When I hear locals complaining about students I never hesitate to remind them that the universities contribute nearly a billion pounds to Canterbury’s economy each year and are responsible for around one in every six jobs in the city.
But strangely as I lie awake listening to my new neighbours screaming, swearing and banging around at 2:30am, my perspective becomes rather different.
In no time at all the children are awake and any chance of a good night’s sleep before the alarm goes off at 5:50am goes out of the window.
It seems like quite a tough break when you live next door to students. It’s likely to knock 15% off the value of your home for starters. Then you’ve got music playing all day and night, rubbish strewn around the pavement, and regular parties to contend with.
“Only a small minority of students behave antisocially!” trumpet the universities’ websites. Yet for some reason that minority frequently ends up living next door to me.
Mechanisms exist to help with the problem, although I question their efficacy. You can complain to the landlord or the agent if you know who they are. You can complain to the university, the council and even the police. But does it make a difference?
You can send letters, try to reason with noisemakers face-to-face, and keep a disturbance diary, but there’s an appalling sense of déjà vu surrounding the whole situation. You did this last year didn’t you? And just when you thought you were making progress, the last lot have gone and been replaced by a new bunch of fresh-faced party hounds.
But you were a student once, you know how it is? Shut up, I’ve been kept up all night.
You sounds like a grumpy old man. Shut up, I’m on the verge a sleep-deprived breakdown.
Can’t you just live and let live? Think about all the money they bring to the local economy. Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!
To be honest, I’m not at my most calm and rational when I’ve had four hours sleep.
I’ve heard all the arguments between town and gown. It doesn’t change the fact that living next door to a student house can quickly turn your idyllic home from an oasis of calm at the end of the day, to a miserable existence plagued by stress and anxiety.
I don’t particularly enjoy having to knock on somebody’s door at midnight and ask them to keep their voices down. Are they going to laugh in my face and ignore me? Could I be going home with a black eye courtesy of an inebriated rugby jock? I’m a man in my mid-thirties. I wonder how somebody twice my age would feel.
Licensing of houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) is to be tightened up in October, but it remains to be seen whether the changes will bring any relief to fraught locals.
Landlords who rent to groups of young people for contracts of less than a year have to acknowledge that they are profiting from the misery of others. By their very nature groups of this profile are less likely to be emotionally or financially invested in the community.
It’s a common social phenomenon and dismissing concerns as anti-student infantilises the problem. We need a wholesale change in attitude toward the issue.
Canterbury has blocks of purpose-built student accommodation standing half empty and more units springing up all the time. Yet property owners are fighting to hang onto their students. Why rent your property for £1,100 per month to a family when you could make £2,000 a month renting to students?
The situation is broken.
Working families are gradually being pushed out of Canterbury. Partially occupied student blocks blight the landscape and people like me are driven to distraction through lack of sleep.
Isn’t the solution simple? Student houses that disturb the neighbours year in, year out, should have their HMO licenses withdrawn. Gradually the squeeze on available properties would encourage students out of family housing and into the purpose-built units.
It’s time for the Tory-run council to take action and tackle an issue that has been ignored for too long.
As families move back in, streets will cease to fall foul of the social problems HMOs bring.
And then maybe I can get a good night’s sleep.
Alex Lister lives in Canterbury and is standing for the Liberal Democrats in the Canterbury North by-election on November 15th.