Durham is a little city full of big coincidences. The day before my interview with Councillor John Ashby, I had dinner in Claypath with some family friends and their neighbours. I spoke casually with a few of the residents over dinner, gaining insight on their attitudes towards students. Coincidentally, I would return to Claypath for my interview, as I met Cllr Ashby in the trendy Claypath Deli that is apparently a neighbourhood hub. Because of the conversations I had had the night before, I already had some context on the relationship between long-term residents and students.
Cllr Ashby is an elected parish councillor for the Elvet and Gilesgate areas, with years of experience in Economic Development and Planning at the Durham County Council. I interviewed him primarily as a representative of the newly formed Parish Council, but as a long-time resident himself and a highly involved member of local residential groups, he also delved into the residents’ perspective.
How would you describe the importance of the Parish Council, especially to young people like me who may not be familiar with its role?
As the Parish Council, we don’t have much power, except the power to shame the University and the County Council into doing what’s right. Put it this way, if people like us didn’t get in their way, then the County Council and the University would get their way all the time.
Describe the relationship between Durham University students and the Parish Council?
It hasn’t always been easy. There are some Durham students who believe that they should get special treatment relative to other teenagers in the area, for example with policing matters. We’ve had some unfortunate incidents between a small minority of disrespectful students and our residents. And previous DSU presidents have gotten annoyed with what they saw as “residents complaining.” While this is not the belief of all students, it can seem like the official view when it’s coming from the head of the DSU. This year however, the leaders of the DSU regard the Council as allies and have invited us to work with them to develop a new non-academic code of conduct.
How has the University tried to maintain or improve its relationship with the local community?
Upon his appointment, [Vice Chancellor] Stuart Corbridge immediately sought out help from all the residential forums. He created a liaison group between the pro-vice chancellor and all nine residential groups to address problems such as car parking.
Are you referring to DURF, the Durham University Residents Forum?
Yes, DURF is a mechanism blessed by Stuart that has seen many successes. Also, with Hannah’s appointment [as Community Liaison Officer] and the Community Engagement Task Force, I’d say the relationship between the community and the University is in a good place. Of course, some people think it’s all for publicity. But I’ll give you an example of one successful project. Five years ago, DURF approached the University to fund a police person to respond to anti-social noise complaints. The University contributed half of the funding for a Police Community Support Officer. The house party problems all but disappeared, with only thirty warnings issued last year.
How would you like to improve the relationship between the University and the Parish Council?
The University can agree to what the Council has asked of them, which is a full assessment of the economic, social and environmental impact of the Estates Masterplan.
What attitudes of Durham University do you think need to change to facilitate the relationship?
The University has always been closed off in its own little bubble. But Stuart Corbridge is showing the right leadership, and that’s filtering down to the staff.
Speaking of the Estates Masterplan, I wanted to move on to Council’s reaction towards the recent University Strategy and associated Estates Masterplan, starting with your initial thoughts on the project.
When the plan was unveiled, the widespread concern among locals was along the lines of, “They are destroying our town! Do something!” All 15 parish councillors, myself included, stood on the position of resisting the growth of Durham University. That was why we got elected, to slow the pace of growth.
Why does the Council think it is necessary to slow the pace of growth?
Durham is on the brink of over-developing itself. The Parish Council doesn’t understand why the University needs to expand. Other comparative universities, like St Andrews or Dartmouth College, are smaller than Durham with no plans to expand.
What we have here is a university city in a small host town. We don’t want to become the University’s campus. Our city’s population is only 46,000; one-tenth the size of Oxford. Whereas 80 per cent of students at Oxford and Cambridge live in colleges, Durham University does not have the capacity to accommodate all its students, and these PBSAs [Purpose-built Student Accommodations] cannot mimic a college. They do not have pastoral systems, onsite tutors or rowing teams. The University is losing its collegiate system, which is one of its unique selling points.
How would you like to see the university change the way it engages with the wider Durham City community as it moves forward with the development?
We want the University to commit to deliver the aspiration in the Masterplan of having at least 50% of students accommodated in colleges.
How do you expect the University to receive such a proposal?
Huge institutions generally find it very difficult to change direction once they’ve already begun a project. And, whenever things get really difficult, it’s always the finance officer who calls the shots. We’re hoping for a re-evaluation of the University’s plans for the future. If it does indeed need to grow, then the nature of this town will be changed forever.
 Referring to my university in the United States, Dartmouth College, which is a private, liberal arts university of approximately 6300 students.