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Durham’s parish council elections should be an embarrassment for the University

All the parties hate the University

Durham City held elections to its brand-new parish council yesterday, where students and residents were able to choose who would represent them on local neighbourhood issues.

The Labour Party, Conservatives, Greens and Liberal Democrats all stood candidates, along with a number of independents. While these parties are fighting it out nationally over bitter differences of opinion, in Durham they managed to strike a surprisingly harmonious tone. Indeed, many students may have found it hard to decide who to vote for, as all parties seemed to call for the same thing.

Every candidate from every party in this election made tackling spiralling student numbers the priority of their campaign. Many are accusing Durham University of ruining their city through out-of-control expansion.

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Labour called for a 'balance' between City and University and went further on social media calling for a pause to University growth

Some context: Durham’s student population, currently over 18,000, has gone up by roughly 4,000 over the past decade . What’s more, the University has plans to add another 4,000 students to the city centre by 2027.

This expansion is radically altering the balance between students and residents in the city centre, destroying the fabric of the local community. Durham was once replete with independent shops and retailers, like other historic cities. But, with fewer and fewer permanent residents, business in the city is now dominated by coffee shops, supermarket chains and high-end fashion outlets.

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The Lib Dems had the boldest fighting language, with shots fired both at the University and the Labour-controlled County Council

Whereas Durham’s neighbourhoods were once mixed communities of students and residents, many streets are now inhabited solely by students. This situation has been exploited by rip-off landlords who charge extortionate one-year lets to students, rather than renting to residents or maintaining the quality of their properties.

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The Conservatives were opposed to student-majority streets, even though this is already the case in many areas.

Why is the University doing this? University executives – few of whom are from the North East – want the tuition fees that extra students bring in to fund new research initiatives and glory projects to chase higher positions in global rankings…before moving on to another more highly-paid job at another institution.

The only flaw in this logic is that the University has already shown itself to be incapable of increasing study spaces and support services in line with student numbers. Class sizes have increased, the library has become overcrowded, and quality staff are actually being pushed towards voluntary redundancies. The hope of using extra tuition fees to boost quality seems bound to fail.

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The Greens also offering 'balanced communities'. This is the accepted euphemism for addressing resident concerns about student numbers

Residents and parish council candidates are often keen to stress that they are not against students. They want mixed communities, where families, retirees and non-University workers can also feel that Durham for them. What residents resent is the disdain Durham University shows for the community that hosts it.

The University’s leadership should be embarrassed that in Durham’s first parish council elections, criticism of University expansion is at the centre of every party’s manifesto. The Vice-Chancellor clearly has questions to answer. Pushing ahead with this expansion would be a display of arrogance and contempt towards the people whose lives are affected by the University’s presence in our city. Can this afford to continue?