War looms over varsity digs

2014-03-31 00:00

SCOTTSVILLE residents are preparing to do battle with the Msunduzi Municipality over the mushrooming of student digs in the suburb.

They determined that their suburb will not change into “Digsville”.

The residents claim that a lack of enforcement of by-laws meant that boarding house owners were taking over the suburb by stealth.

An informal network of over 70 residents, known as the Digs Action Group (DAG), initially tried to co-operate with the municipality in alerting them to new illegal boarding houses opening. However, they claimed that the municipality was not following through.

DAG are now on the warpath and will be constituting themselves into a formal body to be in a better position to challenge the municipality legally, if necessary. An option being explored is to take the municipality to the high court to seek an order that forces the municipality to act in accordance with appropriate laws and by-laws. A meeting to formalise the organisation is due to take place this week.

Marcus Burnett, spokesperson for the group, said it seemed they had reached an impasse with the relevant officials at Msunduzi with regards to addressing the digs issue.

“They have stopped responding to my correspondence, and certainly we have not seen a single digs stop operating, in spite of several assurances that contravention notices have been served and that prosecutions are pending.

“Frankly, I doubt that effective prosecutions are in the pipeline because I doubt there is any sort of co-ordinated approach to dealing with the issue. I begin to question if there is the will to address it,” Burnett said.

He added that they realised that students needed accommodation. “We are certainly not anti-student, but two wrongs don’t make a right. We can co-exist as neighbours, but there should be properly planned, secure accommodation provided rather than simply allowing private investors to fill an unregulated vacuum, to the detriment of residents and often to the disadvantage of students,” the DAG spokesperson said.

He added that rather than digs mushrooming in an unregulated manner, there should be more planning in the suburb, for example allowing one or two digs per street, depending on the length of the street. In this way there could be a mix of both residential and student accommodation.

A lawyer living in the suburb, who did not want to be named, said that in the past few months, there appeared to be a trend within the council’s economic development and planning portfolio committee to readily pass applications for boarding houses. He believed this could be linked to the upcoming election as no one wanted to alienate students who were potential voters.

Msunduzi’s deputy municipal manager for economic development, Dr Ray Ngcobo, said the municipality was well aware that the demand for student accommodation had grown exponentially. He added that they had followed up on the information provided by DAG. He said illegal establishments were served with transgression notices and some received fines, and conceded that a weakness in the past was the lack of follow-up. This was due to not having sufficient staff. He said systems have since been put into place and the municipality had employed more qualified building inspectors, town planning and licensing inspectors.

Ngcobo said that the municipality was also against the unregulated manner in which boarding houses were springing up. “Our vision is for Scottsville to be adapted to kill the demand for digs, through making land available in designated areas for student housing.”

He said they had already started and had identified a site in Woodhouse Road for the development of student housing. They were considering other land as well for this purpose. According to Ngcobo, they wanted to attract institutional investors and will be going out on public tender for the Woodhouse Road site shortly. He added that the residential nature of Scottsville would always be retained.

“The people who work at the universities and in the surrounding businesses would also like to stay near their places of work,” he said.

Ngcobo warned however that it was inevitable that neighbourhoods would change. “Certain suburbs that emerged under apartheid had low volumes of people and greater space. Even the university was small and catered for a far smaller number of students. The numbers of students have grown and they want to live near their places of learning,” he said.

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