Learning the lessons of student life

Accompanied by my party’s Deputy Leader, Belfast City Councillor Naomi
Long, last week I had the pleasure of having lunch with the Pro-Vice
Chancellor of Queen’s University, Gerry McCormack. It was an enjoyable
meeting, where we discussed the political process and Queen’s outlook
for the new academic year.

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.

ENDS

(Published in South Belfast News)

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