It's time to get tough on feral students and the landlords who pack them in like sardines
The bureaucratic approach to antisocial behaviour isn't working - it's passing the buck, says Fionola Meredith
When I visited Leeds this week, it was awash with young people getting their first taste of life away from home. It was like a city-wide festival: music was pumping out of all the bars, multi-coloured bunting was strung up between the trees, everyone seemed to have an ice-cream in their hand, and you could barely move for two-for-one pizza offers.
Leeds has one of the biggest student populations in the UK - 65,000 and counting. There was a sense of brimming excitement in the air, but no sign of trouble. Students and residents seemed to be rubbing along together just fine.
Then I came home to find that drunken fresher students have once again been trashing the Holylands area of Belfast and hurling racist abuse at their Romanian neighbours.
It's not a new thing: the Holylands have been plagued for years by nasty behaviour - noise at all hours of the night, out-of-control parties, smashed bottles on the street - which traditionally flares up into mammoth public drinking sessions and street disorder during times like Halloween and St Patrick's Day. Nearly 200 antisocial behaviour incidents have been reported to police in recent days.
Each time, the long-term residents are driven to distraction by the chaos. Each time, they are assured that action will be taken. Yet nothing ever seems to happen and these students - though their relationship to study, textbooks and rational thought seems pretty sketchy - continue to plague their neighbours.
How is it that a big multicultural city like Leeds can keep its vast number of students under control, yet in one single square kilometre of Belfast we struggle to contain the behaviour of a tiny feral minority?
A large part of the problem is an absence of leadership. There are numerous institutions and agencies involved in coming up with a solution - including the police, the universities, the city council and various statutory bodies - which means that there's a lot of talking, a lot of meetings, a lot of being seen to take action, while very little actually changes on the ground. It's a bit like flooding, or flags - no agency wants to be the one to take a lead. Buck-passing, while making earnest-sounding noises about tackling the issue, is the preferred strategy.
In July of this year, a new Holylands action plan was drawn up, with measures to monitor social media and prevent bus-loads of people entering the area on St Patrick's Day, and more powers to confiscate alcohol. But making plans is one thing, and enacting them is quite another. I can't imagine that piece of paper offers much comfort to residents who are once more fighting to maintain some semblance of ordinary, civilised life on their own doorsteps.
Everyone needs to step up. The onus is obviously on the young themselves, but a miraculous awakening of civic duty is unlikely. That's why the universities need to get tougher on students who pull their reputation through the muck of a Holylands gutter, and kick the miscreants out. Go on, just do it: these knuckle-draggers don't belong there anyway.
The police need to get more assertive about confiscating alcohol from hammered youths. If the rest of us are banned from having a beer with our picnic lunch in the park, why should it be okay for hundreds of youngsters to get plastered in the streets?
And how about seeing the landlords doing their bit? Most tenancies have anti-social behaviour clauses in their contract. Landlords, ever keen to play the trouble down, protest that these are difficult to enforce. But they can't be impossible, otherwise the clauses wouldn't be there in the first place. After all, these guys are trousering plenty of cash from renting out their sub-divided properties to as many people as they can feasibly jam in there, so it seems only right that they honour their responsibilities to the neighbourhood at large. And if they don't? Hit them where it hurts with substantial fines. That might concentrate minds.
There's one glimmer of hope for the beleaguered long-term residents of the Holylands, and ironically enough it comes from greedy landlords making a fast buck elsewhere.
With new student housing dotted all over the city, especially near the Ulster University campus, problems in the Holylands will naturally decrease. Rather than being packed into a tiny room the size of a broom cupboard in Damascus Street or Jerusalem Street, alongside six or eight others, students will decamp to the newer, nicer places.
In the meantime, residents would be well advised to invest in a pair of ear-plugs, a brush and shovel, and a phone on repeat-dial to the cops.