29 Feb 2016

Scarfies who burn couches 'take risks with their futures'

7:53 am on 29 February 2016

Dunedin's mayor is defending a group set up last year to improve behaviour in the city's student area, despite a house fire sparked by couch burning.

A party on Castle Street, Dunedin, about 8am on Sunday 1 November 2015.

A party continues on Castle Street, Dunedin, about 8am on Sunday in November last year. Photo: Twitter / @doryrempsey

The fire in the early hours of Sunday morning spread rapidly to Castle Street house from a burning couch outside the flat. The house had to be evacuated.

It is not known who started the fire, but bad behaviour and couch burning by students is nothing new in Dunedin.

In May last year, Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull called together a group of interested parties to talk about the behaviour in North Dunedin.

Dunedin mayor Dave Cull

Dunedin mayor Dave Cull Photo: Ian Telfer

The Dunedin North Issues Group wanted to change the attitudes prevalent in North Dunedin, re-establish pride in the area and keep young people safe.

Mr Cull said following that group's discussion, the University of Otago and council were taking a much tougher stance against those who flouted the law.

But at the same time more infill housing and new townhouses had increased the fire risk in the area, he said.

"I lived in the north end 30-odd years ago and there were probably about 4000 students at the university and we all lived in much the same area as now 20,000 do. So it's clearly a riskier situation if people light fires," he said.

In a statement, Inspector Kelvin Lloyd said the weekend's incident could have been much worse.

"We need to stop thinking that this is part of the culture of the area, and accept the very real dangers that this type of offending poses. This is more than high spirited antics and will result in a tragedy or injury if attitudes do not change," he said.

Hospitality Association Otago president Mark Scully attended the group's original meeting.

He said on the whole students in the city were well behaved, but the culture of burning things had got out of hand.

"Probably something to do with the forbidden fruit, perhaps it's the thrill of doing it. But they have to realise there are some pretty serious consequences now.

"Obviously the university are taking a hard line on it and anyone caught I believe potentially faces expulsion from the university. I think it's 14 years jail for arson, so the people that are doing it are taking huge risks with their futures," he said.

He suspected social media was also playing a role.

"If there was a fire in the student area 20 years ago perhaps none of us would have seen anything of that. But I do think also there's a probably mentality of 'let's do it and film it and put it online'. Unfortunately the whole 'show off' element is further enhanced knowing that they could potentially be seen online by people," he said.

Mr Cull was worried the party atmosphere was attracting non-students perhaps looking for trouble to the scarfie area.

"It appears that the North Dunedin area is a bit of a magnet for either people who just want to party, who are not students, or troublemakers who see it as a place to foment trouble. I think we need to keep an eye on that," he said.

The University of Otago declined to be interviewed, but in a statement said it had no tolerance for those who lit illegal fires and any student caught doing so would be excluded from the university.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs