send them to the next borough.” But the Minister knows that the overall planning system requires local authorities to come up with plans, whether they be to provide new or affordable housing, that meet certain national criteria as local criteria. If a local authority produced a plan that simply said, “We are not having them here,” it would properly be struck down by an inspector at the local inquiry that always takes place. There is no substantive reason why such a change in planning law cannot be brought about.

I have no intention of being here in 25 years’ time, even if the electorate were willing for that to happen, but I would hate to think that I might be here in 25 or 30 years’ time talking about the issues affecting my grandchildren as students. This problem has been around for far too long, and it should have been addressed much earlier, when the difficulties were becoming evident. Already, it will be a long job to bring balance back to some communities, but we can do enough to ensure that communities remain balanced in the areas that are coming under pressure and restore the balance of others over time.

11.37 am

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) on securing the debate, and on her initiative in setting up the all-party balanced and sustainable communities group, with which many of my Liberal Democrat colleagues and I who represent university seats are pleased to help.

Like the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), I have a long interest in this matter, not as a Member of Parliament, but as a local councillor. I was first elected in 1993 to the then Avon county council for Cabot ward. That is the ward for Bristol city centre, which includes the university of Bristol precinct and the residential areas of Kingsdown and Cotham, which have high concentrations of student housing. I have been grappling with the question of how a university and a residential community can coexist in harmony, as well as considering the other pressures created by such institutions around the city centre. I have been the MP for Bristol, West for the past two years, and my constituency probably includes one of the highest student populations in the country. There have been various estimates, but at least 15,000 students from the universities of Bristol and of the West of England live in my constituency.

I welcome the fact that the National Union of Students is now taking this issue seriously. The hon. Member for City of Durham mentioned last year’s report on this issue by Universities UK. Last Friday, I went to speak to the university of Bristol council working group on town and gown issues with the author of the report, Dr. Darren Smith from the university of Brighton, to flesh out some of the issues that affect my constituents. I shall share with colleagues one anecdote that I gave at that meeting to illustrate a point.

I have recently joined one of the new social networking groups called Facebook. I know that various other hon. Members are also members—the hon. Member for City of Durham is nodding. I have a great deal of friends from the university of Bristol
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Facebook group on it. Through that group, I got an invitation to a post-exam party, which I am sure was sent to many hundreds of students as well. It will take place in the High Kingsdown estate—I shall not say the exact address, just in case anybody might want to turn up—quite near where I live. It is scheduled to start at 7 pm and finish at 11 am the next day, or until the neighbours complain. Anybody can have a party—one does not have to be a student to do so—but that illustrates some of the effects on neighbours of a high concentration of students.

The nature of the High Kingsdown estate leads on to a wider point, however. When it was built in the 1970s, it won awards as model family housing. It featured three and four-bedroomed houses, each with a walled garden, pedestrian access and a garage on the edge of the estate. It was model planning, and one of the few architectural successes that we can name from the 1970s. When I was first elected as a councillor in 1993, the estate was almost entirely inhabited by families, who sent their children to the local school. The associated block of two and three-bedroomed flats, which was also part of the estate, was largely occupied by families as well. Some 14 years on, the situation is quite different: the block of flats more or less resembles a university hall of residence, and of the 101 houses, almost half are occupied as houses in multiple occupation. They are not all occupied by students; some of the occupants are young professional people living together.

There is clearly an effect on the wider community, and not only on the school. The hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) mentioned parking; the garages that were meant for family houses are now sometimes let out separately from the houses. Bristol perhaps has more affluent students than some other universities, and many of them bring their cars to the city. They do not park in the garages but in the neighbouring streets, which contributes to the congestion in the area. Those are just some of the problems that have manifested themselves as a result of the multiple occupancy of houses and flats that were meant for families.

I am pleased to support the comments of the hon. Member for City of Durham about multiple occupancy houses. I also agree with what the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) said during the debate on his ten-minute Bill the week before last. Like the hon. Member for City of Durham, I think that there is scope for lowering the six-person limit of HMOs, particularly in the case of flats. A two-bedroomed flat, which is quite obviously designed for a couple, perhaps with a child, might now be occupied by three or four people. The limit for flats—it could be related to the number of bedrooms—should be brought down.

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