Reading University hosted its second community forum at the Chancellor’s building on their Whiteknights campus on 29 January. An estimated 60 people attended the forum. They complained about the anti-social behaviour of university students which included late-night noise and drunkenness, public urination, property damage and intimidation.
The university panel included acting vice-chancellor Professor Robert van de Noort, the university’s community relations officer Sarah Gardner, Reading Borough (RBC) councillor Tony Page, Police Sargeants Chris Davis (Reading) and Matt Foskett (Wokingham) and two representatives from Reading University Students’ Union.
#NeverOk – a local resident’s experience. Video(c) Reading University via Youtube.
Penny from Northcourt Avenue expressed doubt that the University’s street wardens scheme was effective because she and her neighbours’ lives “were being made a misery” by students’ anti-social behaviour.
John said he had lived on Erleigh Road for 35 years and student behaviour had never been as bad as now, with students standing on pub tables and cheering late at night, throwing up and urinating in the street. He said that people were frightened enough to cross the road to avoid them, but there was never any sign of street wardens.
“It’s the Rugby team on Wednesdays and the agricultural students on a Monday night,” said John. “They dress like their fathers probably dressed in the sixties, which is how you can identify them!”
Another resident said that her car had been forced to one side of the road by a group of 20 rowdy students near Alexandra Road late one night last October. The students then started jumping on cars, and the resident tried to gain the attention of a street warden, who ignored her and continued in a conversation with a friend.
“We were never able to speak to a warden or get anything done; there certainly weren’t sufficient wardens to cope with the volume of students,” she said. “It was appalling and terrifying.”
“People may be losing over five hours a week in sleep,” said a resident of Talfourd Avenue. “It affects childrens’ sleep and thus their education. Set up a campus shuttle bus and stop students using Reading Buses!”
#NeverOk – a current student’s experience. Video(c) Reading University via Youtube.
A resident of Whiteknights Road said that a neighbour’s epilepsy was being exacerbated by the lack of sleep. He said that female students screaming “rape!” in jest was causing intense stress because it was impossible to tell if something bad was really happening.
Community relations officer Sarah Gardner explained that the university’s street warden pilot scheme started last year in consultation with RBC, Thames Valley Police and local residents. The street wardens are supplied by Provide SESS and paid for by the University at a cost of £25,000 per term. Sarah Gardner said she had received positive feedback about the wardens from residents and the police, but accepted that changes could be made in line with further resident information.
“Their role is to educate; they’re not law enforcers,” she said. “We’re a university; we’re not here to create an extra police force. The street wardens are there to encourage students to be respectful.”
One member of the public pointed out that a number of street wardens had said they were just untrained agency staff; this wasted university money and offered false reassurance to residents.
Professor Van de Noort said that their students were adults and the university had no authority over them outside university property. He added that the street wardens cost a lot of money and the university was working out if they were the right thing to do, or if they could use the money to sponsor Police Community Support Officers (PCSO) instead.
#NeverOk – a street warden’s experience. Video(c) Reading University via Youtube.
PS Matt Foskett said that the university had funded two PCSOs once before, and their use would mean that TVP could better control what they do and where they go. He advised that people still report anti-social behaviour to the police (on 101), even if there wasn’t much chance of a police officer turning up, because the data is used to determine where police resources are deployed. Also, TVP have a say whether troublesome licensed premises are permitted to continue selling alcohol.
Student numbers on Reading campuses had increased 22% over the last five years to 14,000, said Ian from Northcourt Avenue. The university planned to increase numbers again by 31% over the next 10 years, and he asked if the university couldn’t control student anti-social behaviour now, how would they be able to control increased numbers in the future?
Another member of the public asked if the university felt it had a responsibility to accommodate the planned increased number of students on the Whiteknights campus, which would be better for students and residents, and is recommended in RBC’s draft local plan.
Professor Van de Noort said that there would be about 25% more 18 year olds in the country ten years hence, and the demand from increasing numbers in lower age groups was already affecting local authority education provision.
“Our growth plans are not far out from simply servicing the greater number of 18 year olds we’ll be looking at,” he said, adding that the university had performed a full analysis of building more accommodation at Whiteknights. “We have no space. Wokingham Borough Council protects the land around the lake as a conservation area, and plans to develop other areas will take time. This is why we want to develop St Patrick’s Hall on Northcourt Avenue.”
He said that the university wanted to replace the old buildings at Earley Gate (the art and typography departments) but this could only be done in a phased way by moving departments elsewhere, and the university’s plan to replace the ‘Lego building’ (the URS building) to accommodate the move had been delayed by the building’s grade II listing in 2016.
The grade II listed URS building on the Whiteknights campus.
Councillor Page said the council had challenged the university’s growth projections, especially because of the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, and that the council had refused the St Patrick’s redevelopment due to the scale, height and density of the proposed buildings. The university had challenged this refusal and the planning inspector will hold a public enquiry on this matter at Reading town hall on 19 March.
Brian from Shinfield complained that the university was selling off too much land around the village to build houses; this was causing major traffic and infrastructure problems. Jim, also from Shinfield, said that all the university’s house-building was concentrated on the villages of Shinfield, Spencer’s Wood and Three Mile Cross, converting formerly rural villages into the “biggest housing estate in Europe”. He also complained that the university’s agents were bullying local communities into compliance.
Professor van de Noort replied that the university had to sell off land to allow local councils to meet central government’s house building targets and that the university worked within agreed master plans and local planning regulations, but that the university couldn’t control housing density. He said that bullying wasn’t acceptable and asked for evidence.
Councillor Page added that central government had mandated local authorities to accommodate expected population growth by building more houses. He said that RBC had repeatedly requested that infrastructure issues, such as improved public transport, are implemented in advance rather than retro-fitted.