Housing, wind turbines and safety discussed in election debate for students

From left to right: Maahar Fattal (GroenLinks), Kim Jansen (Piratenpartij), George Woodham (Forum voor Democratie) and Floris Boudens (Socialisten Utrecht). Photo: DUB

A packed hall at student association Unitas with yelling students. It was something to get used to again after the pandemic. The location was perfect for a debate on the municipal council elections, primarily focusing on topics pertinent to students.

Originally, twelve parties had been invited. But parties PVV and Denk cancelled their participation last minute. Parties Bij1, EenUtrecht and Socialisten Utrecht were added as a result. The Federation of Utrecht Student Associations (Dutch Acronym: FUG) and student organisation Vidius organised the event, called "The Student Votes". They chose eight statements, to which four parties at a time could react. Presenter Daan Warnas ensured that speakers did not talk for too long.

Alcohol in the parks
The debate started with a topic with which students have little connection: whether parents are free to choose which primary school they send their kids to. However, the second statement had everything to do with their lives: whether alcohol consumption should be allowed in the city's parks.

Victor Paalman, from the Student & Starter party, is a strong supporter. “Parks were a refuge for students during the pandemic. When you live in a small room, you must be allowed to go to a park.”

He could totally envision the change: “The parks could have pop-up bars where students could drink a nice cold beer". Paalman was supported by the Socialist Party, as well as SP-split off Socialisten Utrecht. They think that public space is for everybody, but preferably without commercial exploitation.

Anton Stam, from Volt, did not agree. “We must keep parks liveable”, he said. He called for free alcohol consumption during the day and a ban from 10 p.m. in the evening to prevent nuisance. “If you want people to continue living in the city centre, they must be able to sleep well”.

Paalman, from Student & Starter, disagreed. According to him, students could handle alcohol responsibly in a park. He proposed “park guides": someone who would guide the visitors and ask them politely to clear away the rubbish or turn down the music a little.

Isolation or wind turbines
Some of the topics discussed might not seem to directly affect students at first, but a connection could still be made. For example, there was a fierce discussion about whether or not to place windmills in Rijnenburg. Local parties EenUtrecht and Stadsbelangen attacked D66 on the grounds that the decision to do so was unrealistic and did not take residents' health complaints sufficiently into account.

The two parties argued for more insulation, mentioning student houses in particular. D66 and Partij voor de Dieren were also in favour of this, but they think that Utrecht cannot tackle its climate problems without wind turbines in Rijnenburg and De Uithof.

The discussion about camera surveillance also took a turn towards the world of students. The question was whether more camera surveillance can help combat street harassment. According to GroenLinks and Socialisten Utrecht, one has to be careful. GroenLinks representative Mahaar Fattal introduced the term "data minimalism" to define a policy that looks critically at camera use.

Piratenpartij, which values privacy greatly, opposed to the use of cameras. Candidate Kim Jansen: “That doesn’t work. It is better to use neighbourhood fathers and neighbourhood mothers, for example, in a neighbourhood with student houses, and make sure that everyone gets on well with each other.”

The most hilarious statement in this debate came from Forum list leader George Woodham. He said he was against cameras because he did not trust the government. When someone in the audience noted that his election manifesto said there should be more cameras, he said, "But I'm against it."

A student from the audience asked why everyone was against cameras if they could help to see who stole their bicycle. According to the parties, the invasion of privacy did not outweigh this problem.

Project developers
The main theme of the evening was housing. PvdA, through its candidate Joachim Cornielje, defined itself as the Party of Houses. “There is a shortage of 8,600 student rooms and something needs to be done about it. The municipality must crack down on landlords and take the initiative by buying land to build student complexes and social housing.”

He received support from almost all parties. Coalition parties D66 and GroenLinks also want more affordable (student) housing to become available in the city. Nevertheless, these parties were given a good beating in the debate. Isabelle Booij, of D66, said that it is too risky for a municipality to buy land itself. It's better to make good arrangements with project developers.

Volt lashed out at D66's "fables", calling the party naive. According to Volt, these project developers do not keep to the agreements, rendering the municipality powerless. GroenLinks got the same criticism.

While debating squatting, GroenLinks candidate Fattal agreed that the municipality had been too naive in its dealings with property developers in past housing projects and that things must improve over the next few years.

VVD and CDA would like to see clearer agreements about empty houses, arguing that students should be allowed temporary accommodation in such buildings. That produces better results than allowing squatting to take pace. "Squatters often make a mess of things," said Tess Meerding of the VVD.

Bij1 and Partij voor de Dieren, on the other hand, thought that squatting should be allowed in order to tackle speculators. The moment a house owner can show that something is going to happen to the building, the squatters should go away.

Forum was the only party to look elsewhere for the cause of the housing problem. Woodham: "That's because of the huge growth of international students and mass immigration."

There had just been a debate on diversity in which Bij1 wanted the municipality to strive for its own staff to reflect society. That means hiring more people who would otherwise risk being left out because of their background. And according to Noura Oul Fakir, challenged by the CDA, this should also apply to, for example, PVV members who are excluded. Job van den Broek of the CDA was not in favour of such a quota. "Who wants to reveal all their characteristics in their application that they might be discriminated against?

In any case, Forum's comment gave the debate a nasty end. In a closing statement, GroenLinks candidate Mahaar Fattal, who has a Syrian background herself, said that she thinks Utrecht should continue to profile itself as a city where refugees are welcome. Especially now that there is a war going on.