Welcome to the Chaucer Fields Picnic Society Blog! Our fields have witnessed winter snow, the blooming of spring, and the heat of an exceptional summer since the last Blog appeared. I’ll intersperse some images in the text to capture some of the variety across the seasons this year in what follows (as well as providing a much more depressing image – see below!).
We are now moving towards autumn, and the fields and woodlands have that transitional feel. As the natural cycle has progressed, in what direction have we moved in terms of the future prospects for this wonderful shared green space? With the University authorities failing to meet their promised timeline regarding stage 2 of the Masterplan, members of the local residential and University communities could be forgiven for beginning to hope that serious learning was at last taking place. Perhaps the pause reflected not the usual institutional inertia, but instead, a willingness to listen to the feedback received through multiple events, processes and arenas over the last 7 years? In terms of the “Stage one” Masterplan process most recently, had the University authorities at last recognised that development here would undermined the integrity of the entire process, contradicting the stated principle of focussing development on the centre of campus? After years of denial about the environmental, social and heritage value of the fields in their unspoilt form, had the penny finally dropped that this was and is a special and much loved place to be cherished, and not destroyed?
Alas, we have found out this month that nothing could be further from the truth. As has become clear , the dismissive and condescending position taken towards community sentiment, reported in the previous Blog, has been in evidence once again. Mass opposition fed back to the University at every opportunity offered last year documented clearly in the University authorities’ own consultation report is being ignored, and expert opinion disregarded. (This was expressed a year ago at “Conceptual Master Plan” consultation events, a “spatial” expert group including professionals from local government and civil society, and a staff group convened at the last minute). Directly contradicting this input, an option of positioning a “Conferencing Hotel” and related facilities on the fields has not been shelved. Instead, it has been retained as part of “stage 2” of the “incremental” Masterplan process.
Those who follow this issue closely may notice in the image below, taken from the “stage 2” option plans now belatedly revealed , that this version of the plan would position the buildings slightly to the west of where they had been situated in the “stage 1” version of 2017, a little closer to Chaucer College. But it is crucial to note that the latest plans retain the same disastrous scale, continue to contradict the stated intentions of the Masterplan, and would have essentially the same potentially catastrophic environmental, social and aesthetic impact on our fields as the “stage one” version.
Raising this issue since the news broke, I have found those in the local and university community who have put time and effort into responding to the University authorities over the years are now feel betrayed and affronted. This action is seen as demonstrating a complete failure to listen or attempt to even begin to understand what is at stake. Many find this especially galling as the University is meant to be a learning institution where, if anywhere, we should expect to find an ability to move on and learn from past mistakes. The retention of these plans within “stage 2” of the process is viewed as symptomatic of a profound rupture between remote, inward-looking University authorities on one hand, and the University community of teaching/professional staff and students at large on the other, which in turn overlaps symbiotically with the local residential community. (Many staff live locally, and many University alumni settle in the city when their studies are complete.)
So, overall this latest “stage 2” development is being taken to confirm a depressing pattern of continuity with the past: the same old habits of disregard for the communities who host the university and make it function; and the perpetuation of exactly the clumsy, incoherent and damaging muddling through approach that the Masterplan process was meant to prevent. Similar perspectives can also be found in organisations representing local civil society and expert opinion in the community more broadly.
For some, this is even a depressing sign that the University has “lost the plot” entirely in terms of its mission and social/educational responsibilities. In both social media and out and about in the District, it is now increasingly common to hear people claim that the University is functioning as a predatory for-profit developer in all but name. It is believed to be seeking to exploit the land, originally bequeathed to it by the local statutory authorities for educational purposes fifty years ago, for narrow financial gain. And it is thought to be hiding behind the mantle of its status as a charitable educational institution with empty rhetorical claims, as exemplified recently by its circulation of “commUNIty” newsletters. On this view, such material claiming “learning” has taken place is seen as disingenuous window dressing, cynically designed to distract, divert and deflect attention from the University authorities indefensible “expansion at any cost” practices.
Understandably, given this perspective, many can see little point in re-engaging with yet another round of consultation. What’s the point? Why should they do so, if the process is essentially a sham? I don’t doubt many people are exasperated! If you share this frustration – why bother making an input? The reason is simple. If we succumb to consultation fatigue and fatalism, this will be spun as acquiescence and acceptance by the University authorities, and this, in turn increases the probability that this wonderful shared green space with be lost forever. We cannot assume previous inputs into consultations processes, fora and dialogues will be given any weight at all: indeed, the track record to date suggests exactly the opposite.
So, it is crucial that as many people as possible come forward yet again, and express (or re-express) their views and commitments once more. This may feel like this is collectively banging our heads against a brick wall. But if we do not do this, and development here is then permitted, all the efforts and energy expended in defending the fields up until now will have been for nothing.
So please do turn your attention to the Masterplan issue! How can you do this? Unfortunately, the current stage of the process has not been well publicised. No prominence has yet been given to it on the University’s websites or communicative media at this key stage, with information buried in obscure places. While as to dissemination to local residents via the “CommUNIty newsletter“, these were made available in mid summer, when many people were away, and so far ahead of the events next month that it is unlikely they will have been registered with many.
However, what we now know is that there are two ways to express your views. First, for locally based people, there are 4 events which you can attend:
- SATURDAY 6TH OCTOBER 10.00 – 16.00 at WESTGATE HALL CANTERBURY
- THURSDAY 11TH OCTOBER 14.00 – 20.00 at TYLER HILL MEMORIAL HALL
- FRIDAY 12TH OCTOBER 14.00 – 20.00 at BLEAN VILLAGE HALL
- THURSDAY 18TH OCTOBER 10.00 – 16.00 at : DARWIN COLLEGE CONFERENCE SUITE on the eastern side of the University’s Canterbury campus.
Please look at the timings and dates carefully: If you can’t make the one in Canterbury two weekends from now, please note that the alternative options are close by, including 2 which run until 8pm during the week that follows.
Second, many readers of this Blog do not live locally, and a lot now live abroad. If you are in this position, it appears that you can still email your feedback. The email address – firstname.lastname@example.org is provided on the Masterplan website here. (The website resources in relation to this process have been poorly organised, seem to have moved unpredictably between different addresses over time, and are hard to navigate. But the information above seems to be accurate at the time of writing).
If you go the email route, please can I suggest that you request an email acknowledgement and ask explicitly how your input will be used? I say this, because this is not clear from the University’s masterplan website. But if you are being generous enough with your time to make a contribution, you surely deserve at a basic minimum this sort of recognition and response. Comments will be added to this Blog, or included in a later Blog, if any clarity is subsequently offered by the University authorities on this matter.
Finally, please do feel free to mine the CFPS Blogs to inform your perspective and support your contributions. Although I suspect most of you will not need to do so, as you have plenty to offer based on your own experience and knowledge!
All good wishes
Chaucer Fields Picnic Society