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10th December 2015

£300k paid back to UCL students for ‘unacceptable’ accommodation

University College London (UCL) has been made to pay students nearly £300,000 in compensation over noisy and rat-infested housing in second disagreement over substandard accommodation

Former residents of Hawkridge House, located in Kentish Town, were awarded £1,200 each last week after a long drawn out dispute over accommodation described as “a construction site.” One of the claimants, Freddy MacKee, said: “It was really difficult. You couldn’t study in your own room if you wanted to because of noise. I wasted a lot of time because I’ve had to go somewhere else to study and spend time complaining.”

Like MacKee, many complained over the inability to study and even sleep. Some reported noise from building work before 9am, outside of working hours. The proximity of the site was also of concern, with many fearing they were being watched by workers close to their rooms.

The complaint, submitted by 48 students, said they had suffered “mistreatment, indifference and general disregard” by UCL. It seemed the university’s complaints panel agreed. In a statement they noted that the accommodation “failed to give sufficient detail of the building works to enable students to understand the full extent of the nature of these works prior to moving in.”

UCL Union’s Halls and Accommodation Representative, Angus O’Brien, said that “the residents were ignored for months, treated merely as consumers with no real control of their own homes, but their actions have forced a change in dynamic between resident and university.”

He said the university were “demonstrating a lack of empathy towards the students’ circumstances” but at least the victory showed “the strength of student organising.”

This is the second time in a month that UCL have been forced to pay compensation to former residents of their student accommodation. Students from Campbell House, near Euston, were paid £120,000 for the “unbearable” living conditions. Current residents have received a 25 per cent cut in rent fees as a result.

Now protesters are campaigning to get immediate 40 per cent rent cuts across UCL accommodation. A supporter of the campaign says that these recent successes “show the potential for an increasing number of students to take an effective stand against their university.”

The Competition and Markets Authority has said that the university might have breached consumer law by inflicting academic sanctions on those involved in the protest.

UCL are not the only university that have been in trouble in recent months over sub-par student accommodation. Durham University has come under fire for rising accommodation prices—fees have risen by nearly 20 per cent, to £7,000, in the past three years.

A protest leaflet being handed out across the campus says that “with maximum maintenance loans only £5,500, this causes major problems for students who are not from wealthy backgrounds.” It also argues that student housing at nearby York and Newcastle universities is £2,000 less a year compared to Durham.

Durham’s Students’ Union firmly disagrees with this decision, suspecting that increasing housing costs is to raise money for refurbishments. “We do not believe students should continue to pay for maintenance backlogs solely through college accommodation costs,” they said.

The University of Manchester isn’t exempt from complaints about poor living standards. Former resident of the infamously run-down Oak House, Emily Deaner, says the halls were “fun but disgusting” and “the fact that the walls are green breeze blocks kind of sum up the whole thing really.”

This has led many students to look outside the university toward private rents. International student Anne Eikland says she “chose private accommodation because the standard of the university flats were shocking. I looked at the pictures online and even looked around when I visited before I started here. I told my mom I would rather go to university in Norway than live there.”

But for many other universities rising accommodation costs and no actual improvement in living standards remains a problem. Anabel Bennett López, an activist from UCL’s Cut the Rent campaign believes this most recent win is the start of change for the student housing movement.

“This victory comes just as pressure is ramping up on UCL to drop rents across the board. This shows that they are capable of doing it and that mass rent strike action is the effective and democratic way that we can force down the cost of living in London.”

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