One of my recent pieces from Durham’s student newspaper, Palatinate (www.palatinate.org.uk). It contains some interesting thoughts on the sustainable development of a small local economy. Please comment if you’d like any Durham-related references explaining.
We Durham students are a fortunate bunch. After studying at a top-rated institution in beautiful, historic Durham for just three or four years, the majority of us – if the statistics are to be believed – enter well paid and secure employment in the south, predominantly London.
But Durham’s native population don’t just pack up and leave. The 97,900 people that live in the greater area surrounding Durham City rely on a thriving economy in order to make a comfortable living.
The sustainability of Durham’s economy, which contains so dangerous imbalances, rarely crosses our minds as we go about our short terms here.
Visible symbols of Durham’s danger can be seen throughout the city. There is a regular turnover of businesses in shopping locations, with North Road and Claypath, particularly full of unused shop fronts, the saddest examples of this trend. The most common outlets are unproductive charity shops. Durham possesses the widest range – from British Heart Foundation to Scope – in the closest proximity I’ve ever seen.
We have a wonderful Indoor Market manned by independent traders who could fulfil almost all of our shopping needs if we chose to regularly frequent theirs. Yet corporate giant Tesco remains by far the busiest shopping destination.
If you’ve had the pleasure of staying in Durham outside of the 28 official weeks of term time, then you’ll realise how devoid of energy the city feels. For nearly half the year, the city loses the financial boost the over 8,000 relatively affluent students provide and feels like a moribund backwater.
It certainly seems that the city relies heavily upon the large student population. This isn’t a controversial point at all and most Durham businessmen would certainly agree. As would the hairdresser at the Mint on Claypath who urged me to take dozens of business cards back with me to hopefully bring student trade to her boutique.
It isn’t a controversial point but it is an extremely pertinent one. To expand and prosper it has to lose its reliance on students. After all, we are an odd set of consumers. The Durham stereotype may be a rich, privately educated southerner liberally spraying their cash but it doesn’t mean we are the best consumers for a local economy.
Our rent goes either straight back to the University if we live in, or to a handful of landlords and estate agents if we live out. The majority of our weekly spend probably goes into nightclubs, bars and pubs.
Students don’t want to shop ethically or sustainably, we just want cheap food and pay little heed to its provenance. Furthermore, the city tries desperately to cater to the students’ needs.
From restaurants with inexpensive deals on specific days, to bars squeezing their profit margins with disgustingly low alcohol prices, to innovative businesses like the fish foot spa which works as a post-exams gimmick but then is entirely redundant, these aren’t the ingredients for an economic boom.
What can be done about it? There’s no way I can suggest a comprehensive council strategy when it comes to building up Durham’s economic base. But students need to be more aware of the economic maladies afflicting the Durham economy.
We’re so focused on our degrees, our sport, our social lives and then landing that dream job down south after graduation, that we forget our duty as citizens to engage in our northern home, even if it is a temporary one.
That means supporting civic events such as the regular markets and festivals like Lumiere last term. That means browsing the indoor market or maybe choosing to peruse the butcher and greengrocer’s wares rather than taking the easy route and popping to Tesco.
That means taking local politics seriously and actually having a read of that pamphlet the prospective councillor or MP shoves through your front door. It might cost you a little bit of time and a little bit more money, but this is negligible when you think of the impact our collective efforts might have.
If you think how important the students are to Durham, then just think how influential our potential changes could be.
After we leave, Durham will remain in our minds as that quaint medieval idyll that gave us such great memories. But the problem is that Durham doesn’t just stand still, it needs to develop and prosper in order to continue to be the wonderful place that we know and love.
If we value our second home, then it is our duty to not just bemoan the sad decline in parts of Durham but change our behaviour and be more aware of the problems. If we don’t, that cherished memory of our time here will simply end up as a sorry figment of our imaginations.