Many thanks to everyone who got involved with the latest consultation process, whether old hands or new enthusiasts! There has been powerful feedback submitted, and a great sense of shared commitment and determination in evidence from across the local and university communities.
This Blog presents one of the submissions made in defence of retaining the unspoilt fields as shared green space, and for not building a commercial hotel on Chaucer Fields/the Southern Slopes (now called “University Rise” in the latest version of the plan). It makes the case in terms of green heritage value and key policy parameters (the District Plan, the Masterplan, and the University’s own policy). It also points to the extraordinary lack of evidence in terms of the supposed case for the hotel proposal – even as a narrowly understood economic proposition.
The opportunity is also taken to brighten up the Blog once again with some recent pictures from parts of the unspoilt fields which would be most directly affected if the proposal proceeds. These are either from within the wooded site at the top of Dover Down field (mixed mature maples, oaks and yews) that the conferencing hotel would destroy; or perspectives taken from below or above this immediate site. It is very clear that situating the hotel here in incompatible with respecting these fields’ unique green heritage value, would wreck the treasured beauty and tranquillity of this space, and would undermine irreversibly the integrity of the ‘green gap’. It would of course also set a precedent for further “development” in the years ahead (the so-called “thin edge of the wedge” argument.)
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Like many others in the local residential and university communities, I have been shocked and appalled to see the resurrection of the proposal to situate [a conferencing hotel] south of University Road, on Chaucer Fields in the context of the Masterplan. Not only do these plans directly contradict the stated goals of the Masterplan itself, undermining its credibility and integrity overall (drawing attention from some otherwise sensible content within it). They are also self-evidently out of line with the expressed commitment to protect this place as an integral part of the ‘green gap’, ‘green belt’ or ‘green lung’ articulated on numerous occasions over the past seven years by the following groups:
- University staff (expressed through support for a UCU motion to protect the fields in 2012, and re-affirmed in the staff expert focus group conducted at stage 1 of the Masterplan process in 2017)
- University students (expressed through the all student vote in 2012, and reaffirmed in the expert spatial workshop conducted at stage 1 of the Masterplan process in 2017)
- Experts from local government (affirmed in the expert spatial workshop conducted at stage 1 of the Masterplan process in 2017)
- Experts from local civil society and voluntary groups (through representations made throughout the period from 2011 onwards, and most recently affirmed in the expert spatial workshop conducted at stage 1 of the Masterplan process in 2017)
- Local residents groups, in close proximity to the proposed development site
- Other local residents groups, from across the wider District
- Individual people, who are neither current staff not students, nor members of residents’ associations, but a key part of the broader public from across the wider District and beyond, including alumni, former staff members, and other members of the community at large without direct University connections.
- Canterbury City Council, which sought to heighten the protections already in place for this place as part of the District Plan finalisation process with its ‘green gap’ proposal.
The commitments and values here are extremely well known and well documented, and reflect the irreplaceable status of the unspoilt Chaucer Fields resulting from a combination of this place’s exceptional value as a shared aesthetic, cultural, environmental, heritage and social (contributing to wellbeing and cohesion) resource, as recognised by the aforementioned “stakeholders”. Indeed, one of the most troubling aspects of the re-emergence of this proposal at the current time is that the University authorities can no longer claim that the evidence in support of these stakeholder perspectives in not utterly overwhelming. We now have literally hundreds of statements, representations, and testimonials to this effect, from lay people and experts alike, as a result of the reviews conducted over the past seven years. In the case of lay knowledge and experience, this includes (but is not limited to) the evidence tested through Kent County Council’s quasi-judicial village green application process, which affirmed that a meaningful ‘community’ can be identified with this place as a whole (including the land now proposed as the hotel site). This quasi-judicial review also verified the extent to which the unspoilt green land here has been used for decades for beneficial recreational, amenity, and leisure pursuits.
In the body of the [text] below I wish to emphasise three overarching sets of considerations: (a) heritage and cultural factors (b) the economic/business dimension; and (c) policy related matters. (a) and (c) jointly reinforce one another and suggest that building a commercial Conferencing hotel and related facilities on Chaucer Fields would be profoundly mistaken, and a violation of policy priorities at the level of both local government, and the University itself. As to (b), since no information or evidence has been made available in support of hotel development – and there was silence on this matter at stage 1 of the Masterplan process – all we can do is lament the damage done to the University’s reputation by the opaque way it has proceeded, as set out below.
(a) Heritage and Culture
This land has remarkable resonance and value from this perspective not only at the District level, but at the County level too. This follows from:
- the ways in which the gentle but varied topography has shaped the organic emergence of a beautiful ‘semi natural’ balance between nature and man;
- the wide range of wildlife which makes Chaucer Fields its home, or use it as a staging post as the seasons and weather change;
- the existence of tantalising myths about the site in the local community (for example, are some of the features of the site even anticipated in the Doomsday book?);
- the strong existing sense of identity growing out of the demonstrable appreciation of this land by local people of all types;
- the remarkable imprint of layers of history – from the obvious mediaeval field structure, and the connection with the Kentish yeoman farming tradition (following from the site’s connections with Beverley Farm), to ways in which the use of some of the land for orchards and market gardening purposes in the twentieth century are also in evidence;
- The accessibility of this site to people from all directions, and the extent to which it provides an arena or ‘public realm’ which these people share.
This combination of factors trace out a distinctly Kentish legacy, and underscore this site’s significance to the people of Kent, not just people who currently live close to it in Canterbury and the District. It is clear from all this evidence and argument here that the development of a hotel and conference centre cannot be undertaken here without destroying this remarkably rich semi-natural legacy.
(b) Economic and ‘business case’ considerations
There were serious weaknesses with the economic and ‘business case’ aspects of the hotel/conferencing facility aspect of the 2011/12 planning application, and many of the assumptions and claims being made at the time were not considered robust. In relation to the current Masterplan, unfortunately, no substantive information has been made available at all. Despite repeated requests from members of the local and university communities, the Masterplan Team have failed to present any documentation, analysis or reports outlining the case, in systematic terms and under current economic conditions, for proceeding with a conferencing hotel on campus. Worse still, the Masterplan Team also failed to evidence the assertions made repeatedly during the consultation events that such a facility (i) must be essentially commercial in character, and not integrated with the core educational and research functions of the University; and (ii) can only be situated on Chaucer Fields, rather than on any of the other available potential sites on campus (there are many). Instead, when questions were asked they were deflected with anecdotal ad hoc claims, and vague evocations that the undisclosed models/materials have found favour with ‘experts’ from the hotel and conferencing sector, and the ‘business community’. This level of opacity and evasiveness makes a mockery of the University authorities’ often repeated claims to be committed to such basic values as open communication and dialogue with its stakeholders; accountability; and responsiveness to the local and university communities.
(c) The Policy arguments against the proposal for the conferencing hotel are at several levels
- Planning Policy as per Canterbury City Council’s District Plan: The proposal demonstrably violates both general policy principles (relating to landscape policy, open space and amenity policies; as well as the heritage considerations already considered above) of the District Plan; and the detailed applications of policy specific to this site as they have evolved in recent years. One key example from the latter category are the guidelines requiring not only the resistance of site fragmentation and respect for traditional field structure patterns on the Southern Slopes, but their active strengthening. Another example is the extent to which retention of the open woods and fields in this particular place is crucial, due to this specific locality’s relative deprivation of amenity land and open space.When account is taken of both these general principles, and the particularities as they relate to Chaucer Fields as integral to the unspoilt Southern Slopes, it becomes impossible to see how any claim could be made that the hotel proposal respects Canterbury City Council’s landscape, open spaces and amenity policies.
- Masterplan Priorities The whole purpose of the Masterplan process it to stabilise and offer a coherent sense of direction to what had previously been a chaotic and piecemeal approach to campus planning and development as pursued by the University authorities to date. It is intended to complement and support the legally pivotal District Plan.
The first observation about the Framework Masterplan, therefore, is that the inclusion of the conferencing hotel proposal on the Chaucer Fields site within it would have the opposite effect to that envisaged when the Masterplan became a requirement of local policy. This is because, as set out above, the proposal violates the District Plan’s priorities in relation to landscape, amenity and open space policy. Hence, retaining this as a possibility within the Framework Masterplan would embed an anomalous and contradictory element within the Plans, create costly uncertainty for the years to 2031, and make it difficult or impossible for the plans to function together in a stable and coherent way.
A second consideration is that the proposal directly contradicts what is probably the single most important aspect of the Masterplan (which has been widely welcomed by both local and university communities, and by expert opinion): the imperative that development should be concentrated on the central campus/at the campus heart. Because Chaucer Fields and the proximate Southern Slopes are far from central campus, allowing the positioning of a hotel, and associated facilities here, directly undermines this core commitment, and further weakens the Masterplan.
A third consideration relates to many of the more specific supporting commitments and values emerging from the Stage one process. If the hotel proposals were to be retained, then these supporting values will have been undermined, and the credibility of the entire Masterplan approach, once again, weakened. The relevant aspects here overlap with many of the preceding points, but some can still usefully be identified here: the importance of responsible and responsive stewardship of the relevant land because of its landscape value; respect for how local people wish to protect and enhance their quality of life on a day to day basis (linking to amenity and open space); and respect for shared green heritage. These important values will be seen to be fulfilled if and only if the Chaucer Fields conferencing hotel proposals are removed from the Masterplan; otherwise, they will not only ring hollow, but will have been actively undermined by the inclusion of this anomaly.
- University strategic policies As a non-profit higher educational institution, the University is a complex organisation, constantly evolving to balance a range of challenging educational, research oriented, social, cultural, environmental and economic considerations. In this context, it is worth clarifying what we know currently about how this balance can and should be struck, from the perspective of the University’s own governance institutions. Two aspects are especially pertinent:
First, we should not lose sight of the fact that the original decisions by the University Council to allow a hotel proposal to move forward, in 2011 and 2012, were not framed as offering executive planners a free rein to pursue unrestrained commercial activity. Rather, the decision was conditional on the hotel operating in such a way as to secure functional integration with the University’s core functions of education and research, and it was envisaged this would have particular advantages under conditions of economic uncertainty. It is unclear, therefore, how the implied model of “unencumbered income generation”, not directly related to University mission, as evoked at consultation events, is compatible with the foundational University Council decision.
Second, there is rightly an increased emphasis in emerging strategic University policy (known as “Kent 2025”) on what is being called “civic mission”. Some of this is oriented towards the regional, national and international levels, but the University authorities are now also seeking to claim that, in order to protect reputation in a fast changing environment, they need to be more responsive to the local host community. There are even explicit references to “opening up our campuses and resources”, “building a sense of community and engagement” and “promoting access”. These sentiments, values and priorities resonate well with the ways in which the unspoilt shared green space at Chaucer Fields and the Southern Slopes have traditionally functioned – and can continue to do so to good effect – if this “green gap” in its current form were to be protected and respected. To destroy this legacy and pursue the anomalous hotel option on this site would cause major reputational damage, do great harm to the direction of policy travel suggested in “Kent 2025”, and embed in the university’s relationships a profoundly divisive element which will be ever present for years to come.
 A key source for the first set of considerations is somewhat paradoxically perhaps, contained within the body of Chapters 7 (relating to landscape) and 8 (relating to culture) of the original 2011/12 Environmental Impact Assessment. This was supposed to support the University authorities’ planning application at the time – but in fact contained a range of material that militated strongly against it. These considerations are, it is suggested, as relevant now than they were 6 years ago. The analysis for the second and third set of claims builds upon that, but links it to more recent considerations.
 This reality was emphasised especially in Chapters 7 and 8 of the 2012 EIA (with Chapter 8 drawing on the scholarship and insights of the Canterbury Archaeological Trust).
 The unspoilt Chaucer Fields/Southern Slopes are in close proximity to areas of local open space deprivation at the urban Ward level. As the Council’s Open Space policy has rightly surmised, this is especially the case in relation to St Stephens. This is a problem which has become more significant over the period 2012 – 2018, in the light of the development of high-volume building in St Stephens, a trend also affecting the neighbouring St Dunstans Ward.
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