The number of students renting accommodation in Durham City has spiralled over the past ten years, putting massive ppressure on the property market and forcing others out.

Sarah Foster reports on the increasing tension between an expanding university and a living city.

WITH its quaint cobbled streets, majestic cathedral and prime riverside location, it is easy to see why people want to live in Durham. A thriving city in its own right, it is within short reach of Newcastle. It also has ample shopping and leisure facilities, provides jobs, and is home to one of the country's best regarded universities. The latter attribute, it seems, is both a blessing and a curse.

According to Durham University's figures, a total of 209 students were living in private rented accommodation in December 1992. By the start of this year, the figure had soared to 4,420. While cities do expand, it seems hard to imagine a place like Durham, which has a population of around 37,500, accommodating the increase. Compact and densely populated, the city centre has few areas left for development, and its status as a World Heritage Site brings added restrictions.

Geoff Graham, director of estate agent JW Wood, which has a branch in Durham City, says demand for housing far exceeds supply. "There's no question that over a considerable number of years, as more and more houses have fallen into students' hands, the supply and demand ratio has gone completely out of kilter," he says. "There's some new building going on, but they are two bedroom apartments selling for in excess of £200,000. There's nothing in the city centre in the first time buyer price bracket."

Susan Everard, 26, and her partner Adrian bear testimony to this. Having lived in shared accommodation in Durham City for several years, and expecting their first child, they decided to buy their own place. But when they declared their budget, estate agents literally laughed in their faces. "We asked every estate agent in the city centre to send us details of every house between £40,000 and £90,000," says Susan. "When we said we wanted to live in Durham for that price, more than one of them laughed. Basically, if you want to have a Durham postcode, you have to live in Gilesgate or Newton Hall, but there's very little choice and what there is is snapped up immediately because people are prepared to pay ridiculous prices." The couple abandoned the idea of buying, and now rent a property in Croxdale, on the outskirts of Durham.

While the high demand is pricing first time buyers out of the market, with a typical three bedroom terrace costing £200,000, student landlords are reaping the rewards. By converting such properties, of which there are many in Durham, they can collect upwards of £900 in rent a month. A contributory factor, more than in other university cities, is that students' parents can afford to become landlords themselves. Mr Graham says: "Student parents do buy properties in Durham City, and have done for many years. Some parents keep the property after their children leave, and some have gone into it with one and come out with more than one because they see it as a good business venture."

Understandably, this can provoke resentment from those struggling to afford a single home for themselves. Susan says: "We've been in estate agents and overheard students talking about their daddy buying them a house for £150,000. The impression in Durham is that students generally don't have financial problems."

At the other end of the scale are those who bought their homes several years ago, when they were affordable. Older city centre residents have seen young families, single people, and those on lower incomes gradually disappearing from their streets, to be replaced by armies of students.

Gladwyn Ashby is now in her 70s but remembers a time when Hawthorn Terrace, where she lives, housed a diverse community. She likes having young people around, but feels swamped by the number of students. "There are 11 residents out of 58 houses and the rest are students," she says. "Last year, when the electoral roll was checked, there were nearly 160 students living in Hawthorn Terrace. I don't drive but the main grumble amongst residents is the difficulty of parking. Some of the students have three or four cars per house and in Hawthorn Terrace, there's only room for one car outside each house. There are very few garages, so we have severe car parking problems."

MRS Ashby says the multiple occupancy of houses also creates extra rubbish. Bins overflowing with convenience food packaging and litter strewn in back lanes are things she has learned to live with, along with noise from parties.

Putting so many students into residential streets can hardly be conducive to harmony, but they have to live somewhere, and would obviously prefer to live in the city centre, within easy reach of the university, shops and nightlife. As far as the authorities are concerned, there seems to be no guidance on maintaining a reasonable student to resident ratio, and landlords are, by nature, financially driven.

It seems fair to expect the university to take a share of responsibility for the situation, but Mrs Ashby says there is little evidence of this. She concedes that it has set up a hotline for residents to report noise, but says the nightly din has driven many of her neighbours out. Neither is she impressed with its efforts to address the parking problems. "They are paying lip service to people's complaints but that's all they're doing," she says.

While Durham University has increased its student numbers from around 1,300 to more than 9,500 in ten years, the growth of its accommodation has lagged far behind. It has gone from providing rooms for the vast majority of students to less than half, adding only 1,000 rooms. There are plans to create accommodation for a further 600 undergraduates by October next year, but this will be a drop in the ocean, still leaving most with no option but to rent from private landlords. And with the Government constantly applying pressure on universities to expand, the situation is likely to get worse.

A spokesman says: "It is the university's policy to build as much new student accommodation in colleges as it can afford." But he adds: "The Government-led increase in student numbers over the past decade has outstripped the rate at which we can build."

Durham University says that students living out contribute about £8m a year in rent to the local economy, but for those pushed out of the property market to accommodate them, this can be of little consolation.