Amidst the controversy of student safety in Selly Oak, News Editor Tom Leaman investigates if UoB students have a cause for concern
A Redbrick survey, alongside statistics from Police UK, student interviews, and monitoring of the ‘Fab N Fresh’ Facebook page, found that a misconception exists amongst students regarding a lack of safety in Selly Oak. The area’s crime rates are not abnormally high for a student area with a high population density – or even for a district in Birmingham. However, there are still suggestions amongst students that the University and the Police could be doing more to prevent crimes from taking place in Selly Oak.
Speaking to Redbrick, the Guild of Students’ Welfare and Community Officer, Izzy Bygrave, said that ‘relative to the rest of Birmingham, [Selly Oak] is not the most unsafe area.’ The University issued a statement on October 7th which said: ‘While generally Selly Oak is a safe area and incidents of this nature are rare, students are encouraged to be vigilant and look after one another.’ In response, Bygrave said: ‘I don’t think it’s right for the University to think this message is enough for the students who live there. Students don’t always feel safe in Selly Oak and it’s unfair for the University to be simply telling students we shouldn’t feel this way.’
The University’s claim that Selly Oak is ‘generally’ a safe area has been supported by recent actions by the University, alongside other organisations. There are ever-growing connections between the University and the Guild with West Midlands Police, which has led to new initiatives such as Street Watch and the Blueline scheme which help make a difference both on campus and in the streets of Selly Oak.
Whilst the University has softened the idea of Selly Oak being an unsafe area, a significant amount of students still feel unsafe. A survey published by Redbrick Comment in Redbrick’s issue on Friday 26th October gained 71 responses. It said that only 11.3% of UoB students consider themselves safe in Selly Oak, with 83.7% declaring themselves unsafe. The remaining 5% considered themselves neither safe nor unsafe.
Redbrick has found that the primary issue regarding why students feel unsafe in Selly Oak is the lack of publicity of what is being done to protect students in comparison to the publicity surrounding the crimes themselves on pages such as ‘Fab N Fresh,’ leading to a disparity between how safe students are and how safe they feel. This raises the question of how the Guild and the University will continue to act, in raising awareness of their work to improve safety in the area, making students feel safer in their own homes.
This feeling of a lack of safety becomes apparent on social media and through media reporting on the crimes that occur in the area. These reports can then be shared between mass audiences, which inflates the idea that Selly Oak is perhaps a more unsafe place to live than statistics would suggest.
A survey published by Redbrick in June – which was met with 248 responses – found that 42.9% of students in Selly Oak considered themselves unsafe residing there. What’s more, 75% of students believed that the Guild and UoB are not doing enough to ensure that students feel safe in Selly Oak.
There is evidence to suggest that the student conception regarding safety in Selly Oak in unfounded. A report by Birmingham Live, published in September, listed all of the ‘areas of Birmingham and the surrounding regions’ using Police UK statistics from June. The statistics showed that in September, Selly Oak had 195 reported crimes, which was the 14th least out of the 51 areas listed. Significantly, the city centre had 1,030 reported crimes in the same timeframe, while Edgbaston and Bournville both had higher crime rates with 289 and 221 respectively.
Moreover, there are examples of positive measures being put in place in Selly Oak by the University, the Guild of Students and West Midlands Police. This includes the Selly Express bus service, which launched on Monday 15th October; the continued work of Community Wardens, and a safety day event on campus, which occurred on the 5th of October. The plans for the Selly Express bus service were accepted last year with the intention of it being implemented by the end of October.
UoB’s Academic Registrar, Stephen McAuliffe, outlined the funding for the Selly Express to Redbrick, saying: ‘The budget for the bus is there for a year. We’d want to see that it was used and that students felt that it was making a difference for them and making them feel safer. An empty vehicle going backwards and forwards would be a waste of money.’ He also praised the Guild President, Reece Patrick Roberts, saying he ‘worked very hard and tried to bring it earlier, which is one of the things that was important in his campaign.’
When asked about the Selly Express, Izzy Bygrave told Redbrick: ‘I really hope that it is already making a difference and will continue to do so – especially as we get closer to winter. We’ve all experienced having to walk through Selly on your own in the dark and we know that it can be quite a scary experience. Hopefully having the option of a bus straight to your door will stop people from being discouraged from staying late on campus.’
Like McAuliffe, Bygrave said that she hopes the bus is justified as a measure by its usage to ensure it can become an enduring part of students’ lives at UoB: ‘If the demand is enough we will be looking into getting the bus running as a permanent service to help students stay safe.’
After the service’s first month, the Community Wardens announced on Twitter that ‘we have officially taken over 1,000 passengers home safely at night in our first month!! Thanks for riding the Selly Express!’
The Selly Express is one measure that is being taken to try to make students feel safer at night when leaving campus late at night. However, another result from the Redbrick survey revealed that 52% of students labelled police presence as either as ‘insufficient’ in the area. 19.8% said it is ‘very insufficient.’ One new policy that the University has implemented in partnership with West Midlands Police is Street Watch. The West Midlands Police website describes Streetwatch as ‘a community-led initiative based on street patrols carried out by members of the public with no police powers.’
Streetwatch volunteers are managed by a volunteer coordinator who consults with local police to patrol areas. If the volunteers spot suspicious activity, they cannot directly prevent or stop a crime themselves if they see one taking place. The West Midlands Police website says: ‘If volunteers spot suspicious activity they should report it to the police but not get involved.’ Furthermore, the Street Watch site says that ‘Street Watch is not about policing or about replacing police officers,’ but instead ‘empowers communities to promote and set their own standards and for residents to reclaim their open spaces and to provide visible reassurance to others.’
Additionally, UoB is providing funding for five full-time officers as part of the Blueline scheme to operate in Selly Oak. Five students were selected by the University and trained by West Midlands Police to work for a year in Selly Oak, on campus and in surrounding areas. Unlike some other universities running the same scheme, UoB is paying a salary to the five officers to ensure they do not have to work part-time alongside working as a police officer.
Speaking to Redbrick News shortly after a major incident on the 7th October, involving a stabbing on Heeley Road, Director of Student Affairs Jon Elsmore said of the Blueline Scheme: ‘The University provided funding for that, and West Midlands Police provided the initiative and a training programme. The extra capacity that that represents is significant.’
More is being done to try to improve police presence in Selly Oak and around campus, although the University’s campus PC, Charlie Richards, told Redbrick that some crimes that are discussed on social media are not reported to the police, which makes it impossible for them to act accordingly.
This is the potential downfall of the Facebook group ‘Fab N Fresh,’ which is used in great regularity by students to warn other students of potential threats. Speaking to Redbrick, Richards said that, in some cases, there are incidents where ‘no one’s bothered to tell us, which makes it really difficult for us to put resources into an area where we don’t know where there’s an issue in the first place.’
Redbrick’s survey found that only 32% of students feel safe because of social media platforms such as ‘Fab N’ Fresh,’ in comparison to 44% who claimed it made them feel less safe, with the remaining 24% feeling indifferent on the matter.
When asked if the ‘Fab N Fresh’ page is a force for good when it comes to crime reporting, Bygrave replied: ‘I think it’s good and bad. It’s great that we can share experiences so quickly with other students and it can help to warn students if someone else has been burgled on your road – reminding you to check your door and make sure your house is secure before going to bed.’
‘However, it can tend to over-exaggerate the actual amount of crime, as multiple people often post about the same incident. Also, people often end up just posting about a crime into Fab N Fresh and not actually reporting it to the Police meaning they cannot respond and incidents don’t get investigated.’
When discussing ‘Fab N’ Fresh’, Charlie Richards brought up the online reporting function on the West Midlands Police website which can be used for minor crimes, much like the 101 phone number. She said: ‘101 is for lower-level incidents, where life isn’t in danger but I need to report a crime, though online reporting might be quicker and more detailed in some circumstances, and it’s probably more convenient in some respects.’
Besides the problem of crimes being described on ‘Fab N Fresh’ and then not being reported to the Police, Richards said: ‘I love the idea of Fab N Fresh, and I love the fact that people are talking and trying to empower each other and spread the word about things.’
Having monitored the page for this investigation, Redbrick found that crime-related posts were few and far between. On October 20th, of the first 215 posts on the page, only one was reporting a crime, while there was one meme poking fun at the crime rate in the area. This equates to only 0.93% of posts discussing crime, though this was on a night where the majority of posts were trying to sell event tickets.
Furthermore, of the top 150 posts on the page on the night of Sunday 21st October, there were two posts directly reported crimes, while another two were related in some way to Selly Oak’s crime rate. This means crime-related posts made up only 2.66% of these 150 posts.
This does suggest that, on an average weekend, the number of crimes reported amongst students is low. In the two days following the Sunday 7th October attack, there were over 60 posts to the page regarding crime, demonstrating that one major event can significantly increase crime fervour. The stabbing on Sunday 7th was described by PC Richards as ‘rare’ and ‘opportunistic,’ though it led to an increase in the number of attention crimes received in posts on the page in following weeks.
However, Redbrick’s monitoring of the page shows that the relatively few posts regarding crime are pushed to the top of the page due to their high reactions and comments figures. This algorithm also means that crime-related posts are more likely to show in students’ Facebook News Feeds, or even send out notifications. This can make it seem like there are always very regular problems with crime experienced by UoB students. When viewing the page, altering the settings to show ‘new posts’ rather than ‘recent activity’ helps to demonstrate this
The page certainly does bring up some troubling account of crime in Selly Oak. One post on 18th July to the forum warned of ‘terrible instances of sexual assault/harassment’ on campus and accused the University’s security of being ‘non-existent.’ However, the post’s writer seemed to only have alerted campus security to the issue, when commenters suggested that calling the police non-emergency 101 line would have been best to ensure a response.
Another Fab N Fresh post from June claimed that the victims of car vandalism did not call for police, saying ‘ain’t no time for police.’ Such stories quickly gain momentum through reactions and comments, greatly increasing the post’s reach, potentially allowing isolated incidents to become disproportionate.
However, one post did present a potential improvement to UoB and the Guild’s system for helping to prevent crime, by suggesting that the accommodation office could pass out panic alarms instead of energy drinks in their welcome packs to freshers. The University does suggest attending one of their bi-weekly drop-in sessions at the police room in University Centre, where panic alarms are available for free.
The idea of scaremongering does not end with social media, as local news outlets also report crime figures for Selly Oak out of context with that of other areas. A Birmingham Live article published in May reported 365 sexual assaults between January and December 2018 – ‘one for each day of the year.’
While these statistics are shocking, in a wider context this figure seems relatively low. According to Police UK, the primary student area in Cardiff, Cathays, had 1,836 offences of a violent and/or sexual nature between June 2017 and May 2018. In the same period, Selly Oak had 394, despite having a population of almost 5,000 more people.
Cardiff University’s most popular student area has considerably more crimes of all types listed on the police website, suggesting that Selly Oak is, in fact, a relatively safe area when compared to others. Campus PC Charlie Richards suggested that other Birmingham-based students choose to live in Selly Oak, showing that perhaps even other parts of Birmingham are less safe student areas.
Additionally, research by the Complete University Guide shows that Edgbaston is far from the most unsafe University area. The data, compiled from Police UK, shows that Edgbaston has 34.3 incidents per 1,000 residents.
This makes Edgbaston the 32nd safest university campus of the 127 listed, putting UoB above Birmingham City University and Aston. However, it must be acknowledged that Edgbaston and Selly Oak are distinctly different bordering regions.
Redbrick’s own survey found that over 70% of students in Selly Oak have not been directly affected by a crime of any nature, despite the perception that people feel unsafe living there. While 30% is still a significant figure, many of these crimes would likely have been more minor crimes, as violent and sexual offences made up 18.16% of crimes committed in Selly Oak. In the same period, 15.26% of crimes reported to the police were for burglary.
This implies that it is a perception of danger, rather than the immediate threat of danger, that is the major issue that is making students uncomfortable while living and studying at the University.
While such statistics cannot downplay the seriousness of crimes committed in Selly Oak and the effects on the victims, they do show that the district is not abnormally dangerous. Despite this, students interviewed by Redbrick did suggest that the Guild could do more to promote the idea that Selly Oak is, in fact, safer than students suggest.
One second-year student, Liv, states that she has been catcalled in the area and told Redbrick that she believes that ‘there never seems to be any discussion about safety. It’s all under the surface as far as I’m aware.’ She also suggested that such safety discussions are ‘swept under the rug.’
Liv does, however, point out that the ‘drunken hedonism’ of the student area makes it particularly difficult for the University and the Guild to act to improve student safety in the area.
One Harborne-based History student, Megan Millen, suggested that students can always do more to ensure their own safety. Regarding her housemates’ decision to move to Harborne rather than Selly Oak, Millen says that ‘the unsafe reputation of Selly did have a role’ in choosing where to live. This is amongst other factors such as house price and quality.
Police UK’s website shows that Harborne had 290 burglaries from June 2017 to May 2018 compared to Selly Oak’s 378.
When queried further about any safety concerns that she had about Selly Oak, Megan told Redbrick: ‘my main worry regarding safety I think would have to be theft.’
Regarding the role of the University and the Guild of Students have in making students feel safer in Selly Oak, she says that: ‘I think the uni do as much as they can do.’
Institutions such as the University have a lack of control over the safety of students in Selly Oak. UoB’s Academic Registrar, Stephen McAuliffe, told Redbrick that the University ‘want to work with’ landlords more through schemes much as the Midlands Landlord Accreditation Scheme (MLAS), but pointed out that the University cannot fit home safety features to students’ houses in Selly Oak, adding ‘I suspect it’s illegal!’
According to the ‘Love Selly Oak’ website, students can improve their safety by ensuring houses are securely locked, walking home in groups rather than alone with valuables hidden, and drinking responsibly.
Overall, statistics from Police UK and other sources suggest that Selly Oak is indeed a ‘relatively safe’ student area. However, there is a disparity between this and how safe students feel when living there.
Rare major incidents suggest that more needs to be done to keep students safe. Though, regarding the stabbing incident in October, PC Richards told Redbrick, ‘you will never stop an incident like that, which was a random act of opportunistic violence.’ She also emphasised that the arrests and charges were made within 48 hours of the attack taking place.
While more could be done to address the feeling of being unsafe in Selly Oak, the usual precautions should be taken by students to make sure they are safe. This includes avoiding being alone at night, not getting into unmarked taxis, and carrying a personal attack alarm.
Selly Oak is a densely-populated student area and should be lived in with safety as a clear priority for both students themselves and the relevant institutions and authorities.