Portsmouth and the University: Are We Divided by Town and Gown?

University of Portsmouth student Maria Sewell asks whether the growing population of students is having a positive or negative effect on the city’s image. 

The Royal Navy has long been at the heart of Portsmouth’s growth and development as a city. Portsmouth is perhaps most famous for being home to the Royal Navy and the Historic Dockyard. The city’s role in Britain’s World War II victory is commemorated in our relationship to D-Day, for example, while the Mary Rose, flagship of Henry VIII, HMS Victory, and HMS Warrior dominate the skyline of Old Portsmouth and the Historic Dockyard.

But in more recent times, the University of Portsmouth has also played a significant and still growing role in the development of the city. Portsmouth has undergone a series of transformations to its buildings, infrastructure and communities in the name of regeneration and economic growth, and part of that work is about attracting students to the city each year.

Although the expansion of the University has undoubtedly been economically beneficial to the city, it has also caused social and cultural tension. Portsmouth sits – uncomfortable and undecided – between its image as a historic, tourist destination on one hand, and as a modern, student city on the other.

Keen to build on its popular heritage and culture, the city has undergone major transformation over the last two decades, with money invested in its infrastructure, amenities and new commercial developments. Gunwharf Quays, opened in 2001, offering ‘a 33-acre site of over 65 shopping outlets, 20 bars and restaurants, an 11 screen cinema, a 26 lane bowling complex, 310 homes, ship berths and office space.’ It is now home to more than 90 stores and over 30 restaurants, bars and cafes. The Spinnaker Tower opened in 2005 at a cost of £35 million and has become one of the city’s key tourist attractions, ‘receiving over 2.5 million visitors since its opening‘. It also complements Portsmouth’s naval and war-time culture with its views of the main port, while the Tower’s distinct design has become an icon for our city.

However, not all developments contribute as positively to Portsmouth’s image.

The £42 million Greetham Street Halls for students, developed in 2016 by Unite Students, has not been as well received, for example. The property was built to house Portsmouth’s increasing student population, which grew by over 3000 between 2007 and 2017.

I spoke to a Greetham Street’s resident, 20-year-old Amerigo Luxmoore, who questioned whether the money spent on the student halls was put to good use. Mr Luxmoore described the interior of the building as ‘cheap’, telling me ‘the thin walls, which have holes punched through on almost every floor, barely block the sound coming from the next room. The lifts are constantly out of order, and the kitchen appliances within the building are often broken.’

Could this large sum of money have been better spent elsewhere?

As well as facing criticism as an eyesore, with its luminous yellow and green walls, the development crams 836 students into the city’s already bustling centre. Whilst it could be argued that this brings in a large income to the city, this generally only benefits larger businesses who can afford property in the city centre and can offer student discounts. Smaller businesses tend to operate in areas such as Albert Road and Southsea, which may not be able to afford as substantial deals as bigger chains to attract student customers.

The increase in our student population has also resulted in a more riotous nightlife, creating social tension between students and locals as areas such as the Guildhall Square are dominated by drunk 20-something-year-olds almost every night. Whilst this does liven up Portsmouth and bring in revenue to the night time economy, it also tarnishes its reputation, as people are seen drinking, urinating and vomiting in the streets, particularly during Freshers’ Week. Last year, Portsmouth was featured in a name and shame piece in The Sun, highlighting the drunken behaviour of students in the city centre during Fresher’s Week. Is this an image that Portsmouth City Council wishes to promote?

Originally from Chelmsford, I am a student at the University of Portsmouth, and while I benefit from Portsmouth’s student facilities, I believe that Portsmouth City Council place too much focus on the student population: prioritising student interests as the University and its supporting infrastructure expands, at the expense of what made Portsmouth a fantastic city in the first place. In so doing, the Council often seems to undermine the needs of local residents.

Whilst the existence of local clubs and bars, such as Astoria and Lyberry, are a great source of entertainment for myself and other students, by comparison Portsmouth lacks a similar offer for local residents. The site opposite South Parade Pier is being renovated into retirement homes, with Council Leader Donna Jones arguing in 2016 that the development could undermine the pier’s future as a venue.

The main leisure facilities (such as Bowlplex and Vue) are concentrated in Gunwharf Quays. Unoccupied buildings and empty shops on the high street could be utilised to bring revenue to the entire island, not just the student-occupied city centre. By introducing policies that encouraged more even development across the island, students could be encouraged to live and venture further afield on a more regular basis.

Insisting on higher quality student accommodation is a start, but the University should also play a key role in encouraging local students to become more involved in the life of the city. Students also bear responsibility ourselves to live as part of the community and not as temporary visitors.

As both the University and its student population continues to grow, failure to address these tensions may result in an even deeper local divide between ‘town and gown.’

  • Qíguai De Jiàoshòu

    Lets not forget the closure of the Arts Lodge in Victoria Park which was done in such an underhand way and it has never been publicly acknowledge that was at the behest of the university whose estate plans include a colonisation of the park. In fact nothing seems to happen in the city these days unless it is driven by the university estates plan. A city that has no arts centre, no permanent independent cinema, cultural entrepreneurs who struggle with the councils anti-culture bias (if you want chapter and verse on this I have a copy of the report into the cultural regeneration of the city that the council commission back in 2010 which roundly condemns the council). If Donna Jones really believed that the development across from the pier is a bad thing then she should have stopped it!