Briana Pegado: Marginalised students deserve respect

Students queue to view a flat in Thirlestane Road, Marchmont. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Students queue to view a flat in Thirlestane Road, Marchmont. Picture: Ian Georgeson

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Take a stroll through Southside this spring and you are sure to come across a gathering of students, huddled together outside a tenement building, eagerly awaiting a suited and clipboarded letting agent.

You may have to veer around them: each flat viewing is a fierce competition, attended by as many as 30 students. One group will thrust their deposit into the letting agent’s hands, safe in the knowledge that they have somewhere to live come September.

But what about the 25 students who are left disappointed, who join thousands of students in Edinburgh struggling to find anywhere to rent near their university? International students face an even bigger battle, when they are asked to provide a UK guarantor in order to rent a flat.

Even those students who secure a flat could face a difficult year, as tensions rise between students and non-students in Southside, with residents stating fears of living in a “student ghetto” and referencing an outdated stereotype of the noisy, alcohol-fuelled student.

A rising pressure on housing in the Capital is fuelling the dispute between students and residents, particularly a lack of social housing and HMO-licensed flats. Residents are looking for someone to blame and students are just the easy target.

The idea of the student population being a burden on the residents of Edinburgh is difficult to swallow. Student spending drives local business and the provision of services that everyone can enjoy. Students give back to the community, too: more than 4500 Edinburgh University students volunteered in local projects in the last four years, and 27 per cent of its graduates chose to stay in the city. While students call Edinburgh home, they are marginalised by some residents as a minority of outsiders. In what other situation would this behaviour be acceptable?

The private student accommodation company Unite recently proposed a development at the site of Homebase in St Leonard’s Street, which would have provided housing for 579 students, as well as affordable beds for Fringe performers in the summer.

These plans were rejected after 122 objections were made by local residents. It was concluded that the development would result in “an excessive concentration of student accommodation in the locality”, citing policy 
Hou-10 in the council’s Edinburgh City Local Plan.

This is despite figures reported by market research firm NEMS that 84 per cent of people living near purpose-built accommodation said the students had either a good or no impact on their quality of life.

Let’s be clear: purpose-built student accommodation is not the answer to Edinburgh’s housing problem. Private developers are thwarting efforts to increase social housing in the city and these proposals are no use to low-income families with nowhere affordable to live. Purpose-built accommodation blocks are not even the answer for all students: the high rent cost is simply out of reach for the majority.

However, purpose-built student accommodation does have its place in the mix of housing. Those 579 student beds would certainly have eased the pressure on housing on the streets of Marchmont and Newington. They would have gone some way to protect family homes from being converted to student flats in the area.

There is clearly a problem with housing regulation in Edinburgh, and both students and residents should be given a seat at the table in planning decisions. Even the distinction between students and residents is unhelpful – students are residents, too. The perception of students as a disruption to communities must not continue to be viewed as the full story.

Briana Pegado is president of Edin-burgh University Students Association