I’ll focus in this Blog on yesterday’s UCU meeting and the picnic on sunday. In relation to the meeting, I simply wanted to make people aware of the facts about what happened, and in a Blog next week will offer a reaction to it. To help form a view, be warned, at the picnic I may ask you your opinion!
1. The UCU-hosted meeting: the Facts
Packed UCU meeting confirms extent of opposition to Chaucer Fields ‘development’
Despite being a busy time for University staff and others, the open meeting hosted by the University of Kent’s main staff union, UCU, on Thursday 10 May drew a very large audience. Many local people responded to the invitation to attend the event, as well as University staff, and a small number of students (the event was publicised by Kent Union). The speakers were Professor Keith Mander, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and one of the architects of the ‘development’ proposals, who portrayed the University as essentially (and necessarily) an organisation focussed on maximising business activity, and claimed that job security was threatened if the scheme did not proceed. At the same time, it emerged from Professor Mander’s speech that the University was now aware of the extent of opposition to the scheme, in particular because of the pending Village Green Application, and was in the process of exploring alternative development options . It was stated clearly that the Chaucer Fields option was essentially on hold for 2012 and possibly well into 2013, at least until the Village Green Application situation was clarified. This was not least because the potential private financial backers were unwilling to proceed in these circumstances. In the meantime, other sites off campus were being considered.
Two speakers then argued against the proposal in principal, highlighting the value of Chaucer Fields as unspoilt space, and contesting Professor Mander’s account of the University’s priorities. First, Professor Richard Norman made the case on behalf of local residents for protecting the fields as unspoilt green space, emphasising its existing social and environmental value, and the harms anticipated to follow from ‘development’. Second, Professor Chris Rootes argued that it was not in the interests of the University to proceed with the development, given the uncertain and turbulent nature of the business and social environment to which it was having to adapt.
After thirty minutes for these presentations, the event’s chair, Professor John Fitzpatrick, facilitated questions from the audience. Contributors from the floor welcomed the University’s re-engagement with the search for further site options, and sought clarification on these and other issues raised by Professor Mander. Several contributors also challenged and criticised the assertions made by Professor Mander concerning the priorities being pursued by the University. However, the main sentiment that emerged from those not persuaded by Professor Mander was that the issue of site selection had become confused with the issue of University capacity development. It was suggested that there were several reasons why University consolidation or growth need not require the destruction of Chaucer Fields as an unspoilt space. These included the reaffirmation that alternative opportunities were available on campus and had been prematurely ruled out.
Together with the earlier acknowledgement of ongoing off-campus search activity, it therefore emerged that Chaucer Fields remained but one of several development options. There was nothing inevitable about ‘developing’ Chaucer Fields, and the choices available to the University were now revealed to be considerably wider than had been asserted in earlier statements of the University’s position. (This is a situation in line with the UCU motion endorsed earlier this year by the electronic poll – urging further efforts by the University to find an appropriate site).
Professor Mander also received some support from the floor. Staff employed by the University’s hospitality and commercial services were especially visible in expressing this position. They emphasised the extent to which they agreed the University must be understood only as a business, and concurred with Professor Mander that objecting to the proposals necessarily put University jobs at risk. They also in turn challenged some of the claims and suggestions made by Professor Norman and Professor Rootes concerning the nature of the University’s environment, and the range of alternative options available to it for development. Professor Mander summed up his thinking by saying, in no uncertain terms, that when choosing between the ‘business case’ and the environment, he would always choose the business case.
The meeting finished with a show of hands. There was no formal tally of votes, but around 80% of those attending agreed with a motion that “This meeting is not persuaded that the Chaucer Fields development should proceed”.
2. Sunday’s picnic: 12 – 3pm
The weather forecast is encouraging! Please try to come to the picnic if you can. Bring your own provisions if you are picnicking. If you haven’t been there recently, please note the grass is getting quite long, you may want to bring picnic blankets! Or just pay a visit walking, cycling or running! Some great music has been lined up: Dead Horse musicianers, Ray Fielder of Loose Change Theory, and there’ll be a chance to participate in a drumming circle. We are also expecting other musicians, including the possibility of a very special guest appearance or two…….
You don’t have to confirm, as this is not a formal event. However, can people who are brining children at least informally drop me an email to let me know (please reconfirm if you already told me, to make sure I have up to date info). The reason is that if sufficient numbers are emerging, it will be worthwhile bringing some games equipment, there’ll be a guest appearance from a “Jack in the Green”, and even story telling too…. Email me at email@example.com so I know whether to get this stuff lined up or not!
Chaucer Fields Picnic Society
PS Many of you will be aware of the recently launched campaign to Save Kingsmead Field, also in Canterbury. Please go to www.kingsmeadfield.blogspot.co.uk for more information. I have to confess I do am not au fait with all the details. But I felt it right to write to Canterbury City Council emphasising that I thought changing its use from recreation to housing development was clearly a significant policy shift, and in principle this should be subject to public discussion. I therefore have no hesitation in asking you to sign the e-petition which can be accessed at http://www2.canterbury.gov.uk/committee/mgepetitionlistdisplay.aspx (or accessed via the Blog mentioned above). I am doing this because if 1500 signatures are secured before 25 May, the policy change will have to be actively reviewed by a key Council Committee. This will secure at least some accountability for the policy decision, and make sure relevant evidence is properly considered.