All posts by Simon Steele

The high-rent city: room for improvement?

The crazy world of London property – high prices caused by huge demand and limited supply – can pose an awkward question to students: how can I study and have a home and enough to eat? For  Birkbeck students who don’t have well-paid jobs or live with a breadwinner the answer can mean illegal subletting or slow starvation, or possibly both.

In the capital overall some 30% of students are in halls of residence and 42% in private sector accommodation. Birkbeck is a special case in that the typical student is in their twenties or thirties and is already settled and working in London and studying part-time. So unlike most universities Birkbeck doesn’t have its own halls of residence to give at least some students a good base for the first year. Birkbeck also has no accommodation office.

The college does have a quota of some 65 rooms in five halls run by the University of London, the umbrella group for London colleges. However these few places are reserved for overseas students (of which Birkbeck has some 1,500 out of a total of 14,600 in 2013-14). This is because overseas students are thought to be at a disadvantage when seeking accommodation compared with home students.

So if you need to find a place to live while studying, on a tight budget, what do you do?

The University of London umbrella organisation has an advice centre, called University of London Housing Services (ULHS) to help students find accommodation and deal with contracts and any related problems, including legal issues. Its offices are on the 4th floor of the University of London offices in Malet Street and employs about six people. It is financed jointly by 19 colleges, including Birkbeck.

It has a database of private landlords which you must register with to use. Landlords must subscribe to a code of practice to have their rooms listed. The database has some 17,000 beds. The ULHS website also has lists of agencies you can contact directly.
The office also runs a “Find a Flatmate” service.
It also publishes some very good guides in PDF form, such as the London Student Housing Guide and Living in London.

Apart from the ULHS, other flat-hunting options include:
•    Private halls of residence (can be expensive, creaming off the wealthiest students);
•    High-street letting agents not registered with ULHS;
•    Classified ad websites such as gumtree and flatsharing sites such as EasyRoommate;
•    Newspapers such as Loot, the Evening Standard (they also have websites) and local papers;
•    It is possible to get good deals through adverts in newsagents’ windows but you are really in the Wild West there so beware.
•    Word of mouth – possible the best way of all. Do any of your fellow students need a flatmate?

Problems are most likely to arise if you make a quick decision about a place without gathering enough information about the property and terms. So shop around and look before you leap.

If you don’t choose your co-sharers wisely this could also lead to disputes. And living with a resident landlord can be problematic if you fall out with them.

Apart from these problems, and the obvious danger of landing up in substandard accommodation because you can’t find anywhere better, the main bugbear is high rents. The ULHS’s data suggests you can expect to pay from about £100 to £130 per person per week, plus utility bills of say £15 a week. This is to share a kitchen and bathroom. More than a third of students are paying over £130 a week. Rents are expected to grow at perhaps 5% a year, while the number of students in London is also thought to be growing so the supply problem if anything is likely to worsen.

There is a website that lists average rents by area, run by the Greater London Authority. This is likely to be quite accurate as such data is used in calculating housing benefit. Obviously the further from the centre the lower rents are likely to be – rooms in the central zone are likely to cost some £150-plus a week.

The university has been trying to lobby the London authorities to get private developers to include “affordable housing” in their plans by requiring them to do this to get planning permission. This could raise supply, which is the main problem driving up rents.

The answer that seems obvious to many, capping rents by law, is an option that doesn’t seem to be popular with the political parties. For the time being high rent seems to be a price students must pay to take advantage of the city’s fantastic learning opportunities.

Pictured: A giant map of London at the University of London Housing Services offices in Malet Street.

Way of the Lodestone

The Lamp and Owl is not the first magazine in Birkbeck’s long history. For many years starting in 1905 it was The Lodestone, named after the magnetic rock used in olden days as a sort of compass, to help point the way for travellers. Hidden way in a basement room at Birkbeck is an archive of bound volumes of our predecessor, a complete set, and we have been browsing among its ancient pages. This is the first of a series in which we revive some long-hidden words of wisdom from former Birkbeck students. To start with, from the first two issues, a poem and some thoughts on hobbies:

The Natural History Society was very active. At their April 1905 meeting members brought exhibits and delivered “short scientific lecturettes”. The items shown included:

“A collection of radiant Birds of Paradise; nests of wasps and of the leaf-bee; a collection of pond-life; a collection of minerals and of objects exquisitely worked in them; herbarium specimens of ferns and mosses; specimens illustrating trees in the spring condition; test tube cultures of bacteria, harmful and the reverse; and a collection of drawings of animals by very young children.”

The lecturettes ranged from an account of sleeping sickness by Mr Fantham to one of toadstools by Mr Hastings, and included “a delightful series of slides of birds’-nests by Mr Bayne and some very good photomicrographs by Mr Mason”. More to come! Thanks to Chris Terrey, assistant to the College Secretary, for helping with access to the archive.

Let’s raise a glass to Portugal!

The idea of drinking nine glasses of wine and then being able to remember the evening may seem impossible, but it happened to me.
The occasion was a wine-tasting put on by the Birkbeck Wine Society last week. Portuguese wine was the subject studied by 28 thirsty would-be connoisseurs.

Our hosts were Charles Shaw and Jill Cameron from the society and the wine expert Gilbert Winfield, in very natty waistcoat, who introduced each wine and gave us plenty of information about them and Portuguese wines in general – that is, when he could make himself heard among the excited hubbub.

Gilbert, our wine expert for the evening.
Gilbert, our wine expert for the evening.

The room in Gordon Square was decked out like a restaurant, including candles and spittoons, and by chance your solitary male correspondent was lucky enough to find himself sitting with three charming women companions (pictured) as well as two wine glasses waiting to be filled.

We started with a vinho verde, the classic slightly sparkling white wine known to Algarve holiday makers. Then came another white, then some reds, and finishing with a port and another sweet wine. We each had a sheet with the names of the wines and descriptions, with space for our own comments on each for future reference, and a map of the regions on the back.
Gilbert, Charles and Jill were our waiters.
Sensibly the glasses were small and only half-filled, for the sake of keeping an orderly evening. We usually had two glasses on the go at once, for comparison purposes.
Along the way we learnt a lot about Portuguese wine and wine in general from Gilbert.

A selection:

  • Portugal makes “delicious wines, undervalued in this country”.
  • Vinho verde, sold widely in tourist areas of Portugal, is an “abused category … people come back with a good feeling about it, buy it here, and think, hmm, I don’t remember it being this wishy-washy in the Algarve”.
  • Vinho verde, made in the north, is not actually particularly green, but since it doesn’t keep very well it is bottled early, and as young wines have a green tinge that is where the name comes from. The “spritz” comes because it is bottled before fermentation is finished so some carbon dioxide is trapped in the bottle, giving it a refreshing fizz.
  • Wine tastings are usually done from north to south. Vines  grow in temperate latitudes between 30 degrees and 50 degrees in each hemisphere. Portugal is right in the middle, between 37 and 42, although being on the Atlantic seaboard it is cooler and rainier than inland areas at the same latitudes.
  • Northern wines are lower-alcohol but with “nice depth”, said Gilbert, while the further south you go the grapes are riper, with more sugar, so they are higher-alcohol, “bigger” wines.
  • Portuguese whites “don’t leap out at you but have a very attractive white fruit aroma, and have a rich, oily, mouth-filling fulness, very satisfying”.
  • Portugal produces “big, tannic red wines … the tannin gives a tongue-coating, bitter taste which helps them go well with fatty foods”.
  • Wines made from grapes, unlike those made from other fruits, don’t taste of the fruit; they develop complex, exotic flavours that don’t remind us of the grape – except wines from the muscat grape, which do.
  • The appellation system in Portugal is looser than elsewhere and is no great guide to the quality of the wines: you can have good and bad wines in every area. “You can have low-level, low-priced wines that are absolutely delicious,” said Gilbert.
  • The exception is the Duoro region: this is the port region and the makers have recently gone into high-quality production of non-fortified wines also.
  • “I was in Lisbon recently and you could get a decent bottle of the local wine for €3 a bottle – even €2”. So there’s a holiday idea!
Fiona, Vicky and Alex, three of your corresponden't fellow wine tasters
Fiona, Vicky and Alex, three of your correspondent’s fellow wine tasters

After the tastings came a “heads and tails” quiz. Everyone stood up, and Gilbert asked a question, related to his talks, with  choice of two answers, a “heads” and a “tails” – only one correct. You placed your hands on the relevant part of your body. The answer came: if you were wrong you sat down. Then another question. The last man or woman standing won.

This went to a tie-break question unrelated to Portuguese wine: name the five main Bordeaux grape varieties.* One knowledgable gentleman walked away with the prize (in a bottle of course) and there was another winner in a society raffle.

Lastly, in a poll for future subjects, a “cheeses of northern Europe” event came top.

Before then though is the society’s next meeting, Wines of Georgia with Chris Bowling, founder of Oxford’s Georgian Wine Society.
Charles said of the Portuguese : “The event went very well, Portuguese wines can be tricky to approach, partly due to the unique grape varietals and the rich tapestry of varying styles.”

The evening cost your correspondent £15 – and he managed to make it home safely, despite not using the spittoon once.

* The main red Bordeaux varietals are: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. Of course Carménère, though much more rare, is also allowed.

Details of all the wines tasted:

1. The Wine Society’s Vinho Verde 2012

A refreshing blend of Alvarinho and Trajadura grapes, light white fruit and a slight spritz

2. Quintas das Bageiras Bairrada Branco 2012

Bical, Maria Gomes and Cerceal combine to make a fresh and citrus style, with rich palate texture

3. Caves de Pegoes Dry Muscat 2012, Setubal

This grape also makes sweet wine in Setubal, but this one is dry, but with that lovely ripe, slightly spicy fruit typical of Muscat

4. Ribeiro Santo Dao 2011, Charles Lucas Vinhos

Touriga National, Tinto Roriz, and Alfracheiro grapes combine to reveal a dark-fruited wine with hints of savoury Mediterranean herbs

5. Alianca Reserva Tinto 2011, Bairrada

Touriga National, Baga, Tinto Roriz, again black-fruited and spicy, with a hint of oak-derived vanilla

6. Monte Velho Vinho Regional Alentejo 2012, Herdade do Esporao Aragonês, Trincadeira, Touriga Nacional, Syrah.

A heady ripe fruit mix, softened by 6 months in oak, with smooth spicy toasty flavours. This is one of southern Portugal’s finest estates.

7. Quinta da Manuela Douro 2000 Tinto

A mature wine from the Port region, tannins softened with age, and rich flavours of spicy plum/fruitcake and dried fig with chocolate notes.

8. Symington Family Estates Late Bottled Vintage Port 2008

Both these last two wines are made from the port varieties of Touriga National, Touriga Franca, and Tinto Roriz. Prunes, raisins and figs, with rich cakey warmth and mouth-filling tannins to refresh it

9. Moscatel de Setúbal, Bacalhôa 2011

A rich and complex fortified wine abound with orange tea flower, raisins and a smooth, sweet yet fresh finish

Results of the poll for future tastings:
Sake Masterclass 9%
Japanese Koshu Wines with Lynne Sheriff MW 3%
Sherry with Bodegas Williams & Humbert 16%
Boutique Producers with Stephen Forward of Essentially Wine 14%
Barwell & Jones tasting with Angus McNab 14%
Cheeses of Northern Europe with Fratelli Formaggio 27%
Portugal 2 with Richard Mayson 3%
South Africa with Tim Atkin MW 14%

The raffle prize was a book on sherry (The Big Book of Sherry Wines, various authors, donated by the Sherry Institute) and a bottle of artisanal sherry.

The quiz prize was a bottle of Henriques & Henriques madeira.

Hundreds protest at police tactics

Nearly 1,000 students rallied at the university this afternoon in a protest at arrests last week during demonstrations and a shortlived sit-in a Senate House.

Unlike last week, when during two days of action dozens of students were detained, there was no police presence, as the authorities seemed to have taken to heart the rallying cry “Cops off Campus”.

Vans full of police were on standby near Holborn but they kept away from the campus itself.

The demo arrives outside Birkbeck College.
The demo arrives outside Birkbeck College.

One student told Lamp and Owl last week how he was caught in a police “kettle” at a similar march, arrested with more than 30 others, and held in a cell for five hours, before being released in the middle of the night with no charge.

Today’s march wound its way peacefully but noisily around the campus to the beat of a samba band. Marchers then headed off the campus from Russell Square, down Southampton Row  and to Aldwych, stopping traffic, but no clashes with police were reported. Some protested outside the Mark Duggan inquest in the Strand and later in Whitehall.

Fury after break-up of student sit-in

Accusations were flying today after the forcible ending of an occupation yesterday by students of offices in Senate House, headquarters of the University of London.
Students accused the police and university authorities of heavy-handed tactics, while the university accused protesters of irresponsible actions.

There was further trouble this afternoon when some 200 angry students marched around the campus in protest at yesterday’s police action. They were followed by dozens of police and there were at least  15 more arrests.

Meanwhile University of London obtained an injunction banning further occupations on the campus, and also issued  a possession order for the University of London building.

Yesterday afternoon some 60 students took over a suite of management offices in protest at the threat to close the University of London Union, poor conditions for contract staff, the sell-off of student loans and low pay for lecturers. They accused the union of “behaving in a disgraceful and unaccountable manner” and listed 10 demands which needed to be met before they left.

Police and security staff evicted the protesters in the early evening.

There were clashes between police, security staff and students within Senate House and outside, where dozens had gathered to support the occupation. Eight people were arrested, with several being held overnight. Photographs and video appeared to show protesters being shoved, dragged and even punched.
The University of London Union called the university’s action against the sit-in “a violent attempt to harass and silence dissent on campus. Their actions are a disgrace, and show their disregard for both the welfare of their students and their own university community.”

The union said the occupation was forcibly ended. It said: “initial reports indicate that protesters were assaulted by both police and security: thrown to the ground, kicked and punched, and dragged to the ground by their hair. When supporters gathered outside to show support for the occupation, they were beaten back and assaulted.”

Rachel Wenstone, a vice-president of the National Union of Students, referring also to similar protests  at University of Sussex, said: “We are absolutely appalled by the handling of student protesters we have seen in both Sussex and London in recent days.

“Peaceful protest and occupation is part of the history of the student movement and one we are very proud of. They are … available to students for when there is no other way to get their voices heard.

“It is alarming to see universities react to this action with these disproportionate and draconian measures.”

Chris Cobb, chief operating officer at the University of London, said in a statement today that the occupation had been a “disgraceful and aggressive act, which placed the safety of our staff at risk”.

It said staff had locked themselves in their offices because the demonstrators appeared “aggressive and intimidating”.

“The university will always support peaceful and legitimate protest, but invading our working environment and blocking fire escapes is potentially life threatening and plays no part in democratic dissent,” said Mr Cobb.

“The university will never under any circumstances enter into a dialogue with any group or group of individuals who adopt this approach,” he added.

Senate House was locked today.

At 3pm some 200 students gathered at University of London Union in Malet Street to protest about the police action yesterday and marched around the campus, shadowed by a heavy police presence. Scuffles in the Euston Square area and more arrests were reported. Students tried to block streets to impede police. Some 40 marchers were allegedly “kettled”, or hemmed in by police in riot gear, near Euston Square station, and many of those trapped inside the “kettle” were arrested. They were taken away in vans, it is thought to Lewisham police station.

The protesters dispersed after about two hours.

Those held overnight at Holborn police station were freed this afternoon, most without charge. Some students had stayed outside the station all night in support of those inside.


Students occupy Senate House


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Dozens of protesting students occupied offices in Senate House in Bloomsbury, headquarters of the University of London, for several hours this afternoon before being ejected by police.

More than 100 protesters took over the main management corridor and the Vice-Chancellor’s office, locking themselves in with a bike lock. They said they would not leave until their demands were met.These included:

  • Outsourced staff such as cleaners to have the same sick pay, holiday pay and pensions as in-house staff, and the IWGB union should be recognised;
  • The threatened student-run University of London Union in Malet Street should stay in student hands;
  • The university should back opposition to the sell-off of student loans;
  • The university should back higher education workers in their current pay dispute (there was a strike yesterday).

The students entered at about 2.30pm and refused to leave when asked. Most staff in the area left although staff elsewhere in the building carried on working normally.

The occupiers included students from University College London, SOAS, Royal Holloway and a variety of other colleges, including about five from Birkbeck.

The area being occupied was a large horse-shoe shaped section with about 20 offices.

Rosie Holland, a Royal Holloway student and one of the protesters,  spoke to Lamp and Owl from inside the occupied area. She said the aims of the protest included to stop the university union being closed down, to get fairer rents for students in university accommodation, and to get the conditions for contract staff that they deserved.
She said the protesters blamed the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Adrian Smith, who was not present during the occupation, for the decisions on the ULU and staff pay, and that was why his office was targeted. “He is the one making the decisions,” she said.
She said his office was “absolutely lovely”, with its own bathroom.

As she spoke two security guards had locked themselves in this office, along with some other staff, and students were being refused entry.
Rosie said the operation had been pre-planned and “quite easy”, and that the whole of the management corridor had been occupied.

A burly security man had managed to “barge into” the management area before students had secured it. He and a colleague were the two locked in the Vice-Chancellor’s office, along with about 10 staff.

In the early evening dozens of police arrived in about six vans. They gained entry to the area and the students were forced to leave. At least one person was thought to have been arrested amid clashes in the foyer and near the library.

The building was cleared and locked up and police then faced dozens of chanting protesters outside the building. There were  angry scenes and pushing and shoving of protesters by the police near Senate House and in the Malet Street area, while a police helicopter hovered overhead. Some protesters tried to barricade a street with wheelie bins to stop police vans moving through to pick up the officers at Senate House and more arrests appear to have been made. The police eventually left about 8.30pm.

Occupations have been held at other universities and colleges recently including Goldsmiths, Sussex, Warwick, Liverpool, Ulster, Birmingham, Exeter and Sheffield.