FOR too long the Holyland and wider University area of South Belfast has witnessed unacceptable levels of anti-social behaviour.  

 Unfortunately, these scenes were repeated during this year's Freshers’ week.  

  The normal concerns of the local community were compounded by the fear that an outbreak of Covid-19 could result.  

The regular appeals for good behaviour and action took on an added urgency given this ongoing pandemic.

  Only a minority of students engage in anti-social behaviour, and police statistics over the last two weeks show a significant number of non-students among those cautioned and fined.  Nevertheless, there is no question that the behaviour of students all too often makes life miserable for the other residents of the area, not just at Freshers or St Patrick’s Day, but all year round.  There is an onus on all students to act responsibly and with respect for the local community.

Universities must ensure that actions are taken to actively discourage anti-social behaviour, and to minimise the spread of the virus on campus and within the local community.  

Landlords must play an active part in ensuring that their houses operate safely and legally and must recognise that they have a duty of care towards their tenants. Recent comments by a spokesperson for landlords, that the Holyland is a ‘student village’ and that other residents should move out, are nonsense. On the contrary, we need fewer Houses of Multiple Occupation (HMOs), not fewer residents.

  The huge predominance of HMOs and other private rented accommodation has led to the over-densification of housing units, with negative knock-on effects for litter, cleanliness, traffic and the general environment, as well as severely damaging any sense of cohesion and community in the area.       

Without radical action, the area will slip further into decline, with considerable reputational and financial costs to the city.   

 Sinn Féin has consistently pressed for radical action to protect the area and the local community. 

This dates back to 2010, when a series of proposals to remedy long standing issues in the area were brought forward following engagements with local residents, students and universities.  Unfortunately, the proposals were not acted upon at the time.  

But since then there have been many conversations around the policies, strategies and, crucially, the solutions that are required.    

There is widespread agreement that the area needs to have a balanced pattern of tenure, including students.    

A 2012 report highlighted the need to create affordable, single-household accommodation in the area through the release or vesting of existing HMOs.    

The Council’s Belfast Agenda (2017) aims to make our city home to an additional 66,000 people living in healthy, affordable and energy-efficient homes – why not seize this opportunity to undertake an imaginative regeneration of the Holyland and wider University area?  

As we plan for a new future for our community, inclusive conversations must formulate strategies. 

And these strategies must not be shelved, they must be urgently actioned. 

We need real and practical solutions to resolve longstanding issues in the area.  

Let's begin to take steps now – because, quite simply, the local community deserves much better.

John Gormley is a Sinn Féin councillor for the Botanic DEA.