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University needs a way to shut down parties

Updated: Sep 19, 2020

The latest noise complaints statistics from the University of Bristol (see previous post) show clearly that it needs a change of approach.

General noise complaints up 52% in a year, student parties up 24% despite receiving special attention—the present strategy simply isn’t working.

The university stresses prevention, messaging students to respect their neighbours when they “live out” in their second and third years, even sending staff and others to knock on doors at the start of term. As part of a focus on parties, disciplinary hearings with offending student households more than doubled in 2017-18. Some were fined up to £100 per household member.

No doubt this effort had some positive results: most students don’t annoy their neighbours. And UoB’s community liaison officer says that of households disciplined for holding parties, only two went on to reoffend.

That small win on “second” parties is unfortunately beside the point. Across the districts close to campus, there were 100 “first” parties, many lasting late into the night and causing disturbance and distress, in aggregate, to hundreds, possibly thousands, of residents. Most such events were in Redland, which has notable concentrations of student housing, particularly in the streets off Chandos Road.

A not-so-small minority

Education and prevention are important and necessary, but the evidence shows they will never be sufficient.

While only a minority of students cause offence, that minority is significant. The total number of students involved in complaints of all kinds (from noise to waste recycling) amounted to roughly 9% of all students living outside halls. That figure would be a lot higher, possibly as much as double, if the students who attend parties were counted alongside the organisers who are disciplined. And don’t forget nightly incidents of street noise, rarely reported because they are fleeting and anonymous.

When prevention fails, the community is left totally exposed. As things stand, there is usually no way to stop a party once it has started.

The police don’t have powers to prosecute noise from private houses and while there may be other tactics they could use, they face practical and budgetary constraints, as do the council’s noise enforcers. So all residents can do is complain next day to the university and others, and hope that disciplinary hearings and penalties will help prevent future repetitions.

This is a false hope—there is no shared memory or wisdom passed from one student year group to the next. When another year’s students turn up, the battles must be fought all over again. This is why a strategy based on prevention is unlikely ever to eradicate these problems, or even reduce them to a level the community deems acceptable.

So we come to the obvious conclusion: A way must be found to shut parties down.

Victims shouldn’t pay

Prevention must continue, but when it fails a closure mechanism must take over. There is a double benefit: Residents get immediate relief, and shut-down is the ultimate preventative signal—don’t waste your time holding a loud, late party in a residential area, because the powers-that-be will bring it to a swift end.

Who are these powers? Not the police, and not the local council.

For the reasons mentioned, they cannot be relied upon to respond in a timely fashion to late-night events. In any case, these are taxpayer-funded bodies. Why should the victims of these disturbances (residents, aka taxpayers) pay for the remedies? And if we did rely on the public agencies, do we really want to see a procession of students through the courts?

As I explained in a previous post “Why UoB must tackle student parties – and how it can do so”, the impact of the university community on the wider population is a university problem. The university should take the lead (and, yes, shoulder the costs) in resolving it.

As the second part of that blog title indicates, the University of Bristol, despite long-held protestations to the contrary, has plenty of powers to control its students. With a little imagination it could deploy them far more effectively than it does at present.

The right direction

Two recent developments potentially are heading in the right direction.

At a residents meeting organised by Chandos Neighbourhood Association in early July, UoB’s deputy registrar, Lynn Robertson, agreed to take away several ideas for discussion. One is that the university’s 24-hour, mobile security team should have a role in gathering evidence of parties so residents don’t have to venture onto the streets in the small hours to remonstrate with students.

No promises have been made, and the university has rejected similar calls in the past. But let us imagine for a moment that this small change gets support. If university staff, whether the security team or someone else, are to actually visit a location, why not have them do something that could produce a result on the night? Next-day reports and follow-up disciplinary hearings don’t restore residents’ lost sleep.

The blog post mentioned above set out suggestions as to what the attending staff might do. No powers of arrest are needed, no forced entry to a private property, no confiscation of sound equipment—just a simple conversation at the street entrance to the property. This would inform the party organisers of their current status versus the university’s disciplinary regime, and how much worse it might get if their disturbance continues.

Grasping the nettle

The second development is that the university has recognised that the “up to £100” fine it introduced a year ago for student parties is too low. Residents who mention this penalty on the doorstep while complaining to students find it is simply laughed off. Bristol’s students are an affluent lot. (Then again, the fine was only imposed in a fifth of cases, which hardly helps.)

While the new fines have yet to be announced, it appears they will rise as cases move up the disciplinary ladder. The concept of escalating penalties is a key element of the suggested conversation that the university security team, or other staff, might have with students if they attend a party location.

One hopes the university will recognise that prevention and after-the-fact discipline cannot protect residents from students who ignore its rules and guidelines. If it wishes to fulfil its own Good Neighbour policy, it should grasp the nettle, take responsibility for controlling its students, and use its disciplinary tools to do so.

With a few extra steps, and modest costs, it could mount a more effective response. If it does not, the university risks facing much higher costs in the future, possibly to fund police or noise enforcement officers whose end product may be students with a criminal conviction. No one wants that.

A university-managed solution is ultimately in the best interests not just of residents but also students and the university itself.


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