Friday, 11 December 2015

Scrutiniser editorial: Will Hewitt, a rebuttal

Rival Huddersfield new outlet the Huddersfield Daily Examiner today published an article in which Huddersfield University graduate Will Hewitt submitted an argument about the recent spate of plans for more and more student flats in town.
Hewitt's argument suggests that to be against this type of development is to be against students. With headlines such as 'Entire fucking town to be turned into student flats' we took the suggestion slightly personally, but this is both a false dichotomy and emphatically not the case.

Hewitt argues that the town needs students. On that, we are on the same page. The main reason for that right now is that, at the moment, the University is the one major employer in the town. Added to that, there are thousands of jobs related to the service of the University, it's employees and students. It has become such an important beast for two reasons: it's own rapid expansion and the chronic lack of other large employers nearby which stems back to 1970s/80s deindustrialisation. No students - no local jobs.

And those students need to be housed somewhere. That much is obvious. And at no point have we opposed all building of student flats. The crunch comes when everything becomes student flats. Huddersfield is blessed with some beautiful buildings - Victorian and art deco architecture abounds. These buildings do periodically become empty and something needs to happen to them in order to preserve that architectural heritage, but the default action now is to convert to flats. For this, we don't blame students or resent them when they eventually move in, instead we point the finger elsewhere.

The first blame is developers. Conversion to flats is easy. Easy means profitable. Thanks to the success of the University there is a ready-made flow of renters out there that they don't have to find in order to fill these flats. Easy = profitable. There is no care to build communities when the bottom line might not look as rosy. And communities need more than flats. There has to be a responsibility on developers to do more, to care more, not just throw up blocks of hutches for readily-exploited punters who have limited life experience in how to deal with landlords only after one thing.

That responsibility lies with local and national government. We all know that central government isn't bothered about rent controls in a sector that is seeing spiralling prices and also isn't bothered about increasing the responsibility of landlords to ensure they provide adequate services. Indeed, there are moves to roll back some of the existing laws. This isn't good enough, for anyone who rents, student or otherwise.

Local government responsibilities are more about community. The town centre is supposed to be a hub, but it's full of empty buildings. Turning these into flats isn't going to create that hub. Instead, and along with the lack of other major employers, the outcome is an acceleration of the ongoing conversion of Huddersfield from vibrant place in it's own right to commuter town for Leeds and Manchester. Planning is key and there's been precious little of that visible from anyone at Kirklees council in years. Also, bringing jobs to the town is something local government can address. Again, it's hard to see the long-term vision, especially when low-paid, part-time jobs coming to the area are lauded to a degree that they simply do not warrant. There has to be an industrial plan for the town.

Students also add to the diversity of the town, something that attracted two of our staff writers to study and then settle here, but they are by the very nature a transient population. If there is a problem between locals and the student population, it's a lack of willingness to become an integrated community - on both sides. Ghettoising students in large blocks like those at Snow Island, Storthes Hall and now potentially the entire (mild exaggeration for effect) town centre is not the way to bridge that.

When we decry iconic buildings being turned into student flats, it is not the ultimate occupiers we hold at fault. It is government, local government, developers and landlords. And in order to confront the problems at the heart of all this, all of us - student or not - have to hold all four to account.

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