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Clampdown on Dunedin's student town

Wednesday 11th March 2015

As police and the city council try to keep a lid on anti-social behaviour in Dunedin, Otago University is trying to redefine what it means to be a student there. But is it working?

Hyde Street residents Cameron O’Connell and Eddie Scoular outside their flat, The F Shack.

Photo: Mava Moayyed/The Wireless

LIVING THE HYDE LIFE

“North Dunedin is student territory,” says third-year student Eddie Scoular.

Four weeks ago he moved into a flat called the “The F Shack” on Hyde Street, a narrow one-way road close to the university and a recognised party zone.

In ten days it’ll be time for the annual the Hyde Street Keg Party. It’s an infamous student event where thousands gather to drink, dress up and party. Tickets are expected to sell out and last year’s lot of about 3000 passes went in two minutes.

“The Hyde Street Keg party is part of Dunedin. It’s a tradition and it’s half the reason people are on this street,” says Eddie.

But in recent weeks there have been suggestions from the Dunedin City Council that there needs to be a crackdown on antisocial behaviour in the student quarter and in other parts of the city. Installing CCTV cameras and extending liquor bans are on the table.

Dunedin City Mayor Dave Cull says “whether or not behaviour is worse than in previous years is not really the point. The community is saying enough is enough.”

When asked if the Hyde Street party should be cancelled, Cull took a long pause before answering: “I was told that the public resource that goes into that one day is about $125,000. We need to start thinking about the whether that’s the best use of taxpayer money.”

Although he’s hesitant to cancel the party outright, he says there is concern across the community about the “the dangerous drinking culture that’s been allowed to become normal” in the student quarter.

For years Dunedin has had a reputation as a place for undergrads to party, as well as study.

“If people try and change that, it would just ruin the Dunedin economy. Students wouldn’t enrol here anymore,” Eddie says.

About 120,000  people live in Dunedin, with just under 22 per cent of the population aged 15-24. The University of Otago has about 20,000 students enrolled and there’s another 6700 at the polytechnic.

The university is also the city’s biggest business and in 2013 the University of Otago had a total revenue of $600m and made a surplus of $45m compared to $27m two years earlier.  

Graph by Bradley Davis

Most students live in the streets of Dunedin North around the university and polytechnic campus, arguably making it the most condensed student community in the country. Some of the streets, including Hyde, have been labelled a ghetto by local media and politicians.

One of the most vocal critics is city councillor David Benson-Pope. “I find it embarrassing, it’s like a bloody slum,” he says.

“I’m sure if we went into Hyde Street with a health inspector, which is something I am working on, we could close a lot of those places down for reasons of unsanitariness.”

Another F Shack flatmate, Cameron O’Connell, says the area isn’t accurately represented. “The worst five per cent of the street gets the limelight. That’s not really fair.”

WATCH opinions on having CCTV in North Dunedin and extending the city's liquor ban:

WORKING FOR THE CLAMPDOWN

Hyde Street Keg Party is one of the last remnants of a fading student party culture.

One of Dunedin's popular student bars, Gardies, was bought by the University in 2010 when it went up for sale and turned into a study centre. The year before, the university purchased the Bowler, another well-known student spot, turning it into academic spaces.

In 2013 a tavern, known as the Cook, closed its door with the owner saying it couldn’t afford to stay open since students were drinking in bars less often and buying most of their alcohol from off-licences.

The annual Toga Parade and the Undie 500 have also been stopped.

While the Hyde Street Keg Party goes on, there have been changes. Started by students about 15 years ago, in recent years the Otago University Student Association (OUSA), city council and emergency services have stepped in to make it safer and more organised.

Glass has been banned and ticket sales introduced, and there have been fewer arrests and injuries. Last year police said the party was mostly trouble-free, with ten people arrested and 45 treated by St John ambulance staff.

In 2012, 15 people were arrested and a roof overloaded with partygoers collapsed. St John treated more than 80 people for injuries at the party.

But outside sanctioned events, like Orientation and the Hyde Street party, there are still problems.

‘TROUBLESOME LITTLE SNOTS’

A series of arsons around the student quarter, seven in one night according to the mayor, prompted City Councillor Lee Vanderdis to suggest CCTV footage throughout North Dunedin during a recent council meeting.

“It’s become something, not just of an embarrassment, but an unaffordable cost. It’s arson, anywhere else in the city it would’ve been dealt with, it hasn’t be dealt with in the North End and the student area.”

Vandervis says the student quarter attracts “troublemakers” from all over the city because of a perception that they can get away with behaviour that wouldn’t fly in the rest of Dunedin.

“But there are also number of Auckland parents sending their troublesome little snots down to Otago.”

The F Shack flatmates, Eddie and Cameron, say while CCTV might help catch those causing trouble, cameras wouldn’t last long in North Dunedin. “They’re just going to get all smashed anyway, there is not much point. And anyway this street isn’t even that bad.”

WHERE’S THE LIMIT?

Out of the student quarter, just off the Octagon, similar issues are brewing.  A party on View Street in February prompted Benson-Pope to suggest extending an inner-city liquor ban to include the street.

The party, which reports say over 400 people attended, was at a flat known as the “Backpackers” – a well-known party flat that was converted from a hostel five years ago. A party-goer fell more than three metres onto a noise control officer, causing him head, neck and shoulder injuries.

The property where about 17 and 19 people live featured on a carpet advert last year which used the flat’s reputation to show that the carpet could handle anything.

Sergeant Ian Paulin, Alcohol Harm Prevention Officer in Dunedin, wants to see the central city liquor ban extended wider than just View Street to other spots that he calls “problem areas”.

“They’re a tool we use with quite a lot of discretion. It’s never going to be the panacea to stop disorder but it is another tool we can use when disorder happens to intervene.”

Although he stresses that it’s not only students causing the problems.

CONFRONTED WITH A SOCIAL GATHERING

The Mayor says the city’s police are generally light-handed in the north, saying if they were “a group of meat workers from Balclutha” police would be dealing with them much more harshly. 

“But I mean what do you do when you’re confronted with 1500 students and all you’ve got is a high-vis vest?” says Cull.

Sergeant Ian Paulin says North Dunedin poses a unique challenge since they’re dealing with a dense population of social media-savvy people who can mobilise quickly.

I’m not saying that students rule the area. It’s just about being a bit smarter about how we deal with the situations.

“If we show up to a party on Castle Street of 200 that’s spilling out onto the road go in with a heavy-handed attitude and pushed them all away, the numbers could quadruple in minutes as people send out Facebook messages and texts.”

“I’m not saying that students rule the area. It’s just about being a bit smarter about how we deal with the situations.”

Paulin, who has been policing for nearly three decades, says the behavioural issues in North Dunedin are no better or worse than other years and thinks harsh policing isn’t the key to curbing the craziness.

“You can inforce the law as much as you want but changing the culture and having discussions with the main stakeholders is the way forward”.

WHAT’S A SCARFIE?

The cries of a dying scarfie culture have been heard for years. In 2010 an article in student magazine Critic called ‘R.I.P Scarfie’ suggested it was the university’s fault.

“The University has bought and shut down student bars, introduced a Code of Conduct that allows it to punish students for misbehaving in their private life, banned on-campus alcohol advertising and sponsorship, created in Campus Watch a team of elite humans that patrols North Dunedin streets 24/7, shut down the Cookathon…”

Otago University Vice Chancellor Harlene Hayne disagrees. She says scarfie culture in Dunedin is alive and well. 

“The media have misappropriated the term to mean something evil, messy, and disrespectful—the term is often used as synonym for binge drinking and antisocial behaviour. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The scarfies of today, like the ones who have attended this university for almost 150 years, are defined by a spirit of adventure.”

(Read the Vice Chancellor's full interview.)

But there is no denying there are students who choose Otago because of its reputation as a party mecca, something the university is still grappling with.

Hayne says the “behavioural problems” are a product of a small minority of students who tend to be less interested in study. “It is also important to remember that some of the mayhem is not caused by students, but by others. Otago's O-Week is a magnet for young adults, not just for our students,” she says.

Benson-Pope says life in North Dunedin has started to manifest some worryingly trends - things he didn’t see in his days as a student.

“I did some pretty loopy things when I was at Otago but I never trashed other people’s property. I’m hardly a paragon of virtue and I never smashed glass in the street,” says Cr Benson-Pope, a former MP who resigned from his Cabinet portfolios after a controversy over the dismissal of a staff member - though he was later cleared of any wrongdoing.

Dunedin city councillor David Benson-Pope and mayor Dave Cull.

Photo: Mava Moayyed/The Wireless

But students aren’t fazed. In fact, the biggest issue the F Shack boys seem to have with their neighbourhood is the vigilant parking wardens ticketing their cars.

“The only people who can apply for those places are the same people who can’t afford it. People park in them because there are no parks anywhere else and get ticketed by the council,” complains Eddie.

HOME AFTER CLOSING TIME

Dunedin resident and former Critic magazine designer Daniel Blackball says the halls of residence is where it all starts. “They’re basically an incubator for this kind of culture. They all meet in the halls and then form flats together in second year.”

Daniel has noticed a shift in student drinking and thinks a lot of it may have to do with changes in city policy and alcohol availability.

“There is a giant liquor store right around the corner from Hyde Street. That’s like putting your city’s meth addicts next to a huge meth lab,” he says.

“There are so many interesting young, creative people in this city but there are always the people that’ll come here, f**k shit up, and leave.”

There are so many interesting young, creative people in this city but there are always the people that’ll come here, f**k shit up, and leave.

Hayne says excessive drinking is a problem everywhere in New Zealand but is magnified in Dunedin where a large group of young people can access cheap alcohol easily.

“This university still faces an uphill battle because our drinking laws in New Zealand are too lax,” says Hayne.

“Otago has spear-headed a campaign to restrict the number of off-licence venues, such as bottle shops and supermarkets, but so far, our campaigns have fallen on deaf ears.”

As bars are pushed to become more responsible, prices of alcohol go up and operating hours are cut. But these seem to be the measures that are leading to excessive, unsupervised drinking at home.

Student Association President Paul Hunt says “we’d rather have people in bars where there is supervision and legal obligations, rather than at flats preloading”.

“Alcohol issues are always being discussed between the university, council, police and students. I think it is the arson and a few very serious incidents that aren’t normal which have provoked these discussions.”

READ: Dunedin students warn crack-down will lead to drinking on streets. 

PRIDE OF THE SOUTH

The mayor last Thursday called together the university, polytechnic, student associations, city council, local hospitality association and health officials to address issues with the student quarter’s party culture.

“We want it to be an opportunity to reignite a bit of pride in our city.”

There was a collective desire to make North Dunedin safer and cleaner by not just taking disciplinary steps, but also working toward higher standards of amenity in the streets, he says. “I think it’s fair to say that there was agreement right around the room about the seriousness of the risks to safety, the reputation to the city, and the behavioural issues.”

The mayor says over the last few years, young people in Dunedin have been receiving “overly permissive” and “ambiguous” messages about their behaviour.

“We say things like ‘it’s just a few couches’ or ‘they play up a bit but in their own street’. The community has not lived to its responsibility of expressing its expectation of behaviour and young people have taken advantage of that, quite understandably.”



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