Many students took to the streets of St Andrews Sunday, September 25, in a peaceful demonstration calling for greater action regarding the high costs and limited availability of housing in town.
Organised by the St Andrews-based Campaign for Affordable Housing, or CASH, the march began at St Salvator’s Quad.
To kick off the march, Barry Will, the director of CASH, spoke to a crowd of around 200, composed mainly of students.
“We've been let down by those in power, we've been let down by Sally Mapstone [...] we've been let down by Fife Council who have introduced ineffective bans on student housing, who are refusing to do anything about rent increases.”
As Principal, Professor Sally Mapstone is the chief executive of the University of St Andrews.
Escorted by police and marshalled by CASH volunteers, the march temporarily shut down traffic on segments of its route which included North Street, the Scores, Greyfriars Garden, Bell Street, and South Street.
Leading the march, Will proclaimed: “St Andrews University has just been named number one in the UK [...] despite a student homelessness crisis and where thousands of students are struggling with unaffordable rents.”
Charles Hill, march attendee and fourth-year student, said, “virtually everyone you spoke to at the march had a story about being ripped off or mistreated by landlords and letting agents. Add in the cost of living crisis and it’s clear St Andrews is at a tipping point.”
Marchers wielded signs and joined in chants calling for affordable housing.
One sign proclaimed: “Local families deserve homes in St Andrews! We demand more affordable student accommodation to ease the pressure!”
“It was a good feeling of solidarity and the possibility of actual tangible change in our community. Numbers seemed to grow as the march went on and townspeople were very supportive,” said Van Lambie, a third-year student.
Margaret Squires, a local resident observing the march, added, "I agree with what the students are trying to do, as more affordable housing provided by the University means that the pressure is taken off the locals."
At times, the marchers’ chants got more personal: while passing the official residence of the University Principal, chants included: “hey hey, ho ho, Sally Mapstone has got to go.”
When asked to comment on the march, the University cited a “range of external factors beyond the University’s control” contributing to the housing crunch, including Fife Council’s cap on Houses of Multiple Occupation (HMO) in St Andrews, and “increasing numbers of private landlords choosing to let their properties via the AirBnB market, rather than rent to students.”
On August 3, CASH published results from its survey, claiming that 350 St Andrews students were without housing for the 2022-23 academic year.
Regarding this assertion, the University’s statement read: “CASH (Campaign for Affordable Student Housing) have persistently made false claims about the extent of the housing squeeze in St Andrews. The figure of 350 “homeless” students in St Andrews is without foundation.”
CASH asserted the integrity of their claims: “All of our information has been carefully collected and we publish all our statistics on the housing crisis with full transparency.
“We find it seriously worrying that the University is taking such a hostile approach to our campaign, yet they have refrained from making any public comment on the issue.”
CASH’s comments went on: “We organised this march on Sunday to show our Principal, Fife Council and the Scottish Government that we demand action [...] our demands contain actionable solutions to the crisis that we know will transform St Andrews into a housing market that works for our entire community.”
Juan Pablo Rodriguez, Students’ Association President, argued that the University took substantial action during summer to house students.
“Every single person […] if they contacted the University looking for help, they were going to find it,” said Rodriguez.
From his office in the Students’ Association, Rodriguez expressed his support for the marchers’ cause, but disagreed with some of CASH’s methods and claims.
“I think I did the right thing […] to not be at the march, because of some things that were said in the speech, [...] the chants.”
He stated his feeling that CASH is “bypassing the fact that the University did not stay inactive when the situation arose.
“They were trying to squeeze as many people as possible into student halls, creating emergency rooms, the houses in Leuchars that were obtained, more rooms in Old Mill that they were able to obtain.”
The Old Mill is a residence in Dundee where the University has leased space to house its students.
Rodriguez touted what St Andrews has achieved for its students relative to other universities facing housing challenges.
“In Glasgow [...] the University told students, if you don't have a place to stay, consider not coming. [University of] Manchester sent people to Liverpool and Huddersfield, which is way more of a distance than St Andrews to Dundee, or to Leuchars.”
Rodriguez encouraged students facing homelessness to contact the University: “if they reach out to the University, they're going to find a room right now.”
To the broader student body, he said, “If there are people that want to get involved in these conversations with the University, they can reach out to the student representatives, to the accommodation subcommittee, and to me.”
Image: William Dashe