Is it all like the Young Ones?

The NUS's Veronica King tries to dispel some of the myths about student digs

Mention student accommodation, and the traditional images conjured up are squalid, mouldy and miserable.

People talk of 'digs' and the 'Young Ones', and reminisce cheerfully about the time they caught a lung-infection from the damp in their student house. But actually, decent student accommodation is no laughing matter. The environment you live in impacts massively on your experience at university. And when we see that over the last 3 years, there's been a 23% rise in the cost of student accommodation surely it's not too much for students to expect a decent, safe and secure home from home.

The NUS accommodation costs survey 2006 showed that students living in halls could expect to pay on average more than three thousand pounds a year, or four and a half thousand pounds if they were studying in London.

This huge cost means in real terms, students having to work more hours in part-time jobs alongside their degrees, to meet these fees. It means over the course of their studies, thousands of pounds of additional debt for students. And let's face it, this is a debt that students could well do with out, given this year's advent of top-up fees, and the fact that most students will have £9000 worth of debt merely for signing on to a course, let alone thinking about where they're going to live.

But the impact of the high cost of accommodation is far, far reaching. At the moment, about 22% of students are choosing to stay at home, and for many this is purely a finance-based decision, and a trend that is no doubt set to continue. For many students or would-be student this means they don't chose the institution which is right for them, or the course they have always aspired to study - instead they must chose from a handful of courses available locally.

All too often, these are widening participation students who may never reach their full educational potential, if they still opt to enter higher education. Ultimately students are being priced out of the student accommodation market, at a high cost to both students, but also society as a whole.

Whilst rising rent levels are a massive concern for students, there is also good news on the horizon. New rights, standards and protection brought in under the long-fought-for 2004 Housing Act mean that students are now better placed than ever before to demand decent accommodation. For too long sub-standard accommodation has been accepted as a right of passage for students. NUS are keen to stamp out this myth/ and never have we had a better chance to do so than now.

From codes of standards for halls, to licensing for Houses of Multiple Occupancy things are getting better for students. No longer should they be resigned to a life of misery in a dodgy student hovel. But despite mandatory licensing having been in place since last April, only 25-35% of eligible landlords have applied for a licence, despite facing a twenty-thousand pound fine. If this legislation is going to work, it needs to be taken seriously by all parties. And fundamentally, students need to know their rights.

And this is going to be the case even more so this April. As tenancy deposit protection schemes are introduced for students in England and Wales, no longer will 1 in 4 students unfairly lose their deposits. This is massive news, and a great improvement to consumer rights which will benefit students in particular, as they make up such a significant proportion of the private rented sector. An independent body will hold a tenants rent, and at the end of the tenancy, if there is a dispute between tenant and landlord, act to resolve it.

But in making it a success, all parties have a part to play. Students need to make use of their new rights under the schemes, landlords must face up to this new law and comply with it, and organisations like NUS and CAB must do everything in our power to promote the schemes and monitor their implementation.
Come April this year, the accommodation rights afforded to students will have improved dramatically from 13 months previously. I implore all students to empower themselves, learn about their new rights, and finally tell dodgy landlords with nasty houses- enough is enough!
For more information on the TDS please visit Shelter where you can find some great advice on the TDS and making sure that your land lord is on board

Veronica King is 22 and originally from Leeds, where she first got involved in the student movement as vice-president of an FE College in 2000. She studied Politics & Communication Studies at the University of Liverpool, graduating in July 2004.
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Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley: "The Greens can win over Ukip voters too"

The party co-leaders condemned Labour's "witch hunt" of Green-supporting members. 

“You only have to cast your eyes along those green benches to think this place doesn't really represent modern Britain,” said Caroline Lucas, the UK’s only Green MP, of the House of Commons. “There are lots of things you could do about it, and one is say: ‘Why not have job share MPs?’”

Politics is full of partnerships and rivalries, but not job shares. When Lucas and Jonathan Bartley were elected co-leaders of the Green party in September, they made history. 

“I don't think any week's been typical so far,” said Bartley, when I met the co-leaders in Westminster’s Portcullis House. During the debate on the Hinkley power plant, he said, Lucas was in her constituency: “I was in Westminster, so I could pop over to do the interviews.”

Other times, it’s Bartley who travels: “I’ve been over to Calais already, and I was up in Morecambe and Lancaster. It means we’re not left without a leader.”

The two Green leaders have had varied careers. Lucas has become a familiar face in Parliament since 2010, whereas Bartley has spent most of his career in political backrooms and wonkish circles (he co-founded the think tank Ekklesia). In the six weeks since being elected, though, they seem to have mastered the knack of backing each other up. After Lucas, who represents Brighton Pavilion, made her point about the green benches, Bartley chimed in. “My son is a wheelchair user. He is now 14," he said. "I just spent a month with him, because he had to have a major operation and he was in the recovery period. The job share allows that opportunity.”

It’s hard enough for Labour’s shadow cabinet to stay on message. So how will the Greens do it? “We basically said that although we've got two leaders, we've got one set of policies,” said Lucas. She smiled. “Whereas Labour kind of has the opposite.”

The ranks of the Greens, like Labour, have swelled since the referendum. Many are the usual suspects - Remainers still distressed about Brexit. But Lucas and Bartley believe they can tap into some of the discontent driving the Ukip vote in northern England.

“In Morecambe, I was chatting to someone who was deciding whether to vote Ukip or Green,” said Bartley. “He was really distrustful of the big political parties, and he wanted to send a clear message.”

Bartley points to an Ashcroft poll showing roughly half of Leave voters believed capitalism was a force for ill (a larger proportion nevertheless was deeply suspicious of the green movement). Nevertheless, the idea of voters moving from a party defined by border control to one that is against open borders “for now” seems counterintuitive. 

“This issue in the local election wasn’t about migration,” Bartley said. “This voter was talking about power and control, and he recognised the Greens could give him that.

“He was remarking it was the first time anyone had knocked on his door.”

According to a 2015 study by the LSE researcher James Dennison, Greens and Kippers stand out almost equally for their mistrust in politicians, and their dissatisfaction with British democracy. 

Lucas believes Ukip voters want to give “the system” a “bloody big kick” and “people who vote Green are sometimes doing that too”. 

She said: “We’re standing up against the system in a very different way from Ukip, but to that extent there is a commonality.”

The Greens say what they believe, she added: “We’re not going to limit our ambitions to the social liberal.”

A more reliable source of support may be the young. A May 2015 YouGov poll found 7 per cent of voters aged 18 to 29 intended to vote Green, compared to just 2 per cent of those aged 60+. 

Bartley is cautious about inflaming a generational divide, but Lucas acknowledges that young people feel “massively let down”.

She said: “They are certainly let down by our housing market, they are let down by universities. 

“The Greens are still against tuition fees - we want a small tax for the biggest businesses to fund education because for us education is a public good, not a private commodity.”

Of course, it’s all very well telling young people what they want to hear, but in the meantime the Tory government is moving towards a hard Brexit and scrapping maintenance grants. Lucas and Bartley are some of the biggest cheerleaders for a progressive alliance, and Lucas co-authored a book with rising Labour star Lisa Nandy on the subject. On the book tour, she was “amazed” by how many people turned up “on wet Friday evenings” to hear about “how we choose a less tribal politics”. 

Nevertheless, the idea is still controversial, not least among many in Nandy's own party. The recent leadership contest saw a spate of members ejected for publicly supporting the Greens, among other parties. 

“It was like a witch hunt,” said Lucas. “Some of those tweets were from a year or two ago. They might have retweeted something that happened to be from me saying ‘come join us in opposing fracking’, which is now a Labour policy. To kick someone out for that is deeply shocking.”

By contrast, the Greens have recently launched a friends scheme for supporters, including those who are already a member of another party. “The idea that one party is going to know it all is nonsense,” said Bartley. “That isn’t reality.”

Lucas and Bartley believe the biggest potential for a progressive alliance is at constituency level, where local people feel empowered, not disenfranchised, by brokering deals. They recall the 1997 election, when voters rallied around the independent candidate Martin Bell to trounce the supposedly safe Tory MP Neil Hamilton. Citing a recent letter co-signed by the Greens, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru condemning Tory rhetoric on immigrants, Bartley points out that smaller parties are already finding ways to magnify their voice. The fact the party backed down on listing foreign workers was, he argued, “a significant win”. 

As for true electoral reform, in 2011, a referendum on changing Britain's rigid first past the post system failed miserably. But the dismal polls for the Labour party, could, Lucas thinks, open up a fresh debate.

“More and more people in the Labour party recognise now that no matter who their leader is, their chance of getting an outright majority at the next election is actually vanishingly small,” she said. “It’s in their interests to support electoral reform. That's the game changer.” 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.