How student housing co-ops could change students living

This blog is cross posted from the Guardian

Students behind the Birmingham student housing co-operative

The rise in university tuition fees has dominated headlines and borne the brunt of student anger at the coalition government since 2010, but there is another drain on student finances that has so far escaped scrutiny.

The average cost of renting as a student in the UK is now £68.70 a week according to Accommodation for Students, which analysed the costs of 100,000 student properties in 77 cities. Soaring rents are not just the hallmark of the private rented sector; the average cost of student accommodation within university halls of residence has doubled in the last 10 years, rising from £59.77 to £117.67 a week.

The average rent for student accommodation in Birmingham is approximately £61, but to live close to the university’s facilities many students choose to pay a higher rent between £80 and £90. But the rise isn’t reflected in the quality of accommodation.

“Some of the houses are dumps,” says Sean Farmelo, a 21-year-old philosophy student at Birmingham University. “Weekly rent prices are now going up by about £5 each year and that is because most of the houses are lived in by students. Students have been taken for cash cows and no one has done anything about it.”

Farmelo and his friends are behind what will soon become the UK’s first student housing co-operative. They have secured £550,000 in finance that will go towards purchasing two five-bedroom houses in Selly Oak which will remain permanently available to student members of the co-operative.

Farmelo had been involved in co-operative schemes before and had received an £8,000 loan from the National Lottery to set up a bicycle co-op in Birmingham, as he lives in a cheaper part of town and cycles in to lectures to avoid the higher rent charged around the university.

Co-operative living promised a way to make a student house a real home, protect residents from rogue landlords and lettings agents as well as making a helpful saving on rent. But when the idea began to take shape, the amount of money they realised it could save took the group by surprise.

With the help of a computer program provided by Birmingham Co-operative Housing Services (BCHS) – the organisation that has provided the £550,000 loan needed to purchase the properties – they calculated how much rent they would need to pay each week. “We started putting in figures like £60, which would have been cheap anyway, and there was loads of surplus,” says Farmelo. “Then we put in £50 and there was still a lot of surplus. Even at £40 there was still quite a lot. We went down to £38, but we thought that was ridiculously cheap.”

The figure has not been finalised yet, but Farmelo says they are looking at around £40 a week, which includes management fees, a maintenence allowance and accounts for a full refurbishment every 15 years. And the savings the co-op will bring could not come at a better time.

“Tuition fees have just gone up and maintenance loans aren’t getting any bigger,” Farmelo says. “I pay more on my rent this year than I get in maintanance loans. It’s really squeezing a lot of people out of education.”

The speed at which the idea became a reality also surprised the group. “I thought they would say this is a good idea, but we’re not able to give you £550,000 that quickly,” admits Farmelo. “But apparently they are.”

BCHS is not normally in the habit of handing out half a million pounds to undergraduates. “The important thing is that the group of students we’re working with clearly have experience working with co-operative enterprises,” says director Carl Taylor.

The group had hoped to get funding from a co-operative lender to purchase the homes, but without a record of property management they initially found funding difficult to secure. However BCHS was convinced by the model, and when the co-op system has been tested the group intends to reapply for funding and purchase the properties outright.

With more than 18,000 students paying between £60 and £160 a week to live close to the university, there is plenty of potential for growth. “At the moment our issue is meeting the excessive demand, which we can’t ever hope to do,” says Taylor.

With the battle over tuition fees lost, extortionate housing prices could be the next target for those tired of seeing the cost of a higher education in England increase every year.

Farmelo says that it shouldn’t be left to individuals to look for the solutions. “This is what student unions should be doing. As a student, you only spend your money on tuition and housing, with a little bit left over for food and a pint. Unions only really focus on things such as safety and community spirit, which obviously they should be doing, but it’s like hiding under a shell and ignoring the fact that students are getting ripped off every year.”

Two houses with a combined 10 bedrooms may be a humble beginning to the student housing co-operative movement but Farmelo believes his model – and the UK student housing network he intends to establish – could eventually help replicate the more established large-scale student housing co-operatives found in American universities.

“I did this in my spare time, and what I want to do is make it available to a lot more students,” he says. “A couple of years down the line you can really start tapping real finance, such as pension funds and larger loans, to buy halls that will house hundreds of students. It’s a real possibility but it needs a catalyst to show people that there is an alternative.”


‘The Customer Is Always Right’ Andrew Vallance Owen’s policies endorsed by Cameron.

Over the past few years the NHS has been under a joint and sustained attack by the Lib Dem Tory coalition and large private businesses. I have previously written about the way in which these changes to fundamentally important services will negatively affect students.

David Cameron’s most recent bright idea to reform the National Health Service so that “GPs should be subject to patient satisfaction tests” is almost directly modelled on a theory that Vallance Owen (The Chair of the Trustee Board of the Guild of Students) has been propagating for years, that ‘customers’ know better than doctors and nurses with years on academic and real life training in healthcare provision.

Illustration courtesy of Jack Copley

Illustration courtesy of Jack Copley

Along with the transposing the ‘successful’ usage of games makers in the Olympics into a hospital environment Cameron is looking to introduce a version of Rate My Professor for GPs inviting family and friends to complete questionnaires on their satisfaction of their experiences. Jeremy Hunt the Health Secretary claims that “The new friends and family test will shine a light on standards of care throughout the system and help expose the shocking examples of poor care that have been coming to light much earlier.” The reality is of course more complex – hospital experiences are often traumatic, procedures are complex and hard to understand for lay people. What the government is attempting to institutionalise is a process by which non medical and deeply emotionally implicated evaluators judge the performance of GPs who all have at least 10 years of experience in medicine behind them.

The idea of patient evaluation was originally propagated by Andrew Vallance Owen. He was previously a senior executive of the private healthcare firm BUPA and he now chairs the Department of Health’s PROMs Stakeholder Group and works as a private healthcare consultant. The general thrust of patient reported outcomes measures are a precursor to what Cameron and Hunt are now suggesting; that along with standard performance measures patients should rate aspects of their experiences during their stay in hospital with the aim of improving the standard of care. The focal point is that the patient is that the wise consumer will always know what is best for him/her. Vallance Owen attempts to support PROMs mechanisms by attempting to discredit deference to trained professionals as ‘paternalistic and claims it isn’t helpful to view ‘what doctors do to patients as more important than the outcome as perceived by them.’

As a hugely effective healthcare system it has been difficult for the government or businesses to paint the NHS as in need of an overhaul or dismantling instead there has been a steady stream of propaganda implying that the consumers of healthcare (and other public services) should be entitled to have a choice between services they use. On the surface this liberal logic seems sensible, it might be perfectly sensible to have a choice between Utterly Butterly and Lurpak butter, or Dixons and Comet, each to his own. However the differences between types of healthcare are far more complex than the differences between other types of services and products that might usually be available to consumers.
The simple fact is that the types of procedures and long term monitoring that patients regularly need aren’t simple to comprehend and often the only people that should be making choices about where care should be coming from and in what format it should be delivered are clinical professionals that are trained in the intricacies of each particular illness.

The Illusion of Choice is something that has been spread deeply into most every major piece of policy the Government has crafted during its time in power. For instance the HE white paper and the Brown Review before it were based fundamentally on the idea that students, keen for the best illusive ‘Student Experience’ know the best about what is good for them at university. Module Evaluation Forms and National Student Surveys are constantly thrown at students whilst less and less reliance is placed on academics to deciding on the learning environments and curriculum’s of students. As our own VPE has pointed out this constant barrage of checkpoints and evaluation of professionals detracts from their ability to focus on the task at hand and increases the workload burden for their already stressful work lives. As noted by academics at the Harvard School of Business, overly prescriptive goal setting and monitoring doesn’t work. The added layers of bureaucracy take up time and distract professionals, be it in the NHS or in the HE sector, from applying their expensive training on actually doing their jobs to a high standard.

In short patients opinions should be valued and taken on board in a democratic manner, much as in HE environments. However the opinions of patients shouldn’t be used in a complimentary manner to rigorous medical data obtained by health professionals. A greater reliance on patient reports could lead to increase managerialism and scapegoating or be used as the supporting material to make ‘difficult decisions’ with.

1. Guardian, Patrick Wintour – might saytion
2. YouGov Poll (page 5) –
3. Simon Furse VPE –
4. Ordonez, D., 2009 – Goals Gone Wild, HBS
5. Vallance Owen, A., 2008 – PROMs promote health gain and patient involvement & (55min video)

Birmingham students setting up cost saving Housing Co-op

A Housing Co-op is a democratic business that owns or rents property for the purpose of housing its members. The rent is so high in Selly Oak because investor landlords are extorting students and making huge amounts of profit whilst providing low quality housing. We are proposing the opposite – to buy property with loans from the co-op bank and cut out the middle man whilst creating affordable and high quality housing.

Screenshot from 2012-12-11 13:01:13

Members of a group that hope to form the Birmingham Students Housing Cooperative have been working with BCHS a cooperative housing association to develop a viable business plan for buying houses in the Selly Oak area and providing low cost rents. We have been working through the potential problems and risks of creating a company to buy two initial properties that we can live in.

Our ideas stem from the models of Berkley Student Housing Cooperative in California and also work done last decade by the NUS and an urban regeneration co-op called URBED

It turns out the problems are few and our initial estimates of the rent rates, including regular repairs, management and a full refurbishment every 15 years our business plan is giving us a weekly rent rate of possibly as low as £38 per person (although this rate could creep up a little when other factors are included). When we entered the discussion with Carl Taylor from BCHS we knew we would probably be able to undercut the profit grabbing investor landlords that dominate Selly Oak but we had absolutely no idea that we would be able to deliver such incredibly low rates and remain financially viable. Given that rents paid by students living in Selly are generally above £60 the cooperative represents a saving of at least £1144 for the students that will live in the houses next year. Over the next forty years, without adjusting rent rates for interest, or adjusting for the fact that the priced of rented properties in Selly Oak is increasing faster than inflation, these houses will save students of Birmingham at least £457600 or half a million pounds!!

I’ll quote the text of a motion that I authored which has been deferred from two councils at the Guild for little to no good reason, but will hopefully pass when it is finally heard in January – to explain quite the extent of housing issues that students in Birmingham and across the country face.

Students across the UK spend 31% (or an average £4004)of their annual expenditure on rent, and the rate that housing costs increases is double that of inflation. Alongside the whole accommodation burns in student pockets, horror stories of ‘lost’ deposits, exorbitant holding fees and nasty landlords are common talking points in student life and have deep repercussions for student welfare across the U.K.
Currently Guild of Student housing policy is contingent on Government policy, lobbying and awareness raising, and provides no concrete and coherent strategy. Given that such a large percentage of student spending goes to accommodation it seems obvious that the Guild of Students should be taking a full and engaged approach to actively improving living conditions and end the widespread rent extortion of its members, One way to do this is to support and facilitate the creation of Housing co-ops which would provide accountability, affordability and security in housing. Housing co-ops fully supported by NUS and in the International Year of Co-operative, and at a time where conventional businesses are failing and rents are soaring it seems a good idea for the Guild to put its support behind the stable form of housing. The Guild has already put its support behind helping the Green Bike Project get off the ground and the People and Planet society have started their food co-op, it seems the time is ripe for housing co-ops with the support of the Guild.

Its clear that the rent is too damn high, we don’t know the full extent of the problem, but a certainty is that lobbying government and running a letting agency won’t fix. Students need to start thinking with their pockets and investing in a sustainable housing solutions like housing co-ops that will benefit them for generations to come. It would be brilliant if the Guild did as much as possible to facilitate the creation of these co-ops and promote them to the student body as much as possible – so if you are a student at the University of Birmingham speak to your councillor and make them aware of this motion and why it needs to pass in this Guild Council and shouldn’t be delayed yet again.

Screenshot from 2012-12-11 13:07:29Students involved in the plans for the Students Housing Co-op refining the business plan in the next week or so to prepare for a meeting with Cooperative and Community Finance which is the loan fund from which we will secure the deposit on a ~£450k mortgage with which we are looking to buy two 5 person properties.

As well as the business plan we’ve been busy gathering a group of people who are prepared to live in this new housing co-op which would be open in time for the academic year of 2013-14.

However nothing is yet set in stone and we all in agreement that if the interest is there and people are keen to live in a democratic, cheap and friendly place they should get involved with the project! If you are interested contact me or join the Facebook group, the membership isn’t cemented just yet and this is a real chance to save yourself a tidy grand and be the start of something really positive.

Birmingham Students at Cooperatives United – the International Cooperative Conference

2012 is the UN International Year of Co-operatives, and the culminating event, a conference called Co-operatives United was held in Manchester in homage to its heritage as the original home of co-ops, nearby Rochdale. A group of People & Planet members travelled up from Birmingham on a coach with Midlands Co-operative Members, to take part in a session on student co-operatives across the world. What is a co-operative?

Sean and Tom outside a “Big Ideas Pod” on Wednesday 31st October 2012 at Co-operatives United, Manchester Central Convention Centre, Manchester

The talk was hosted by Richard Bickle, an all round co-operative guru, who has been helping Birmingham P&Pers with the scoop they have been setting up. It went through the history of student co-operatives, what position they are in currently, and ended with Q&A on how students can work with unions, co-operative development agencies and People & Planet to help student co-ops flourish across the UK, and around the world.
The talk on student co-operatives covered North America, with Tom Pierson from North American Students of Co-operation (NASCO), student learning in co-ops, different models from different colleges, the very advanced and integrated Quebecios model, where up to 90% of university services – even book shops and stationery shops – are multi-stakeholder co-operatives. He made reference to a number of famous student co-ops, including the Berkeley Student Co-op – which has well over 1000 housing members, and more who are involved in the dining co-op.
A talk by Graeme Wise from the NUS on the history of students’ unions, and particularly on co-operation within them. he talked about SUs coming about as groups of societies working together co-operatively, and they different to trade unions as it was all about trying to create a sustainable, equitable economy within the student community. Now SUs are controlled by a university/HE block grant, and their status as a charity (which came about in the 90s). Graeme talked about how SUs were working to lose their own services to external private suppliers when they had previously been working co-operatively to raise the student voice. This has meant SUs have been restricted in what they’ve been able to achieve with a significantly higher level of autonomy, particularly financially – the block grant is always being threatened to be cut by their respective learning institutions..
The talk by Tom Wragg covered, P&P’s role in student co-ops nationally – the SCOOP campaign, and then how we have been acting on it locally, and where it has opened doors for new people to be involved. He and Sean also talked about the Green Bike Project at the University of Birmingham, and working with university staff and other stakeholders to create these spaces in universities. Working with universities is all about finding the right people to speak to, and it’s vital people link their campaigns and ideas together, and remembering that your universities, colleges and schools can gain a lot from allowing students to start a new co-operative – even if you’ve been causing them a lot of hassle over the last year(s). Tom Wragg followed on from the North American experiences to make a comparison between co-op cultures both in North America and the UK, and highlighted our deficiencies, where we could expand, and the benefits it could bring the student community – affordability, experiences, life skills, quality, ethical and sustainable.
Sean’s talk covered the ways in which fledgling cooperatives can exploit the current climate in both HE institutions and SU’s where both parties are scrambling to promote and support things that increase their brand image or improve their ‘student experience’. He talked about the way in which the Green Bike Project, a maintenance repair co-op has support from a normally hostile university and the ways in which People and Planet groups across the country should manipulate their universities short-term desires for brand image boosts to get funding for long term projects like co-operative cafes, bikes shop or food stalls. Projects like these if done in a proper democratic and open manner could end up being the glue that holds our evermore marketised universities together and provide spaces in which students and staff can get together on equal terms. Sean also talked about a housing co-operative scheme that is evolving in Birmingham and suggested that SU’s should work with P&P, NUS and also NASCO with their prior experience to bring about a stable student housing cooperative template that can be replicated in ‘studentvilles’ across the country to break the bubble of landlord extortion that normally occurs.
In the Q&A we talked about CLTs, new builds, and sustainable building for long-term efficiency gains, low costs and low maintenance. We talked about how co-operatives can provide real ethical investments, as long as those investors do not try to influence the functioning of co-ops after they are set up.
We then talked with David Rodgers (President of the Housing Sector at the International Co-operative Alliance, a federation of national co-operative federations) about how he started in housing co-ops in the early 1970s when he was president of an SU, and how he’d been part of a co-operative development agency (called CDS) in London, which now provides co-operative housing services for thousands of people in London and the rest of the UK. The Sanford Housing Co-op has 130 rooms, and is a very successful example of a new-build in London, SE14. There are two other co-operative housing services co-ops in England, one based in the West Midlands and one in the North-West. If people know of any others in the rest of the UK, please leave a comment! Housing co-ops offer an incredible place to invest in environmentally sustainable building practices, such as LILAC in Leeds.
With Tom Pierson from NASCO, we talked about dining co-op models and the various ways in which we could have two tiered memberships for board and dining. this could mean co-ops could act as a social glue in universities. He also talked about how the ownership of land and property could be controlled by co-operative members and not influenced by conflicting parties, due to their ownership of the properties/liabilities.
Tom Wragg & Sean Farmelo – Birmingham P&P
Cross posted from the People and Planet Grass Roots Blog

National Demo T-Shirt Competition

Vote for the design on the front of Birmingham students National Demo T-Shirts here
Government and universities are cutting education and research budgets, squeezing stipends, wages & pensions, while drowning us all in fees and personal debt. Courses and departments are being closed, universities privatised. This marketi
sation of education is worsening a tiered university system, keeping the rich rich and the poor poor.

Through workfare and unpaid internships, we work for nothing, to compete for jobs that don’t exist, while support for the poor, unemployed and disabled is cut.
University is a public good, and your life is too big to fail – don’t let them bury us in a mountain of debt. March on 21 November.

Private Healthcare Does Not Benefit Students.

Students and local residents from South Birmingham have unfurled banners across five of their houses on the Pershore road along the route of the Bupa Great Birmingham Run to voice their disgust at the privatisation of the NHS. Approximately fifteen thousand runners saw these giant signs which are a cry to save the national healthcare system from private hands, including BUPA who are the sponsors of the half marathon. The community are distressed at the prospect of a private NHS and the effects this may have upon their local hospital.

Not only did the BUPA Run cut right through the heart of South Birmingham but The Chair of the Trustee Board for the Guild of Students Andrew Vallance Owen was a senior executive at BUPA until this spring. He is now a freelance private health consultant and has acted as a strong advocate for the privatisation of the NHS. It’s hard to look at the weak arguments presented by executives (such as ‘‘providing better car parking than the public sector’) and not wonder if there is something more than meets the eye. In fact there is, the basis of the privatisation of the NHS, one of the best quality and best value health care providers in the world, is no more than institutional greed of corporations. There is an almost direct correlation between donations made to the Tory party and which firms receive NHS contracts. All major contracts above 20m have gone to companies which tories donors are stakeholders and the top ten private healthcare companies have contributed 10m to the Conservatives and received 5bn in contracts in return, a swiftly ballooning figure.

One of Andrew Vallance Owens main achievements during his seventeen-year tenure as Group Medical Director at BUPA was introducing a market based ratings mechanism similar to the National Student Survey called PROMs. The Patient-Reported Outcome Measures are based not just clinical outcomes, but patients’ perceptions of the care they have received and are used as the basis for future changes made to health services.

PROMs are an integral part of the drive towards marketisation of the NHS. They provide a “customer focused” measure that is easily comparable and provides a way for patients to choose between different providers. The problem is that setting up something like a PROM as the definitive measure of quality leads to perverse incentives; especially in private providers exclusively geared towards profit. Lay people just do not understand medical procedures; we would find it almost impossible to judge how well our surgery has gone or what is the most effective method for treating Kidney failure.

What we can judge is the outcome of procedures and non-essential aspects of delivery. That is to say we can tell that a procedure hasn’t worked but not whether the doctor has followed the best method and been unlucky, or has made a mistake. We can judge the quality of the car parking at the hospital but not the quality of the X-ray procedure. This leads to providers attempting to game PROMs by providing cheap non essential services such as improved car parking; but more importantly it erodes the relationship of trust between doctor and patient. If you know that your doctor is under pressure to maximise their PROMs how can you trust that their advice is genuine and not an attempt to make you feel more satisfied. There are direct parallels between PROMs and the NSS; the marketisation of health and the marketisation of education that is our union is supposed to be fighting against.

Vallance Owen stands to gain lots from a private money in the NHS, whilst students don’t, it will lead to a clunkier more expensive and lower value health service. As such, these interests conflict with the interests of students, most of whom rely on the NHS for their welfare. It is improper for the Chair of the Trustee Board of an organisation committed to the interests of students to actively lobby for the privatisation of the NHS. It is a conflict of interest that compromises his neutrality and ability to protect all students, especially those in Medicine, Nursing and Biosciences, who will be most directly affected.
Furthermore, the involvement of BUPA in the NHS, spearheaded by Vallance-Owen, will result in the more profitable procedures and postcode areas seeing increased private involvement whilst less profitable services such as the ones students rely on mostly, such as the drop in centre in Selly Oak being avoided because they provide lower returns.

The privatisation of the NHS, at the hands of the coalition government has already been the cause of 42,000 job losses as of September 2012 with more on their way, and this has come at the expense of lower standards of care for patients. In 2012, every major private healthcare provider (Virgin, Serco, Care UK, Circle, Spire, BMI, BUPA and Barchester have failed Care Quality Commission Inspections). Virgin, for example, left its patients lying in their own urine.

The irony of a giant private healthcare company plowing millions into media extravaganzas such as the BUPA Great Birmingham whilst it provides sub par care conditions and contributes to job losses is an irony not lost on the local Stirchley community. What needs to be understood by Vallance Owen, Landsley, Hunt and their ilk is that the vast, vast majority of people want the NHS kept public and that they aren’t winning any hearts by buying the advertising rights to running events and forcing bills through with expensive propaganda.

Art Competition for the National Demo 2012

Graduate debts > £60k | Undergrad fees £9k | uncapped Postgrad and International fees rocketing

PhD stipends frozen | 79% cut to teaching budgets | millions unemployed | welfare support slashed

March against fees, debt, cuts and privatisation!

Government and universities are cutting education and research budgets, squeezing stipends, wages & pensions, while drowning us all in fees and personal debt. Courses and departments are being closed, universities privatised. This marketisation of education is worsening a tiered university system, keeping the rich rich and the poor poor.

Through workfare and unpaid internships, we work for nothing, to compete for jobs that don’t exist, while support for the poor, unemployed and disabled is cut.
University is a public good, and your life is too big to fail – don’t let them bury us in a mountain of debt. March on 21 November.

On November the 21st The Guild of Students intends to take 500 University of Birmingham students down to London.

As with the last National Demo the Guild organised, Demo shirts will be included in the price of the coach tickets however this year we are asking you to get involved in the design of these shirts and submit your designs for the national demo shirts 2012.Once we have recieved all the submissions we will weed out the unsuitable or unprintable submissions and create a shortlist thatall Guild members will be able to vote on. The winning design will be worn by 500 student protestors on the day of the demo.

Whether they are political satire, great quotes or just fantastic artwork you should send your designs to by the 23rd of October so that they can get printed in time for the campaigners to go doorknocking with in the weeks leading up to the demo on the 21st Nov 2012
We are leaving the design up to you but it should not be profane, it could possibly be defiant and it most certainly should be A4 sized and in black and white.

GOG have also assured that the shirts will be printed by a local ethical printers and at the moment it looks very likely that Sabcat, a great workers cooperative based in Walsall will be doing the printing on ethical shirts which is fantastic!
If you have any further questions about the submissions do feel free to email me and I’ll respond in good time so that you can get your design in.

Green Bike Project wins £8000 National Lottery Funding

The Green Bike Project – a student led bicycle maintenance project at the University of Birmingham have this monday received £8000 of National Lottery funding to help set up their workshop on campus by the Learning Centre. Supporting the Green Bike Project both as a member and an officer was one of my main manifesto points and I’m incredibly glad that we have reached such a major milestone so early in the year.
A group of us have been working hard over summer to bring the idea of the first student cooperative on campus into reality, having skype meetings and meeting with allsorts of people. We received help and advice from the local Birmingham Bike Foundry, the Cooperative Developement Hub in Coventy. The project has been receiving support from all corners with the university investing £7700 into the premise over summer and the officer team signing off the purchase of a £900 toolkit as part of Community Action Officer Sean Farmelo’s manifesto pledge to help the Green Bike Project get off its feet, and support community projects.
The shop will be entirely separate from the Guild, as its own distinct business registered with the FSA and will be open to all members and run by its members. It will be fully democratic and run by a system of general meetings where everyone’s votes are counted equally.


The premise is located in a shed between the Learning Centre and Biosciences building, and we are in the process of signing the tenancy agreement with the university for the space. After which we will be able to move in and start installing the furniture.
The Green Bike Project has the aim of increasing ridership on campus and creating a social hub for cyclists which will spread the idea of sustainable transport, and healthiness while reducing travel costs for students.
There will be tools and teaching available and volunteers at the project will help put on cycling related events and training.  The non profit organisation will also be selling refurbished bicycles at knock-down prices to help out students that need bikes but can’t afford them at retail prices.
The funding means the shop will be opening its doors imminently, it will also be able to hire a sessional worker to help get the project off the ground, providing  a meaningful part time job for someone in the community – something rare in the current economic climate. The group hold regular meetings and are reaching out for people to get involved in the setup of the shop. The next stage is to prepare for the grand opening of the shop! Facebook group can be searched for as ‘Green Bike Project’.

8 months of police harrasment, finally behind me

Since the 15th of February, unknown to many of my friends I’ve been being pursued by the police and the university on spurious charges of assault that collapsed in court yesterday. I can’t describe the overwhelming feeling of this finally being over and I can’t thank my parents and certain friends enough for their support. It all began when I participated in a demonstration against a now famous injunction banning sit-ins on my campus, the injunction (which was condemed by Amnestly International, Liberty and Index on Censorship) has become since the subject on much enmity between students and the university.

I was wrongfully arrested on the charge of violent disorder, which was later changed to assault and subjected to six months of extreme stress. My trial finished yesterday with a Not Guilty verdict at Birmingham Magistrates court after major contradictions in prosectution testimonies and film footage showing me not assaulting anyone.

At the time a spokesperson for West Midlands Police made the claim that ‘a 20-year-old man from Edgbaston was arrested on 15th February on suspicion of assault after a security guard at the University sustained a broken foot.’, something which was later proved in court to be an outright lie, with no supporting medical documents.

The injunction was taken out by the University of Birmingham in a special High Court sitting costing upwards of £10,000 on Nov 25th to break up a peaceful anti fees sit-in taking place in abandoned gatehouse on the edge of campus. During the occupation a colleague of mine, Simon Furse, was assaulted by a security guard and a university disciplinary was brought against him.

Given the national outcry against the injunction and its attack on freedom of expression; the implications it might have had for other universities across the country and the disgraceful treatment of Simon Furse by a maniacal university management; a national demo was called by NCAFC, Defend the Right to Protest and the Education Activist Network and backed by the NUS for the day of Simon Furse’s disciplinary. The Guild of Students, my students union, later pledged its support for the march.

On the day of the march we successfully disrupted Simon’s disciplinary and then gathered by the students union for speeches and the march. We ignored the illegitmate A to B route unilaterally imposed by Guild and University management days before and instead marched around campus on our own route. During the march I helped keep a door open at the back of a building on campus, we were unsucessful in keeping it open as a security guard slammed shut the door on my foot crushing it and causing me to scream out in pain.

My foot was eventually released and the march continued and held a succesfull sit-in in the corporate management suite of the university. When the sit-in finished and exited the building we found the police attempting to arrest a protestor I didn’t know. After being talked to they agreed to have him come in for questioning tomorrow (with the threat of arrest if he didn’t).

While this was going on I naively approached a police officer standing off to the side and asked him why they weren’t going to arrest the security guard who crushed my foot in a door. The police officer asked for my name and said I was in the same position as the other man, and when I said ‘forget it’ and walked away he then forcefully arrested me. I had absolutely no idea why and was in deep shock as I was arrested, it was the first time anything like that had happened to me. There were around 30 witnesses crowding around as I was cuffed and dragged off to a police car. The officer later accused me of ‘struggling’ upon arrest which is wholly untrue, my mind was absolutely blank and I was too scared to struggle.

I was taken to Kings Heath police station and held for five hours in a cell. My charge was then changed to Violent Disorder, a particlarly scary and repressive piece of criminal law I’d learnt about in legal training put on by the Guild and that I’d read about in the Alfie Meadows case It is a nasty New Labour invention that is often used as a catch all protestor offence and its vague description makes it very easy to convict non-violent people with. In my interview I answered ‘no comment’ and gave a prepared statement denying assault and violent disorder, following the advice of my lawyer. As if it were a practical joke the police accused me of assaulting a security guard and severly injuring his foot – the exact thing I initially said had happened to me!

When I was released into the cold February night without my hat, jumper, bag or shoes I was overjoyed to find a whole host of my friends waiting outside the station in solidarity. However there was a total lack of Guild presence, apparently their ‘duty of care’ doesn’t extend to giving any assistance whatsoever to their members who’ve been wrongfully arrested at a Guild-backed protest on campus. When I was in the police station, in my cell and asked which solicitor I wasn’t sure so I asked them to call the Guild and get in contact with an officer who I knew would be able to tell me which protest lawyers to go with – however no one in the whole building picked up, and after getting back home I found Guild officers had been on Facebook all day attacking the student protesters rather than helping me. My shock at seeing that a “student’s union” can abandon someone in such a dire situation is what motivated me to run for an officer position to change the institution for better.

My criminal case quickly became a farce, with my charge being changed multiple times and several other friends being taken in for questioning. I was in and out of the police station around seven times in the next two months for interviews and a botched identification process that later helped destroy the prosectution’s case. I was missing lectures, seminars due to the police appointments and was very stressed. I did very badly in my course around then and failed modules as a direct result of my treatment by the police. I felt unable to go to either the Guild or the University for help with my academic troubles as I was aware they were both in collaboration with the police over my case. However Guild Council did strongly condemn the university’s disciplinaries over the protest.

The trial was eventually scheduled for 1st of October. The main witness against me, the security guard who slammed my foor shut in the door, claimed in the witness box that I was the ‘ringleader of the stampers’ and that my ‘repeated and vigorous stamping’ had given him ligament damage and lasting back pains. I’m not the biggest man and I think it was becoming apparent to the judge that the claims I’d severly injured a bulky 6’5 security guard were spurious, especially given the fact my foot was propping open the door the entire incident so it would have been impossible for me to stamp on him. The defence footage filmed by a Green & Black Cross Legal Observor clearly showed me cowering away from the security guard and with my foot on the door, it didn’t show me jostling him or stamping on him, things he specifically claimed I did.

When it came to the verdict the judge dismissed the prosecution’s evidence against me due to the numerous contradictions in their witness testimony. A security guard who was said to have been “pushed” to the ground by students conceded in court that she had in fact fell over herself, and her witness statement saying she was wearing flat shoes was contradicted by photographs of her wearing high-heels. The security guard I allegedly assaulted had said I was wearing black pimsols, however the shoes presented by the police confiscated from me on the day were described as “green boots.” This security guard claimed to have identified me months later at an ID parade at the police station from his memory of the incident, however neglected to mention that he walks past a massive banner with my name and face on it on his way to work every day and later admitted that he already knew who I was from me being a public figure on campus.

But most importantly, video footage of the entire incident filmed by a legal observer contradicted many the main prosecution witnesses’ claims and clearly showed me not having assaulted him or anyone, and had in fact stood still backing away throughout the entire thing.


With this incident now behind me, I’m looking forward to moving on with my studies and carrying on the fight for education and all public services, against privatisation, tution fees & cuts. Our movement increasingly effective and powerful as it is faces increasing pressure from the police, university and government who want to stop us. Activists shouldn’t be scared, we should get prepared. We need to be careful and get well aquainted with our legal rights as we face real danger from a police force that is systematically targeting political protestors. Although I have been foudn not guilty many other innocent protesters are falling victim to injustice such as Alfie Meadows and also the Fortnum & Mason occupiers . I would strongly recommend activists attend or organise Green and Black Cross legal training sessions . The important thing is not get put off taking action despite all this I believe it is worth the risks and I hope see more actions taking place this year at the TUC national demo on october 20th and NUS National Demonstration on November 21st .

Knobbly Knees

Early on Saturday mornings if my not so trusty alarm clock manages to raise me from my slumbers you’ll find me moving my knobbly knees in two big loops around one of Birmingham’s finest green spaces (link beyond the bullring cannonhill park). Parkrun is a completely free 5 kilometre, officially timed race for ALL levels of abilities that happens in parks in 7 different countries! No matter how much running experience you have, all are welcome. Rain or shine there are always upwards of 70 people from all corners of Birmingham doing the weekly run, you’ll find runners doing the 5k in times from 17 minutes and up to 40. There are some people doing it in speedy lyrca and even a father who does the 5k with a pram and his spawn (the pair of them invariably take me over a few corners before the finish). Waking up at 8 to go for a run isn’t everyone Idea of a relaxing weekend, but it really does refresh you for the rest of the day and you can always lie in on Sunday.

Each Parkrun event is run entirely by volunteers who give their time freely to set up each event, time the runners, process the results and clear away afterwards. To assist the volunteers, Parkrun HQ provides the volunteers with computer equipment, timing devices, bar-code readers, signs and the web hosting of the results.
To keep the whole event free there is a small element of corporate sponsorship, but this is kept to a quick shout-out at the start or the occasional freebie. On the whole the only time you think about companies whilst on Parkrun is the smugness you get when jogging past the British Military Fitness people and being certain that you are getting a better, freer and less shouty workout than them.
If you arrive in time for the speech at the beginning (around 8.55) you’ll see people being congratulated and cheered on for exceptional volunteering and for their running achievements. The rules and the route are clearly explained for newcomers of which there are always a number and then everyone walks down to the start of the run. The atmosphere is always positive and non competitive, there is never any pressure and if you aren’t feeling it you can just stop running and your time won’t even be recorded or show up on your account. It is easy to strike up a conversation after the run with people in the queue to get your time – or if you have breath to spare on the run. During first year I found going on Parkrun every week gave me one way of escaping from what becomes the monotonous bubble of The Vale/ University/ Broad Street and being around people who are actually from Birmingham. It would be great to see more students from the University interacting with locals and volunteering or running Parkrun is a prime way in which to do so.

Below are the details for the Freshers Parkrun event James Hughes the Vice President of Sports and I are organising for after freshers fortnight. If you aren’t a fresher you are certainly welcome to come along as well. Parkrun happens every week so even if you can’t make the 6th do register yourself, print out the barcodes and come along another week when you are free. Additionally check the national website to see if your local city has a Parkrun, most do and its great fun trying to force your family along on a weekend run.

Cannon Hill Parkrun Freshers’ Detox’
Date: 6th October
Meeting points/venues: Entrance to University train station (8am), Entrance to Elgar Court (8.15am), Tennis Courts entrance (8.15am) and Victoria Halls entrance.
There will be a marshal in a fluorescent jacket at each meeting point to guide you down to Cannon Hill Park
Simply sign up online via, print off the barcode that will be emailed to you and turn up at your chosen meeting point