I learned today that the University of Kent has now submitted its planning application for the student accommodation element of its development plans (“Keynes III”). You’ll recall this is the part of the original Chaucer Fields megasite proposal which has been re-situated away from the fields, north of University road (please see previous Blogs for more information). You can find the full proposal by visiting the Council Planning site and searching for recent Planning Applications, or use the relevant case number, which is CA//12/01887.
A first impression on the Keynes III Planning Application: the case for locating the development here rather than elsewhere remains weak and inconclusive
This is a massive bundle of documents which it will take us all time to establish how to navigate, let alone read, and then digest! As with the previous application, it looks like signposting and cross referencing is poor. If this were a student assignment, it would be found seriously wanting! While I confess I haven’t had a chance to scrutinize all the appendices, I’ve already tried to have quick look at the alternative site analysis, as this is one of the key issues here. My initial impression is that, once again, we encounter unproven assertions and a lack of evidence to support the claims about alternative site suitability, especially in relation to capacity, cost, logistics and deliverability. Most obviously, various options seem to be ruled out on the grounds of cost without any supporting documentation, or explicit articulation of the actual financial ramifications. When the stakes are this high, we need to see all the details, and at least at first glance, these don’t seem to have been forthcoming.
At the same time, we see a sad lack of imagination, and an absence of environmental sensibility, in considering the full range of possible options. In particular, achieving an enhanced overall student accommodation capacity by development across more than one alternative site appears not to have been considered. No explanation is given for this blind spot. My view is that if this is indeed true, it is an appalling oversight, especially as the University has had over 18 months to consider the feedback it received from the local community, and experts in the field.
With a little common sense, alternative scenarios readily begin to emerge – even if one works with some of the assumptions the University has itself claimed apply. Take just one possibility: it seems that around a third of the additional student accommodation capacity could be secured by a medium scale development at Giles lane car park (with underground parking to sustain car parking space, if needed). The remainder of the required development could then be located on the northern part of campus, including in-fill and demolition within Park Woods, and on land close by, yet still well away from village population centres or high amenity green space here. With some of the heat taken off Park Woods by also developing Giles Lane car park, many of the short term problems of transitional accommodation (and income) loss stressed by the University could be readily minimised, and the development could be staged in a much shorter period of time than the ludicrously long time scales asserted in the documentation.
Anticipating that the claim will be made by the University that such environmentally sound approaches are ‘prohibitively expensive’, ‘too costly’ or ‘inefficient’, we must insist on seeing the full detail of the facts and figures which supposedly substantiate such claims. And we must also be ready to point out three things. First, such alternative, more environmentally sensitive approaches are not ones associated with wild eyed environmental fanatics – as the Estates Department might like us to believe. In fact, for the past 7 months, they have been confirmed as completely mainstream, and a preference for them has been a core requirement in adhering to the National Policy Planning Framework now being implemented by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition Government. Locally, this sort of approach also resonates in many ways with our own District Plan in attaching a high value to our open space and respecting our beautiful semi-natural landscape . Second, the University as an institution is now rather well placed to invest in quality, rather than approaching development projects from a narrow and short sighted cost cutting perspective . Let’s not forget it has been functioning with a surplus in the region of £10-15 million annually in recent years. Third, if we do now concede the point that even when the University has accumulated enormous resources it can still cut corners on environmental considerations, and fly in the face of national and local planning priorities, this will set appalling precedents for the future. Other places which also deserve protection, including green space of high landscape value on campus close to the villages of Blean and Tyler Hill, as well as the Southern Slopes more generally, will be next in line.
These are some of the most obvious considerations I think people should bear in mind when deciding whether to welcome or resist the Keynes III initiative. I am well aware many people are simply relieved that something is being done to meet student accommodation needs after all the delays. But given that the way this is pans out is going to affect the character of Canterbury and its surroundings for decades to come, I think we must pause for thought and resist short sighted solutions with disastrous potential long term implications.
Personally, I hope to have time to review the submitted materials more fully in a few days time – the above remarks, let me repeat, are based on an initial impression of documents which are poorly organised. I’ll keep you posted if I have further thoughts with a further Blog in early to mid November, and I suppose that a deadline for written representations in this sort of timeframe will be confirmed by the Council soon. In the meantime, please look out for your letter from the Council advising of the new Planning Application (you should get one of you wrote to the Council about the 2011 application, or live close by). And we can also expect the Save Chaucer Fields group to offer important advice, through the Web (main page and Facebook page, see Blogroll links on this site), and mailouts locally.
Chaucer Fields and the Southern Slopes in the context of Keynes III
As emphasised in earlier Blogs, there is of course another crucially important, reason for challenging the Keynes III plans, which has to do with the knock-on effects of permitting it to proceed, rather than Keynes III itself. That’s simply that if this development is given the go ahead, the University Estates will claim that the space north of University road, which could otherwise have hosted conference facilities, is now ‘full up’, so any conference facilities ‘must’ be located on Chaucer Fields. The precedent will then have been set for the future, and we can expect to be told in the years to come that there is ‘no alternative’ to the development of the Southern Slopes, and land close to Blean and Tyler Hill villages, because elsewhere on campus ‘is now full too’.
In this context it is interesting to read how the resistance of the community to Chaucer Fields is presented in the covering letter accompanying the new Planning Application:
“.. there remain concerns within sections of the local community about
the proposed conference hotel on the Chaucer Fields site. In light of the consultation
responses, and given the ever increasing need to deliver new student residences, the
University has decided to move forward with the Keynes extension (the subject of this
application) whilst the conference hotel is subjected to further consideration and
consultation” (covering letter to new Planning Application, p. 2).
While referring to ‘concerns‘ seems like an understated way of describing the level of opposition to development on the fields, we can perhaps accept that in the context of a dry planning document, we are not going to see the plain english which would better reflect community sentiment. (In plain english, the words we would expect to see would probably increasingly include: deep anxiety, disbelief, anger, and frustration.) However, the reference to ‘sections of the community‘ is, I think, not acceptable because of the inferences the reader is clearly intended to draw about the narrowness of opposition. This seems to be proof positive that the University Estates Department remains in complete denial about reasons for resisting the ‘development’ of Chaucer Fields, and the nature and scale of sentiment in the community, and indeed within the University, against this idea.
Anyone who needs reminding of how widespread opposition to the ‘development’ of Chaucer fields is at community and University levels could obviously refer to: the level of interest in the local media; the results of the University’s ‘Local Dialogue’ consultation from 2011, wherein almost all of the 260+ respondents (including local residents, students and staff) objected to ‘development’ on the field in principle; the over 450 Objection letters submitted to the Planning Application in the same year, again, overwhelmingly opposing development in principle on this site; and the outcome of the anonymous electronic poll and open meeting organised by the University staff’s trade union, the UCU, with large majorities opposing ‘development’ on this site, and urging the use of alternative locations. These are extraordinarily consistent and extensive reactions on an unprecedented scale.
Significantly, this attempt to marginalise opposition by implying it is narrowly based has today been dealt a blow by the first publicly available written representation to be made in response to the recent planning developments. The letter comes from the Canterbury Conservations Advisory Committee. I think this is an important intervention, and so I am reproducing it here in full (you can also download it from the Planning Application site, mentioned above).
There are at least three reasons why this is particularly significant. First, CCAC is an expert advisory body to the Council It is in no sense a ‘lobby’, but supports the Council in making decisions which are defensible in policy and technical terms. It does not seek to represent a ‘section’ of the community. Rather, it seeks to articulate the public interest in the sphere of planning, defined to draw on a deep well of relevant professional and lay experience. Second, in supporting the Council, the CCAC focusses in the interests of the District as a whole, not any one geographical section of it The University’s portrayal of those who are unconvinced by the chaucer fields development as ‘sectional’ seems also to hint that those involved are narrowly self-interested, and confined too in a geographical sense (‘nimbys’). But CCAC’s intervention makes very clear that there are sound reasons for resisting the Chaucer Fields development from the perspective of the District as a whole. The third reason is the substance of the letter. It sets out that there are profound and deep seated concerns affecting the locality relevant here, and which the University cannot and must not dismiss as ‘sectional’.
Part of the broader context here is that it is time the University moved away from its ad hoc and fragmented approach towards revealing its overall planning intentions to the host community through a fully transparent ‘Master Plan’ or similar overview document. This idea was already suggested by the Canterbury Society in 2011, but to no avail. The reinforcement of this message from CCAC should be a wake up call for the University. The current secretive approach – hoarding information to the last possible moment and even then only revealing intentions in a piecemeal, partial and opaque way – has demonstrably been a recipe for disaster in terms of how the University is seen locally. It has damaged community relations, and been associated with confused and inconsistent decision making as exemplified in the Chaucer Fields experience to date. If the University is really concerned about the efficient use of resources in a way which relates meaningfully to the needs of the District, instead of deflecting and trivialise the concerns of the host community, it should begin listening to, and learning from them.
That’s all for now, other than to say: please continue to protect the evening of 8th December in your diaries for a special community event! All will be revealed next month!
Chaucer Fields Picnic Society