2017: one step forward, two steps back

Festive greetings!

It is once again time to offer seasonal greetings to readers of the Chaucer Fields Picnic Society Blog! As has become customary, we use the evocative image of “Balloons over Canterbury” to communicate the idea that our fields are a fundamental  part of our city’s aesthetic, social and environmental heritage, treasured by the local and University communities alike. With its wartime provenance, the image emphasises not only the deep historical roots of this widely shared and valued commitment – stretching back to before the University was established –  but also the extent to which recognition of such a wonderful legacy is especially important at times of threat, discord and uncertainty

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It would have been great to have been positioned to kick off the Blog with a picture more suggestive of harmony and tranquillity. Readers will have noticed that in recent months, there have been some signs that the University authorities were at last beginning to register the significance of this place as an unspoilt shared green space to its own community, and of course way beyond that. However, sadly the most recent Statement to be released, last month, shows that a major opportunity has been missed by the University authorities to catch up with the thinking of the host community, expert knowledge, and the perspectives of their own people (staff and students), by unconditionally ruling out development on the fields in perpetuity.

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So, the fight must continue. This is because the latest Statement explicitly tries to keep development of the fields on the agenda: as we shall see, it  seeks to leave the University authorities an entry point to pursue development here in the future (an implied ‘window’ from the late 2020s onwards, a possibility discussed in the previous Blog). This is really a form of  denial in two senses: it involves the persistence of a dismissive attitude to the evidence on the Southern Slopes’ value as unspoilt shared green space; and it exhibits indifference to the extent to which development here would undermine the entire coherence and logic of the emerging campus Master Plan.  In this sense, 2017 has been a year of confusion and inconsistency on the part of the University authorities,  and as a result, we find ourselves in the “one step forward, two steps back” situation which gives the current Blog its title.

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In the rest of this Blog, we first explain how a step has been taken forward with the latest stages in the ongoing “incremental” Masterplan development process. But we then have to point out how the latest document to be released “Canterbury Campus Masterplan/Step 1: Strategic Spatial Vision Consultation Statement” embodies the extent to which the University authorities are, in spite of this, ultimately still failing to make a break with the troubled recent past regarding Chaucer Fields/the Southern Slopes (or, to use Masterplan language, “Parklands”).  The Blog is interspersed with some recent images of the fields in the usual way.

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Stepping Forwards…

Credit where credit’s due. As part of the latest consultation exercise initiated in the summer, working through its external consultants (CMA Planning and John Leatherland limited), and facilitated by its own central Corporate Communications Directorate, the University first of all provided opportunities for relevant external expert input into the development of a “Spatial Vision” via a Workshop (see previous Blog for more details). Significantly, this led to a major gain in transparency with the August publication of the Workshop Report which clearly demonstrates the durability of the long held commitment amongst stakeholders to preserving Chaucer Fields/the Southern Slopes as unspoilt space by explicitly ruling out any development there.  As the previous Blog showed, this report demonstrated unambiguous affirmation of the collective view that no buildings should ever be located here.  Such key stakeholders as representatives of Canterbury City Council, Kent County Council, local civil society organisations, and the President of Kent Union (the union for University of Kent students) all affirmed this position.

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Second, apparently in response to the incredulity expressed at the time that the process has not involved the University’s own staff, an additional, internal, event was  convened the following month. At the request of staff participants, this was also then openly published as the “Staff Focus Group” report , representing a positive move in terms of communication and freedom of information.  The Focus Group ranged over a number of issues relating to the Master Plan, but for brevity’s sake, we will focus here only on the directly relevant material. Below, for ease of reference, we reproduce in full the passage relating specifically to Chaucer Fields/the Southern Slopes.

“there should be no development on the Southern Slopes – to do so would be inconsistent with notions of consolidation and intensification of the Campus heart [a core principle of the Masterplan]; it would also be seen as provocative and misguided by local residents as well as staff, students, local public authorities and relevant charities and societies, who evidently value the enviromental/heritage character of the landscape and the wide range of activities it permits in its unspoilt form. It would be deeply counter-productive to ongoing efforts to foster strong ties between the University and these constituencies to continue to threaten it with development” (Staff Focus Group, p. 5)

The statement captures the staff group’s shared commitment towards the unspoilt fields and slopes, and demonstrates an awareness of how the issue has become a high stakes one, deeply interwoven with the University’s reputation and image. It is also important to register here that this statement exhibits common cause from attendees coming from across a diverse set of University’s departments, with participants included academic staff as well as senior non-academic staff members. As such it goes beyond the motion in favour of protecting the fields agreed over 5 years ago in a vote of the University and Colleges Union (UCU), because the latter is primarily an organisation for academic staff (see this CFPS Blog from spring 2012 for more details)

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This affirmative material from both the external expert working group and the internal staff focus group has now  been reproduced in the “Canterbury Campus Masterplan/Step 1: Strategic Spatial Vision Consultation Statement” published last month. This report also strengthens further the case for the protection of Chaucer Fields/the Southern Slopes via the incorporation of additional written comments, over and above those put forward at the august and september events. Unsurprisingly, there is “strong endorsement” for “not building on Parklands” from the St Michael’s Road Residents’ Association (p. 18), representing many residents who live closest to the fields. But there is also amplification here of the point by Kent Wildlife Trust, expressing  their “concern that development does not appear to be ruled out for the area of Chaucer Fields, semi-natural grassland of high cultural value to the local residents and not without nature conservation interest. There is no mention of the Ancient Woodland on the site or the Local Wildlife Site, both requiring protection within the planning system” (op cit., p. 31; emphases added).  This is important because KWT is a  highly regarded charity which operates at the county level,  and this feedback builds on concerns it had already expressed at earlier consultations.

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…then stepping backwards again!

However, unfortunately, these advances are then effectively negated by the way in which the University authorities choose to respond to these views within the same Consultation Statement report. In this document, the Expert Workshop’s recognition of the high value of the unspoilt fields/slopes are greeted with vague, non-committal language – the words “noted” and “acknowledged” recurring at various points in the tables which juxtapose community comments and University authority responses. This is weak and uninformative, showing that while the articulated views have been logged, there is no sense of learning from the process in terms of reflecting on the significance of these commitments, or showing any willingness to express the consequences in actual policies and practices . An opportunity to respect the views put forward, and rule out development on the fields, has been squandered.

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More worrying still, the dismissive nature of the University authorities’ response to the analysis expressed in the Staff Focus group, as quoted above, goes even further. Here, the response does not merely avoiding saying anything with meaning and substance. It actively confirms, in no uncertain terms,  that old habits of thought  – and potentially action –  are still driving the process. The key passage here is as follows:

“Some development of the Southern Slopes may be necessary, including providing funding for landscape enhancements. to be explored in the Options” (op cit, p. 26, response bullet point 2)

The chosen tone and form of words in this response is deeply disappointing. Not only does it fail to rule out development on the Southern Slopes, but it actively confirms that it could be carried through as a possibility into the next stage of Masterplan development, presumably in keeping with the idea of a ‘window’ for building projects here emerging from the late 2020s onwards (see the previous Blog). Second, not even a cursory attempt is made to provide a rationale for this potential decision, in the context of the Masterplan’s philosophy and proposed principles, or indeed at any level (in contrast to the “responses” offered in relation to much of the other feedback elsewhere in the Step 1 Consultation Statement). This undermines the credibility of the wider process, because it seems to show that that the University authorities either unable or unwilling to take their own Masterplan’ s principles and processes seriously.

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Third, in the turn of phrase “may be necessary”  – with no attempt at explanation –  we see the authors of the University authorities’ response retreating symbolically from any meaningful notion of collaborative engagement at all.  It suggests the University authorities are, even now, trying to unilaterally take a superordinate position in relation to other stakeholders, including in relation to Canterbury City Council. This is damaging because it is at the level of this elected local authority were the planning process vests  statutory responsibility for determining matters of need and necessity, as embodied through the District Plan process. In this way, we sadly seem to see the University authorities’ old, pre-Masterplan, top down and paternalistic  “sense of entitlement”  reappearing.  Fourth, the use of the phrase “landscape enhancements”, as discussed in an earlier Blog, seems to be discursive cover for the construction of buildings: it is obfuscatory, and is ultimately just development expressed in more fuzzy language, to give the University authorities a potential licence to build as they please.

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It is important to remember that it is this arcane style of making policy, mixing up ambiguity and evasiveness,  which led to the chaotic ad hoc pattern of campus development in the past. It is a throwback formulation which exhibits a fundamental lack of understanding of how things can and must change under the new planning framework. It entirely misses the  point of the Masterplan process in seeking to move towards a clearer, properly meaningful and responsive style of engagement, and to avoid arbitrary, ad hoc and unaccountable decision making.  This is, then, potential repeating of the mistakes of the past is the very situation which the Staff Focus Group warned the University it should make every effort to avoid, if it is to develop a more constructive relationship with the host community and its own staff and students in relation to campus development in the future (see “Staff Focus Group report”, p. 3, comment 3)

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A final note: timing and prospects

Where does all this leave us? If we look at the overall process plans as presented at recent events, we have a series of further delays in getting beyond stage 1: by now, we were expecting to have seen not just a Stage 1 Consultation Statement, but also the publication of a range of Stage 2 “Option Studies”, and for a consultation on these “Options” to be have already been completed! These next steps were originally timed to allow a draft, single Framework Masterplan to be in place for further consultation from January 2018, leading to further consultation,  finalisation and publication in late spring/summer, and adoption by Canterbury City Council  – and linkage to the all important District Plan – in September 2018.  Presumably the slippage in moving from Stage 1 to Stage 2 means that this none of this will be achieved on time.

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Yet however the timelines is revised, the year ahead will be an crucial period for the fields. It is during 2018 that we will see whether the University authorities continue to operate in denial, pushing blindly for potential development, as they see fit, of the Southern Slopes; or whether they finally show themselves capable of recognising the damage that is being done by keeping this option in play. for there is still a chance to rule out development here. If it were to do this, it would bring the approach properly back  into line with the Masterplan’s own philosophy and principles; and demonstrate recognition of  the commitments and values of the University community, the host community, and  local public authorities. It is upon whose goodwill and trust of all these stakeholders, after all, that the University’s future ultimately depends.

Stay vigilant! Watch this space! Happy christmas and new year to all!

Best wishes

Chaucer Fielder

Chaucer Fields Picnic Society

 

 

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Picnic time approaching… plus Consultation, District Plan Green Gap status and Signage update

This Blog has been “rested” for a while, buts its time to rejoin! There are three reasons for this. First, after several months of unexplained delay, the Consultation Report on the Conceptual Master Plan, covering the consultation of summer 2016, was finally published a few weeks ago. So, there’s some news to report on that. And also further news concerning  the proposed “Green Gap” status (updating the details in the last Blog.)

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Second, regular users of the fields may have noticed the change in wording on the signage which demarcates this land, words that are also reproduced on the signs used at other points on the edge of the campus. What little is known about this is worth sharing.  Third, it is that time of year again when our thoughts turn to picnics, including on these fields, to take advantage of the sunshine and good weather in this extraordinarily beautiful, currently unspoilt shared green space. As evidence presented in various contexts by many local people and groups over the past few years has shown –  in responding to planning applications, earlier consultations, and when compiling the vast body of material needed to make the case for village green status –  this is a customary form of leisure and recreation here which goes back for decades. It reflects deep community attachment and commitment to this unspoilt green space. Indeed, given the  historical record of using this place as a spot to view, linger and appreciate the Cathedral and cityscape – a practice  long pre-dating the University’s founding –  we can speak of this as a truly time honoured  tradition (see the “History Matters” CFPS Blog).

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So, once again I am delighted to confirm the annual collaborative picnic which symbolises this precious legacy, organised jointly with Greenpeace Canterbuy and the Abbot’s Mill Project, and supported by the Save Chaucer Fields group (see Blog Roll on the right of this text for further details). More information on what happens at the picnics come at the end of the Blog! You could skip straight to that, if you would rather find out about the latest news at the picnic itself. But please do consider reading the detailed updates on the Conceptual Master Plan Consultation, Green Gap status, and signage change issues, presented in what follows first, if you have a little time. As ever, images are interspersed to make it more digestible. This time, they are photographs taken on a short walk yesterday.

Campus Conceptual Master Plan Consultation Report

This report, published by the University’s Corporate Communications Directorate, can  be found here. It is not a particularly attractive read, but it seems reasonable for the University to claim that the process of developing the Master Plan and undertaking a consultation has been “welcomed”. This is  formally true, and reflects civility on the part of those consulted. On the other hand, of course, it could be pointed out that the University is not really positioned to claim any credit for this: it has been expressly specified as a requirement  by Canterbury City Council (CCC) –  the relevant local planning authority –  and it is hard to see on what grounds it could be resisted by the University authorities.  And especially because developments on campus in recent years have been haphazard and at times even appeared chaotic and shambolic, there has  been a steady build up of public pressure to take this obvious step –  and to take it transparently.   Ad hoc and piecemeal ‘business as usual’ is simply no longer acceptable.

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What do we learn? The report demonstrates a mixture of  reactions from consultees, and publishes the full set of responses in its voluminous appendices. This transparency is certainly a point in its favour. So, for example, there are 16 pages covering responses from “local groups” (Appendix 5A, pp. 61 – 76).  We can see the opposition to building south of University Road on the Southern Slopes clearly stated by local residents’ associations, one of which even supplied evocative photographs of the fields. But these are not the only relevant concerns from organisations. We also see explicit recognition from the influential Canterbury Society (see Blogroll) that this sentiment is much more widely shared: ‘people in the City feel like the Chaucer Fields should be kept undeveloped and not built upon’. At the same time, two highly respected local charities, orientating themselves towards the overall style and process of the consultation, highlight major concerns. The Kent Wildlife Trust and Council for the Protection of Rural England both use robust language in respectively challenging the University authorities on their failure to attend to the biodiversity dimension in developing the Conceptual Masterplan;  and highlighting apparent incompetence, mistakes and oversights in the way the University undertook the consultation process.

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Appendix 5B then  reports written feedback from individual people – over 81 pages (pp 77 – 158). Once again, it is striking to see how many such consultees have felt moved to write expressing their strong and implacable opposition to the potential loss of the Chaucer Fields/the Southern Slopes green gap. Large numbers of respondents point out that if the building of a “Parklands” conferencing hotel and other units were  to proceed there, as posited in the Conceptual Master Plan,  unspoilt shared green space, with extraordinary heritage, social, aesthetic and environment value, would be lost forever to both the local and university communities.

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These sentiments are perhaps predictable, reacting as to they do conferencing hotel proposals which have essentially been carried over from earlier in the decade,  cosmetically reframed now within a Conceptual Master Plan with comforting imagery, the soft focus, fuzzy language of  “enhanced landscape” and narratives deploying the vocabulary of “green assets”. So is this consultation document just telling us what we already know, that there is little or no support for the ‘development’ of the fields from either the university or local communities? In a sense, yes. But it can also be read positively by those who value the fields as generating  new evidence in support of the durability of this sentiment, sorely tested by already being expressed on multiple occasions for several years. In other words, it reaffirms and underlines the enduring strength of these values, and the level of attachment and commitment to this landscape and place amongst local and university people. It is remarkable that many people still had the energy to raise this issue for the umpteenth time, having repeatedly done so already, year after year, on a massive scale in relation to earlier versions of ‘development’ proposals. This is a tribute to the resilience of the local and university communities in the face of consultation fatigue. 

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Indeed, the resistance to Southern Slopes/Chaucer Fields despoilment emerges as  amongst the most vehemently expressed views in the entire document, as acknowledged in the main body of the document (Table 5, pp. 20 -21, Main Report): The other major issue emerging here is confirmation of the extent of opposition to ‘developing’ agricultural land purchased by the University to the North of the core campus, proximate to Blean and the Crab & Winkle Way (“Northern Land Holdings”) by situating car parks, sports facilities/buildings and a range of permanent strutures and units  (again, often using soft language – this time, ‘hubs’ – to downplay the extent to which land use would no longer be essentially agricultural in character, and involve significant and irreversible development)

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It is also worth emphasising another finding revealed by this process not in writing, but in relation to the face to face feedback witnessed at the various  events convened as part of the process. Table 2 (pp. 12 – 14, Main Report) lists a number of ‘presentations’ and ‘exhibitions’ conducted. Most of these events were not well attended, perhaps relating to a lack of effective communication about them (see the remarks above, as per the Council for the Protection of Rural England’s response).  However, at the  events that were best attended – for University Staff on campus, and in Blean village hall –  audiences once again reasserted their resistance and opposition, and sometimes with real anger.  The narratives adopted by the University authority representatives and architectural consultants were greeted with marked incredulity by many attendees at these events.  Why?  There were probably three main reasons for this reaction.

  • the narratives demonstrated a lack of basic familiarity with,  and understanding of, the character and topography of the relevant local landscapes
  • they showed a lack of awareness of the sheer strength and evidence base for pro-unspoilt space community sentiment, and
  • the narratives also suggested that the  ‘landscape enhancements’  in question (in practice, of course, nothing but development –  since we are referring to hotel buildings, other built units, car parks, facilities of various forms  etc) were something audiences didn’t need to be so concerned about, because they weren’t envisaged to take place in the immediate timeframe of the existing Estates Plan (the University Council, in signing off the Estates Plan 2015-2025, has nowhere  endorsed, or indicated funding for, the proposed hotel or other developments).

 

This third feature of the narrative  was experienced as patronising , because it appears to assume that, while the University authorities ‘think ahead’, the university and local communities are characterised by either transience or short sightedness, an unwillingness or inability to think more than 8 years ahead (a lack of concern for developments after 2025).   This disregard for forward thinking public concern is not only directly at odds with the notion that there should be a long term District Plan at all (in lie with national policy expectations,the timeframe for the ’emerging’ CCC District Plan runs to 2031, 6 years after the current Estates Plan expires). In relation to chaucer fields/the southern slopes, the revealed assumption of myopia or transience is also out of line with one of the  core findings of the village green enquiry –  that meaningful local residential communities, with durable, collective shared practices, commitments and beliefs – and therefore, capable of taking the long view –  do exist in relation to this place.

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The next steps in the process are referred to in the documentation. It is suggested the University will work ‘collaboratively’ with CCC over a period of several months to move towards the substantive Master Plan. In relation to Chaucer Fields, we know that CCC already responded to the overwhelming nature of local (and university) community sentiment in favour of protecting the fields with the “Green Gap status” proposal. Even if this particular protection cannot be included in the new District Plan for technical reasons, we can and should expect CCC to take a strong and clear position on this issue in these upcoming discussions: the key point is that the principle of protection and respect for this space has been publicly affirmed and agreed by CCC, even if “Green gap status” proposal fell on a technicality. This is a point the following section will now consider.

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“Green Gap status” not permitted as District Plan moves towards adoption

In the last Blog, it was reported that the proposal supported by CCC, that Chaucer Fields/the Southern Slopes be given “green gap” status in the District Plan, was, in response to claims-making by the University authorities’ hired legal consultants,  being challenged by the Planning Inspectorate on technical-procedural grounds (not substantive grounds, as reported in the local press). As expected, further to this initial response, this proposed “green gap” provision has now been removed, as part of the latest step in moving towards District Plan adoption. This is a technocratic “modification” needed to ensure the Plan will be ‘sound and legally compliant’.  Full details can be found here at CCC’s official update on the Plan.

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On the face of it, this seems like a setback for those who wish to see the unspoilt fields protected and respected. However, it is important to stress two considerations to make clear that it also has advantages. First, the very process of CCC even considering this status, and then taking the enormous step of proposing it be built into the District Plan, shows that the political will is there at local Council level to commit to the unspoilt fields. Even if ultimately overturned on a technicality, this does not reverse the fact that CCC have boldy come forward and defended the values of the community on this issue, or alter the motivation that lay behind this proposed protection. Second, in order to deflect the “need” for this protection, the University legal advisers who argued for its removal had to build their case, in part, on the claim that existing protections as expressed in CCC documents (including internal papers and documents relating to CCC meetings) were already shown to be so extensive in relation to this landscape that additional policies, such as the “green gap”, were not “needed.”  The University is thus potentially “locked in” to recognition of the value of the unspoilt landscape by its own legal consultants’ position taking in relation to this issue in the future. It has itself been forced to chart and acknowledge in its submissions to the Planning Inspectorate the high salience and significance of existing protections, already in place, and additional to any “green gap” status. It would be incoherent, inconsistent, and create an impression of disregard for due process to claim at a future date that such existing protections can be readily dispensed with.

Signage update

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Observant users of the fields may have noticed early last month that the form of words used on the demarcation signs has now changed: the image above shows the new language, where the one below shows the older formulation.

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This can be read in a number of ways. Is it a strengthening of the role of the relevant elected public authorities (in this case, Kent County Council) over the University, insisting on greater clarity on the publics’ right to use ‘rights of way’ crossing the land in our county? On the other hand, it could be seen as clearing the ground  in the longer term for a situation in which access here and in other places where the University owns land will be more strictly circumscribed, driving a strict wedge between allowable and forbidden use.  A world of narrow pathways and functional ‘desire lines’ to and from workplaces in the context of a looming hotel complex,  a range of other buildings and facilities, and car parks, all  erected on a previously unspoilt landscape where roaming had previously been the norm. In other words, this is a scenario in which the free sharing of  land around the University, for recreation and leisure by the university and local communities, is over time constrained and then ultimately brought to a halt in the name of ‘development’ (or, ‘enhanced landscape’).

The University authorities have indicated they have taken this initiative as a result of ‘legal advice’, but it is not in the public domain what form that advice took, or the nature of the agenda in asking for it. The most benign and optimistic explanation, more in line with the first reading, is that it is a response to the fact the cyclists, walkers and others, particularly those trying to ‘find their way’ onto the Crab & Winkle route, had often found the older signage confusing, and this is a way to rectify this. However, only time will tell whether a more controlling intention to restrict non-public right-based of way activities into the future is  part of the thinking too.

 

Upcoming Picnic – Sunday 16th July midday onwards   

And so to the picnic – this will be the sixth collaborative one since the CFPS was formed in 2011.  The event is always great fun, with every one is slightly different from its predecessors. However, certain key features always endure – sharing food and drink in a truly beautiful setting, appreciating both the nature surroundings and the proximate cityscape; play for families, ranging from impromptu tree climbing, hide and seek to more organised activities, such as football, kite flying, rounders and dodgeball; conversation and socialising, finding out about people, places and gossip, crossing the boundaries between the local and university communities; and last but not least, music, ranging from a small stage with amplification for those inclined, to more casual jamming and swopping of tunes and musical ideas.

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This year, we are delighted to highlight two special features of the event, each linking back to the support base for the fields as it has been nurtured and grown over the years. First, Richard Navarro will be playing once more! A regular at earlier picnics, and someone who did a lot to raise awareness of the cause with his Joni Mitchell inspired Concrete Lung , touring and other commitments meant Richard was missed at recent gatherings. However, he will join us this time, fresh from a recent highly successful tour of Ireland.

Second, we will take the chance of the gathering to convene a group to informally talk about ways forward in protecting, respecting and enhancing the local landscape (the demarcated campus, and any adjacent/other land now acquired by the University). This will be in the light of what we have now learned about the University authorities’ agenda and intentions thus far (through the Master Plan process). This will be led by Dr William Rowlandson, green representative at the University of Kent for the University and Colleges Union. (See William’s response to the Conceptual Master Plan consultation here.) UCU has already been an important actor in confirming University staff’s commitment to protecting the fields (facilitating the motion leading to a strong vote in favour of protecting the fields as undeveloped green space shared with the local community in 2012), and there is potential for it in the context of this new initiative to take an wider role regarding the local environmental agenda too.

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We look forward to welcoming you to the picnic on sunday – 12.00 midday onwards! (Facebook users, see the event information from the Abbot’s Mill Project here).

All good wishes

Chaucer Fielder

Chaucer Fields Picnic Society