Breaking news – Chaucer Fields

Dear all

Essential (long) September and beyond

What I suggested could be called  “Essential September” in an earlier Blog has been and gone! We can talk of “Essential long September” perhaps, because the first few days of october have also witnessed important decisions (see below). Real progress has been in evidence in certain respects – although, as we’ll discuss below, in some respects the threat to Chaucer Fields and the Southern Slopes has actually intensified.

Please bear with the length of this Blog. But I feel  the issues are so important now that a more  extensive discussion is needed. We are at an important moment in the  decision making cycle. The University Council meets this friday, and a report on Chaucer Fields and associated  developments is on the agenda. And as you’ll see below,  important statutory planning processes will be beginning to unfold from later this month onwards.

A greater spotted woodpecker like this one has been frequenting Dover Down Field in recent weeks. Image courtesy of Kent Wildlife Trust/TheWoodland Trust

I think on balance we can say that ‘long September’ has been a positive month for those who treasure the Southern Slopes as shared, unspoilt green space for two main reasons

  • We learned that the Village Green Application is proceeding to a non statutory public inquiry. (See the record of the Minutes of 11th September KCC Meeting, although at p. 32 the number of attendees seems to be inaccurate; there were at least 80 people at the meeting). While the VGA had been dismissed as highly unlikely to succeed by the University, the outcome must not be pre-judged. There’s a real, fighting chance we’ll be able to protect forever 43 acres of the Southern Slopes (including Chaucer Fields)  as unspoilt green space. This should lift our spirits, and is a step forward for future generations of local residents and their families, University staff, and University students. It is also good news for our many visitors from all over the world who often instantly recognise the beauty of this remarkable place, and have expressed disbelief that it is even being considered for ‘development’ .
  • The revised University ‘development’ plans, presented at recent ‘preview’ and  ‘consultation’ events, show that the University Estates Department has now U-turned on key elements of its proposals from 2011. It is frustrating for those of us who believe in transparent governance that this shift in thinking has been shrouded in secrecy for more than a year. And as we’ll see below, the changes are also double edged, with disturbing backward as well as forward steps. But at least we now know that there is, in principle, a willingness on the part of the University to begin the process of taking into account the views and values of the host community, and indeed the wider University community itself.

KCC Regulation Committee members &  interested parties on the site visit to Chaucer Fields prior to the meeting launching a public inquiry, morning of 11th September

The U-turn on Student Accommodation: a new ball game emerges

What form has this shift taken? As described in September’s CFPS Blogs, the “Keynes III” student accommodation blocks are now planned for north of University road (further extending the recent Keynes college building works). Here, they would be close to, but not actually built upon,  Chaucer Fields, in a place where they would seem to have much more limited negative consequences from environmental, landscape, social, and heritage perspectives. Yet at the same time, Professor Keith Mander, the champion of the ‘development’ plans, revealed at one of the recent University-led ‘consultation’ events that he still would have strongly preferred to persist with the original proposals.

Professor Mander’s continued strong preference for the original proposal while the University as a whole has changed its position is revealing. It can be inferred that the change of direction must either reflect an instrumental calculation that those earlier proposals were anticipated as likely to be rejected by Canterbury City Council’s Planning Management Committee; and/or, it could the welcome influence of more conciliatory voices from within the higher echelons of University infrastructure – the position the University itself, through its Corporate Communications Department, seems to be seeking to promote.

The changes involved in this re-think are really important, because of the principles they imply, and the extent to which they undermine the claims made by the Estates Department in 2011 about how cost, logistics, and deliverability constrain the options available. There are two key dimensions to this. The change indicates  (1)  the acceptance by the University that there is no overwhelming justification for a 10 acre megasite, involving co-location of student accommodation blocks and the hotel/conference facilities in the same place; and  (2) the implicit  abandonment of assertions from 18 months ago about  the feasibility of site options elsewhere on campus. In particular, claims made in 2011 about how cost considerations, complexity, capacity constraints, the use of land for sports, and  “logistics and deliverability” factors prohibited the college extension option, and the development of land north of University road have all been quietly abandoned (see Site selection appendix extract.  for the assertions made in the original application).

Hawthorn berries, dark red and ripe, late september, Jack Cade’s Carvet

Assuming the University wishes to develop plans which are demonstrably rational and publicly defensible this completely changes the context for decision making about ‘development’ on campus. It is logically now time to re-visit the other rejected sites where the Estates Department similarly claimed  – without evidence  – that cost, complexity, capacity constraints, logistics and deliverability criteria ruled out development. The other site options which come back on to the agenda include most obviously (i) other land behind Innovation Centre north of University road; (ii) extensions to other colleges (iii) part of Giles Lane Car Park (providing underground parking is incorporated to ensure retention of parking space); (iv) a part of the land currently occupied by sports fields near Park Wood road (as long as replaced with equivalent or better alternatives elsewhere); and (v) land within, immediately adjacent to, and/or north of, already-developed Park Woods (but still well south of village population centres in Blean and Tyler Hill to preserve a green buffer and local green space for people there on that part of the campus too).

The Continued threat to Chaucer Fields: an Enlarged hotel/conference centre

As  reported before, however, this policy shift on student accommodation was not the whole story. Far from it.  The threat to Chaucer Fields has in some respects actually intensified because of other aspects of the modified proposals. That’s because the University has failed to take the opportunity to also rethink its flawed analysis in relation to the location of the hotel/conference centre element. Not only do its revised proposals leave  hotel/conference centre multi-storey blocks at the heart of Chaucer Fields, despoiling the historic Dover Down Field. But  the number of proposed blocks and rooms has actually increased, with the number of rooms from 150 to more than 300. Why? This enlargement apparently follows the recommendations of  the consultancy group  ‘Hotel Solutions’ in a marketing report conducted last year.

That report, it must be noted, narrowly focussed on financial considerations, with no account of the relevance of other factors a charitable, nonprofit organisation like a University with stakeholders other than shareholders would normally be expected to consider. Accordingly, the extensive environmental, social and landscape harms the proposal would inflict on the host community and the University itself were not acknowledged, let alone given weight in the analysis. Nor were the detrimental effects of the development on the local economy – the negative effects on local independent small and medium sized businesses, as power is concentrated in the hands of the University bureaucracy –  seriously considered.  (You can read the UNIVERSITY OF KENT RESIDENTIAL CONFERENCE RESEARCH – FINAL REPORT redacted here, courtesy of the University Council secretariat).

Cutting the grass on Dover Down Field, early october

The Process in the Months Ahead

Finally, at the start of this month, more information on how the process will unfold has come on stream – and the University has indicated another shift in its original position, even since a few weeks ago. Instead of submitting its applications for planning permission across the sites together, it will handle the process with two distinct and seperate planning applications at different times. (Thanks to Canterbury City Council for advising me of this development, which is not explicit in the University’s ‘consultation’ materials). So:

  • The planning application for “Keynes III” will still follow the schedule presented last month, going in at the end of this month (late october); whereas
  • the “Chaucer Conference Centre” proposal will not now follow this schedule. It will instead be submitted later – although in true Estates Department style, the specific timing remains a mystery! However, it should be noted that, as long as this delay is for weeks or months rather than years, if the application were successful, it would still theoretically allow the process of concreting over the fields to begin in late 2014 (with a reduced amount of time between the planning application and the commencement of the building works).

Yellowing English Oak leaves, Dover Down Field, early October

Some thoughts on the proposals, and the community reaction on Keynes III to date

It won’t surprise you to know, given my observations on how earlier assumptions have been jettisoned, that I  personally believe that there is still a great deal of work to be done to convince University people, the host community and Canterbury City Council that  “Keynes III” is necessarily a step forward. At the risk of stating the obvious, the main reason for this follows from the lack of evidence presented in the alternative site analysis to date. We have been presented with unsubstantiated assertions, not evidence-based analysis

How could the alternative sites support a different approach? I am  sure there are several, if a bit of imagination and creativity were bought to bear on the problem, and a number of ideas were floated from local and University-based attendees at the ‘consultation’ events last month. This applies to both the location of the hotel/conference facilities, and the student accommodation blocks. Many argue that the claims about the ‘synergetic’ gains coming from situating the conference centre close to the Innovation Centre and business or “science” park have never developed beyond vague conjecture at best, and are simply loose talk and meaningless waffle at worst. Accordingly, on this view, the conference facilities and the student accommodation could readily both be sited well away from this part of campus in a relatively unconstrained way using an intelligent combination of the sorts of sites mentioned above.

However, suppose, despite the bluster to date, there really were yet-to-be-made-public compelling reasons for still having the Hotel/Conference Centre close to the Innovation Centre and business park.  Does this necessitate ‘developing’  Chaucer Fields? Again, at the risk of stating the obvious, the answer is clearly no. Some of the land north of University road behind the innovation centre could instead be used to host any conference facilities which are truly needed (with the student accommodation on the other sites mentioned).

(Personally I would guess that  downscaled conference facility development  – on a modest scale,  rather smaller than the 2011 proposals, and in keeping with the Innovation Centre in terms of height and visibility  –  is likely to be the best option here once all relevant factors begin to be responsibly considered. This would allow the University to better fulfill its educational mission and achieve some balanced diversification of income. At the same time on this scale it would avoid distortionary and dysfunctional concentration of economic power in relation to the local economy; it would impose relatively limited environmental and landscape damage; and it would minimise the problems of aggravation of traffic, noise and light pollution which are already beginning to adversely affect campus life, and would be escalated by an enormous hotel complex).

However, I should acknowledge that my scepticism about  the wisdom of “Keynes III” is not necessarily shared widely. Some within the University and community at large  seem incredibly anxious to ensure more student accommodation is in place quickly (with a year having been wasted with the flawed initial Planning Application),and are therefore more positive. They may well be willing to accept ‘”Keynes III”  even without a comprehensive review of the alternatives.  Indeed, in Press Release following the September ‘consultations’, released last week, the University is already seeking to draw attention to the existence of a significant pro-Keynes III strand of opinion.

A troupe of long-tailed tits like this have been flitting through the hedges in Dover Down Field and Bushy Acres in recent weeks

Of course, how Canterbury City Council responds is another matter. It must always think long term, and  look at the bigger picture. It has already stressed the need for the University to present exhaustive alternative site analysis, and presumably would not be satisfied by “Keynes III” unless a convincing body of new evidence is brought to bear by the University to rule out other options. In addition, we still don’t really know about the wider patterns of local public opinion. These decisions will directly effect many thousands of people, and many more indirectly – we don’t yet know what they really think.  And it must be pointed at that the numbers who attended the ‘consultation’ events upon which the Press Office have reported seemed to be very much smaller than the equivalent ones (via the ‘Local Dialogue’ group) in 2011

The reason for this is simple. Last time round, people took a great deal of time and trouble to attend and respond, diligently filling out forms and arguing convincingly for the retention of Chaucer Fields as unspoilt space. They were rewarded with the 2011 Planning Application and now the revised proposals –  which completely misunderstand their values and concerns in relation to the historic fields as a crucial green buffer shared by the University and host community. Many have evidently reasoned, based on this earlier experience, that there would be little point in engaging with another University-led consultation: better to wait for the democratically mandated Planning Application process, where at least they can expect their substantive concerns to  be given some weight. So, we’ll have to wait until the Planning Application is submitted to  see whether the supportive attitudes towards ‘Keynes III’ reported by the University Press Office really do prefigure an endorsement of this part of the plans from the people of the District more broadly

The Community Reaction: The Chaucer Conference Proposals

In its Press Release relating to the “consultations”,  the University Press Office was conspicously silent about  how the “Chaucer Conference Centre” element of the proposals were received. What do we actually know about this?  Local media reportage  give a good sense of the amount of anger at, and resistance to, the retention of the aspiration to ‘develop’  Chaucer Fields expressed by members of the “Save Chaucer Fields” (SCF) group (the coalition of  residents associations representing people who live close by). My personal impression from attending some of the events  was that this sentiment was shared more generally, and was not just associated with SCF activists. I witnessed  several people with no connection at all to SCF argue passionately against the development of Chaucer Fields .

Why? It strikes me there are perhaps three main sets of reasons for the wholesale rejection of the Chaucer Fields plans from SCF but many others too. Forgive  me at this point if I begin to sound like a stuck record, but unless these simple points are repeatedly articulated, there is a danger they will be disregarded once again! First, if the University Estates Department had bothered to properly read and digest the feedback it received in 2011 via the Local Dialogue consultation, and then people’s responses to the Planning Application, it should have already shelved the plans to develop the Southern Slopes in their entirety. Persisting with such proposals in the face of such  remarkably well articulated community sentiment, expressing the enormous value attached to these fields as shared local green space, appears rigid, gratuitous and even aggressive.

Second, and emphasising once again the location issue, there is widely felt indignation that the Estates Department’s had, by last month, still apparently not bothered to pull together and present a serious analysis of the alternative site options. This has been despite having had 18 months to do so since the last Planning Application, when the Canterbury City Council Planning Officer plainly and explicitly said in her report that  this was essential (and was a key reason for the plan’s deferment).  It it widely seen as simply irresponsible to risk squandering  the much loved green buffer between the University and the city , and allowing sprawl to proceed, when the alternative options have not been fully and exhaustively considered.

Third, there is the character of the actual new proposals themselves.  Those who attended September’s events were offered the image below as the best representation that could be mustered: these were indicative images only available in sketchy form and reportedly subject to tweaking in the light of feedback, but we can already see key characteristics.

Sketch of Chaucer Conference Centre proposals, as per september 2012 events

At the parts of the events  I attended, I was unable to find anyone at all who was positive about this aspect of the  plans. Why? The following nine considerations draw upon discussions  I had then, and subsequently, and I hope will resonate with the reader who is familiar with this setting

  • The landscape would be irreversibly damaged and there would be a highly significant loss of shared open green space. Rich opportunities for the appreciation of nature, and extensively used for play, recreation, and a range of individual and collectively organised leisure pursuits would be lost
  • The scale of the buildings would be utterly out of keeping with the landscape and proximate buildings, including Chaucer College and the Innovation Centre (where the latter already pushes the boundaries of acceptability). The proposed conference buildings are of a wholly disproportionate scale, and dramatically violate both the letter and spirit of  local Landscale and Open Space policy. The sketch shows them to be  of a completely new order of magnitude compared to existing building: massive, towering 4-5 storey blocks, which would impose massive damage.
  • the  Countryside and Parkland views from within the unspoilt site itself, and from the East,  South, and North within the broader Southern Slopes, would be lost forever. These are currently enjoyed by  cyclists, runners and walkers. Obviously, views from within  the site would be obliterated; those from land adjacent to the site would be  completely ruined
  • the Views from University road would also necessarily be adversely affected, despite the Estates Department’s emerging claims to the contrary. This is simply because  the topography of the landscape – unlike the adjacent Chaucer College case – simply does not allow for elegant concealment of buildings, car parks and cars (and this would hold even if they were scaled down in line with Chaucer  College’s low level  structures)
  • Additionally, the Attempted Screening seems to involve deciduous trees not dense enough without leaves to systematically block visibility of the buildings, car parks and cars in the winter months. The sketch seems to also imply additional tree planting north east of the proposed annex blocks (hotel guest or postgraduate student overspill) to achieve screening. But this would take decades to mature, and would only naturally be approaching readiness in about 40 years, just as the expected life of  the blocks they are intended to  screen would be coming to an end!  Obviously, such a pattern would also undermine the open grassy slopes character of the setting prized in local landscape policy,  violating the long established medieval field structure
  • During the day, the current aural Tranquillity of the fields would be wiped out, replaced by the noise pollution associated with the sprawling development
  • At night, light pollution would destroy the ‘Dark Skies‘ value of the land for the high density population living nearby, depriving large numbers of people in the  community of the ability to stargaze and appreciate the majesty of the night sky
  • the Ancient Pathway from the Cathedral to Blean church, and then on to Whitstable, would be lost to car park tarmac, wiping out a 300 year old track of enormous cultural and symbolic integrative significance for the District
  • The environment for the Historic Hedges would be ruined. Multi-storey blocks would tower over them incongruously . And it is hard  to see how the biodiversity value of the retained hedges, could be realised in a meaningful way in the context of  this ‘development’. The hedges would be degraded by the loss of a sympathetic proximate natural environment, and would no longer be well positioned to flourish free of pollution, nor to host bird life and many other living creatures as they do now

A family stroll on Bushy Acres, headed towards Dover Down Field. If the proposed ‘development’ proceeded, looming in front of them  would be multi-storey blocks

A Final  Word

.I’ll keep you  posted in the months ahead about any further developments – and promise to try to keep  the CFPS less wordy in future! In the meantime, two dates for your diaries – one imminent, one  longer term. First this thursday evening, 6.30pm please try to attend the meeting of Canterbury City Council’s Executive Committee, in relation to Kingsmead Fields (more details at Kingsmead Fields Blogspot). Second please protect the evening of saturday 8th december in your diaries for a mystery event! The CFPS will be collaborating with the Save Chaucer Fields group and others in to organise an exciting and inclusive social and cultural happening. Watch this space!

Best wishes

Chaucer  Fielder

Chaucer Fields Picnic  Society