Perhaps selfishly, I was particularly inquisitive about the state of relations with the university’s nearest neighbours in South Belfast, and the influx of new and returning students in the Holyland area.
After a good, extended discussion of over two hours, I left with what is hopefully a sense of realistic optimism, aware of the challenges we all face in South Belfast in the coming months.
The Government-planned property rates hike is are the most significant issue, which is going to detrimentally impact upon so many local people. Here, I wish to emphasise that the Alliance Party originally opposed the idea of using rates to pay for province-wide projects. As the previous Northern Ireland Executive, which Alliance was not a part of, approved a plan to spend an additional £300 million per annum for 10 years, Alliance MLAs asked how this was to be paid for. We couldn’t even get an answer as to how much the interest payments alone would be.
From the 1970s, Alliance has proposed using a local income tax to pay for these type of expenses. It has the double advantages of being based on ability to pay and easy to administer (Inland Revenue know where we live).
But the Government are intent on imposing this unjust and unfair tax upon us. What is especially appalling is that the sole exception at the moment is for landlords who house students – the very phenomenon which is helping to decimate the traditional, diverse community of the Holyland.
Rates and water charges are supposed to be levied for services used. Those in education use the same public services as everyone else. Indeed, it can be argued that they use much more, especially in regards to refuse and cleaning.
Alliance wholeheartedly supports the ‘polluter pays’ principle, i.e. you pay for what you use — an individual should be provided an incentive to use less public resources. Perversely, providing students with full rates relief removes any incentive to use public resources more responsibly. We argue that this is not the lesson that needs to be taught to such property tenants.
Meanwhile, Alliance supports the provision of purpose-built accommodation for students. Students living in such accommodation should be fully exempt from rates. We argue that such an exemption provides an incentive for universities and others to build such accommodation.
Indeed, I made the same argument in my party’s response to the Government’s consultation on HMOs. Instead of 30%, Alliance argues for a lower limit of 20% of houses to be HMOs in designated areas. We also objected to the Government’s renaming of Holyland as ‘University’, and are not willing to abandon the Holyland as a family residential area. Families and working professionals deserve to live there as in any other part of South Belfast.
Not that I have any objection to students. They are young adults enjoying independence and learning important lessons, both inside and outside the classroom. One of those lessons is respect for others. Indeed, the vast majority of students are responsible, working hard and playing hard. But with any aspect of life, there are boundaries.
The reason I am optimistic that we might see a more peaceful academic year is because of the changes that have taken place. There is now a more concerted effort by a number of agencies, including both Queen’s and the University of Ulster.
No more buck passing. There are student wardens on the ground, both universities are ready to discipline offenders, and there’s cooperation with the police and Council services. Queen’s has implemented an induction programme for its first year students, welcoming them to their new environs and spelling out a code of conduct.
I’m even more impressed by student leadership. Staff and students from both universities have literally got their hands dirty in cleaning up litter in the area. The University of Ulster runs a civic leadership programme for its students.
Like many others, I was once a university student myself. I’m young enough (just!) to remember the hard courses, long studies for exams, and letting my hair down every now and then. We students and university officials knew the boundaries. I’m hopeful that we’ll all benefit from lessons learnt here.