‘Town and gown relations’ are a tricky thing. In St Andrews the red gown, famously, was instituted in order to visibly differentiate between students and townspeople; in Oxford and other university towns, there have been riots. It is easy for townspeople to conceptualise students as a transient, disrespectful body with no knowledge of local customs and little interest in acquiring it.
This creates an ‘us vs them’ mentality. This mentality, it appears, is one of three underpinning the Fife Council’s recent decision to uphold the HMO ban. Alongside it are vested political interests on the part of the Councillors, and economic purported pragmatism. These are the three reasons. All three are flawed; and in all three, a curious double-think is employed by members of the Council.
The ‘us vs them’ mentality is painfully evident, and is in some cases explicitly so. Councillor Linda Holt declared that the ‘studentification’ of St Andrews ‘could be regarded as a kind of social cleansing’, a clear demonstration of a perceived difference in identity between students and townspeople. This is an instance of populist identity politics occurring in our town –ours, as well as hers— and it is disturbing to behold. The Fife Council ought to be representing all those in Fife; for one of its members to so clearly discriminate against one demographic is alarming. It is, furthermore, deeply disrespectful to the experiences of those who have actually been the victims of institutional social cleansing: to the Rohingya in Burma, the Jews under the Nazi state, and many others.
When the claim is examined, in addition, it is also quite clearly false. Social cleansing, to quote the Oxford English Dictionary (forgive us if we appear to labour the point) is ‘the removal by a dominant social group of other (esp. disadvantaged) social groups which it regards as undesirable.’ When one considers the way in which the HMO decision was made –who took it; whose voices were heard in the process; whose interests were most upheld— Councillor Holt’s statement is shown to be demonstrably false. She, after all, is the one in the position of power, attempting to keep a group whose voice is being ignored from living in an area chosen by her and her interests.
We come, secondly, to vested political interests. The HMO licenses were not originally intended to be a political tool. The system was established following a student fatality in Glasgow, after subsequent investigations revealed that opportunistic landlords were renting unsafe properties to students. They are meant, in other words, to be used for the benefit of students and similar renters; they are meant to protect students. Since 2011, however, Fife Council has used the scheme as a system by which to exclude students from the centre of the town. This is something in which their electorate, presumably, is deeply concerned; it is a plan in which every group affected has a vested interest. Students, who often –frequently through inexperience or lack of information— are not registered to vote, do not make up a part of that electorate; they are marginalised.
For the benefit of those who voted them into office, therefore, the Fife Council has restricted the number of properties available to be rented, increasing the ability of landlords to exploit students desperate for accommodation. The HMO plan has thus been completely subverted. It was intended to protect students from the ‘Rackmanite landlords’ excoriated by Councillor Holt in a recent letter to The Courier. Instead, in the hands of Councillor Brian Thomson, the proposer of the continued moratorium, and with the support of much of the Fife Council (although not, prominently, three of the four Councillors elected by St Andrews), it has achieved the opposite. With less competition, landlords are free to disrespect their lodgers. Every student will know of at least one friend whose roof fell in, or whose flat was flooded for weeks on end while their landlords ignored their requests.
This brings us to the third point: that of the ban’s economics. The HMO ban as a tool of policy has already been subverted from its original intentions, and turned into a tool of politics with a purported economic justification. Councillors argue that the centre of the town ought to be protected in order to allow local people to live there, and that the moratorium on HMO licenses helps to achieve this: by theoretically restricting the number of properties capable of being placed on the rental market, housing prices are expected to be lower. The demographic that could be expected to move into the centre of the town comprises predominantly young families, however— and young families are precisely those who, regardless of the HMO situation, could not be expected to afford the high prices of living in the centre of one of Scotland’s most expensive towns. From 2015-17, the average property price in St Andrews was nearly £340,000. Instead, rooms in properties rented to students are regularly left barred, the property being leased despite a lack of an HMO license.
Clearly, the HMO ban has not affected landlords in the way Councillor Thomson had envisaged. Indeed, in 2016 Councillor Thomson blamed ‘the large number of house that are bought up by private landlords, to be used as HMOs’ for the lack of affordable housing in the town. The ban has not affected the ability of landlords to buy and lease properties: properties are still leased, but with wasted rooms enforcedly sitting vacant, and students taking up the slack for artificially higher costs. In addition, with the artificial increase in rental costs in the centre of the town, students have increasingly moved to the edges, where families would previously have lived, resulting in student enclaves detrimental to town and gown integration and to the renewal of the town’s population.
The HMO ban currently in place in St Andrews is a deeply ineffective piece of policy. It is utilised and perpetuated as a result of poor economic thinking and populist identity politics; its use has had numerous undesired and unanticipated side-effects; it has not achieved its ends. To maintain it in its current state would be short-sighted; the new proposal, still more restrictive than the previous scheme had been, will only exacerbate existing accommodation and integration problems. The discussion surrounding its renewal, meanwhile, is –predominantly on the side of the Fife Council— alarmingly partisan, showing a depressing disregard for those not on the electoral role. This is not the example that elected representatives, in any capacity, ought to be setting. It may well be too late for the decision to be altered, let alone reversed; but the way in which it was taken leaves a huge amount to be desired.