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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Don't bet on James Brokenshire saving devolution in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland secretary's decision to extend talks makes a settlement less, not more, likely. 

The deadline for the parties at Stormont to form a new executive has passed without an agreement. Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire has – as was inevitable – taken the least difficult option and opened a “short window of opportunity to resolve outstanding issues”.

Talks have been extended for a “short few weeks” – Brokenshire’s interpretation of the “reasonable period” allowed after the initial three weeks after the election elapsed. Despite his earlier warnings, there will be no snap election (for which he conceded there was “no appetite”).

Unhelpful though the tortured semantics of “a short few weeks” are, we can assume that new negotiations may well as last as long as the impending Commons recess, which begins on Thursday and ends on April 11th – after which, Brokenshire said, he will bring forward legislation to set regional rates in the absence of an executive. This, though not quite direct rule, would be the first step in that direction.  

So what changes now? Politically speaking and in the immediate term, not a great deal. For all the excited and frankly wishful chatter about the two parties approaching the final talks afresh after Martin McGuinness’ funeral last week, Sinn Fein and the DUP remain poles apart.  

The former declared talks to have failed a full day before the deadline, and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has since said there has been “no substantive progress” on the key issues at hand – particularly the DUP’s “minimalist” approach on the Irish language and marriage equality. Seemingly unassailable differences remain on a new Bill of Rights and measures to deal with the legacy of the Troubles. As such, both Adams and Sinn Fein's new leader Michelle O’Neill continue to stress their election lines: equality, respect, integrity, and, perhaps most tellingly, “no return to the status quo”.

Brokenshire clearly recognises that there will be no new executive without some movement on these issues: yesterday he referred to the talks to come as an “opportunity to resolve outstanding issues”. He is right to do so: Sinn Fein’s demands are, for the most part, as yet unimplemented provisions from the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements of 2014 and 2015. 

But will the DUP budge? It appears unlikely at first glance. Sinn Fein’s approach to negotiations has only heightened tensions between the would-be coalition partners, whose relationship has regressed to the openly adversarial (DUP leader Arlene Foster yesterday expressly blamed Sinn Fein for the collapse in talks).

There looks to be little appetite for compromise on Sinn Fein’s headline demands. The DUP’s opposition to historical prosecutions of Troubles veterans is well-publicised, and appears to be aligned with UK government thinking.

Nor does there appear to have been any real shift in the party’s position on legal recognition for the Irish language. Speaking on the BBC’s World at One yesterday afternoon, Ian Paisley Jr stressed in pretty woolly terms to the DUP’s commitment to “promoting minority languages”, which, however true, is not the commitment to an Irish language act that Sinn Fein are asking for. That the spirit of Paisley’s remarks was essentially the same as his leader’s contrarian take on the issue – she said, provocatively, that there was much a need for a Polish language act as an Irish language act – is not a promising sign.

The continuing fallout from the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal that triggered last month’s election also complicates matters. Though the London press have already relegated this public spending scandal to the footnotes, the full ramifications are yet to be seen. A full list of claimants was last week published by the Belfast News Letter, and the longer the process of negotiation and renegotiation drags on, the clearer the answer to the question of who exactly benefited from the scheme’s mismanagement becomes. Though, Foster's penance in the wake of the DUP’s calamitous election performance has gone some way to rehabilitating her public image, the taint of corruption could retoxify the brand. It isn’t difficult to see why veteran Stormont horse-traders like Reg Empey, the former leader of the UUP, believe an executive may well be unachievable until the inquiry into "cash for ash" delivers its ruling – a process which could take a year.

The political impasse, then, looks as insoluble as ever. Leaders of smaller parties such as the non-sectarian Alliance have blamed Brokenshire for the startling fact that there were no roundtable talks at any point during the past three weeks. The Northern Ireland secretary’s decision to extend talks for another fortnight could bury power-sharing as we know it for good. From Wednesday, the civil service will take control of the province’s budget, as per Section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act. The permanent secretary of the Department for Finance will immediately have access to just 75 per cent of available funds, and, if the situation persists, 95 per cent.

In the worst case scenario, this means cuts could well come hard and fast. All the better for Sinn Fein - as I wrote earlier this month, the imposition of austerity and Brexit from London offers an opportunity to parlay short-term pain into long-term political gain. Meanwhile, Brexit secretary David Davis has admitted that Northern Ireland would automatically rejoin the EU in the event of a border poll. The path to a united Ireland via direct rule looks clearer than ever before.

Unionists are not blind to this existential risk – and here Brokenshire’s bizarre insistence that he was ready to call Northern Ireland’s third election in twelve months exposes his political naivety. He maintains there is “little public appetite” for a new poll. He might be right here, but that doesn’t mean a revanchist DUP would refuse the opportunity, if it arose, to go back to a unionist electorate it believes have taken frit at Sinn Fein’s post-election manoeuvring. Some in the party are keen to do so, if only to put to bed what they deem to be premature and melodramatic talk of imminent Irish unity.

Another election would suit Sinn Fein’s long game. The more dysfunctional and unworkable devolved politics in the North, the stronger the logic for a quick transition to a united Ireland in the EU. Much of the Northern Irish political establishment deem Brokenshire a lightweight - as do many in his own party. That he seems not to have realised that threatening a new election wasn’t much of a threat at all – or foreseen this avoidable mess - does nothing to dispel that notion. 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.