A UNIVERSITY boss has defended expansion plans which could see thousands of new students living in Durham in coming years.

Proposals in the draft County Durham Plan (CDP) aim to manage student growth outlined in Durham University’s strategic plan until 2027.

Over the period, the student population is expected to increase to 21,500 as the institution moves forward with plans for new facilities and student accommodation.

At a recent session of the CDP examination, the university was forced to defend its plans after community groups raised concerns about the potential impact on the city.

“In terms of being able to remain a successful university, growing, in my view, is imperative and essential,” Stephen Willis, chief financial officer at Durham University, said.

“It’s not just a competitive environment in England and the UK, it’s competitive on an international scale.

“We have to be able to succeed in national and international league tables otherwise we will not succeed as a university and I fear for the impact that would have on the City of Durham.”

Mr Willis was speaking at Thursday’s session of the CDP public examination, a council blueprint for future development in County Durham up to 2035.

He added the university’s plans were linked to growth around the business school, international students and data science and included major investment in facilities and infrastructure.

Government-appointed planning inspector, William Fieldhouse, began hearing evidence on the CDP’s proposals last month (October) with the process expected to end in early December.

But community action groups attending this week were sceptical about university expansion plans and raised concerns about Durham’s ability to cope.

This included the ratio of students to residents and calls for the university to explore alternative ways to grow.

Community groups also called for the council to provide more scrutiny of the expansion, noting its ‘memorandum of understanding’ with the university.

The agreement, signed in 2017, aims to strengthen joint working on "priority areas" of economic development, research, culture and heritage.

County councillor, Liz Brown, representing Nevilles Cross Community Association, said the council was failing to “put brakes” on the expansion plans.

While Malcolm Reed, of the City of Durham Coalition, added: “There’s a long and close connection between the people of Durham and the university but I think we’re reaching the stage where we feel the university now is a cuckoo in the nest.”

A submission from Durham County Council said policies in the county plan aimed to “manage and support the university’s growth” with much of the demand for 6,000 extra students in check – including the relocation of 2,000 students from Stockton campus and a further 2,000 linked to purpose-built student accommodation sites in the CDP.

Allocated sites cover Leazes Road, Howlands (Josephine Butler and Ustinov), James Barbour House, Elvet Hill Car Park, St Mary’s College and Mill Hill Lane.

The inspector was told the CDP covers student accommodation requirements with the council having no role in signing off the university’s strategy.

Of current Durham University student numbers, he also heard 11% live at home while 2.8% are based out of the country.

Mr Willis, added the university was committed to working with communities and minimising any impacts on Durham going forward.

“There’s no one at the university that I know who is not cognisant of the fact that there will be an impact on growing and everything the university does in the city,” he said.

“That’s something we must consider and will consider for all of our decisions and there’s always more that we can do and will try to do to [minimise] that impact.”

Planning inspector, Mr Fieldhouse, is expected share his findings next year which could judge the CDP legally sound, suggest changes, or send it back to the drawing board.

For more information on the examination in public, visit: https://durhamcc-consult.objective.co.uk/portal/planning/cdpexam/