Monday, 24 January 2011

Supporting students in the community

Students, like all residents in Reading deserve to be effectively represented by their elected representatives on the Council, and for their voices to be heard. So today I met with Steph Johnson, Vice President (Welfare) of Reading University Students Union to discuss both ward and Borough matters. It was great to meet a fellow English Graduate and Londoner (!) and we chatted about our shared love of Zadie Smith novels among other things. I was very impressed with Steph's enthusisasm and determination to stick up for local students on important issues such as housing and crime.
Over the past few years I have worked hard to build up good relations with officers in the Students' Union as well as at Reading University, and to raise the profile of student issues more widely. Reading students make a fantastic contribution to local life in Reading and representing a ward with a large student population I have always found it important to find out what the key issues are and to involve students in decisions.
As a councillor I have also argued for closer working between Reading University and Reading Borough Council on issues such as housing and community relations as inevitably there have been some issues that have called for greater joint-working on problem-solving. This led me to set up and  lead the scrutiny review into private rented housing in 2008 and to request a review of landlord accreditation which led to the adoption of the Council's new scheme via the National Landlord Association.
Going forward there are a number of issues relating to Reading University, students and housing that will need to be considered and I will be doing my best to ensure that as far as possible we manage them as fairly and equitably as possible.
 When I was first elected I think it would be fair to say that relations between students and the local community in parts of Reading were not fantastic and thanks to the energetic work of RUSU officers and Ann Westgarth working alongside residents, councillors, the Police and Neighbourhood Action Groups the situation is now much better. That said I do still pick up complaints from residents about parking problems and noise which we do our best to try and tackle at a ward level.
In the meeting today we discussed student housing, including recent developments including the new  Landlord Accreditation Scheme and planned award for good landlords. This is part of the Council's carrot and stick approach to ensuring that excellent standards in private rented housing standards in Reading are encouraged and maintained for the benefit of students and other residents. Bearing in mind we know there continue to be examples of very poor housing in our Borough which is why officers will be focussing on rooting out bad landlords and taking enforcement action.
We also discussed issues around regulation of Houses of Multiple Occupation, as well as the development of new student accomodation both on and off campus which is currently taking place. This is a highly sensitive area to both residents and students, understandably. The issues around it are not straightforward and it is worth bearing in mind that HMOs provide accomodation not only to students but to non-students too who require low cost housing.  It is important that we try and get the balance right between housing and community needs and that we use the tools available to the Council to protect the character of our neighbourhoods and to support residents and students. I'm not sure Labour councillors got this approach right in the past which has led to for example environmental problems in some neighbourhoods. With this in mind I find it ironic that some local Labour activists have been so quick to criticise the policies of other parties so early in the Coalition's term of office both locally and nationally.
One problem continue students face, Steph told me, is anxiety around finding good quality housing to rent. This is not helped by some local lettings agents warning students if they don't rush to find a house they will be stuck with nowhere to live. It was good to hear the University and Student's Union doing more to make this a less nerve-wracking process for new students. This includes putting on housing talks for new students and a find a housemate evening.  I pointed out the Council's role in tackling poor housing and urged Stephanie to contact me direct if students came to her with any horror stories. I have helped a number of students in the past in this way. The Council also has a register of licensed HMOs which enables students to check if properties are licensed and to contact officers if they have concerns.
Over the years one of the key issues for residents living in the University area has been the build up of waste at the end of University terms.This has not helped student-resident relations or indeed resident-Council relations! The Council and the University have been working hard to tackle this problem more effectively, after years of lobbying by local Liberal Democrat councillors including myself. Also Last year RUSU ran some very effective community clean up events which really helped - I really hope officers will consider running these again as as well as making local streets look better they send out a very positive message to the local community.
Steph had some great ideas for more initiatives to improve student welfare and community relations including encouraging students to recycle more, raising awareness about burglary, and introducing a student community warden scheme - based on an idea from Birmingham University. I think this is a great idea and I will be spreading the word.
 Finally we discussed the Council's Big Society vision which was endorsed last week at Cabinet. Steph talked about volunteering projects carried out by students at Reading University which are now being recognised on their CVs. Listening to this I thought this could be a great opportunity for more student/community involvement on some important local agendas and I will be pursuing this idea further. All in all a really positive meeting. We will continue to meet regularly throughout the coming year.

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