Resident Mistle thrush, late may 2014, later nested successfully,
chaucer fields ©Mark Kilner.
Whitethroat , late may 2014, thought to be in transit,
chaucer fields ©Mark Kilner
This is undoubtedly one of the best times of year to enjoy the unspoilt Chaucer Fields and the Southern Slopes. The grass is lush and verdant, the deciduous trees are visibly springing to life with new foliage, and the hedgerows are full of blossom, most dramatically hawthorn (see above). Perhaps the best time of day to appreciate the fields is when this visual display is joined with the sound of birdsong, as day breaks. In a future Blog, I intend to upload recordings of the spring dawn chorus. But for now I’ll intersperse the Blog in the usual way with photographs which try to capture some of the beauty of the Slopes in April, and show in simple ways how they can be enjoyed by children.
Its been a while since the last Blog appeared. A key reason for this has simply been a lack of major news to report. Of course the unspoilt fields continued to be used by local residents, visitors and the university community; but in policy terms, the first few months of 2014 have continued the ‘waiting game’ described in earlier Blogs as having characterised much of 2013. But as we move towards the summer, important local policy news is now beginning to emerge. I’ll first of all summarise the situation on that, and then report an informal happening which will take place on the fields next month – the latest in our series of musical picnics.
1. Policy development – draft District Plan submission finalised
As you will recall from earlier Blogs, Canterbury City Council’s emerging new Local Plan is fundamentally important for everyone who is concerned about the balance between ‘development’ and other priorities. That’s because the Plan’s content and specific policies will be the key reference point in determining where and how building is to be encouraged or permitted, and where it is to be discouraged or prohibited for decades to come. It is crucial to recognise that the future of those parts of our landscape which are currently unspoilt and valued as such by local people for heritage, recreational and environmental reasons is at stake here: policy commitments to protect and respect such special places made in this document are going to be absolutely crucial in the years ahead.
As expected, in recent months the remarkably high value attached by communities to the Southern Slopes as unspoilt shared green space emerged strongly from the local consultation process. Numerous submissions stressing the importance of Chaucer Fields and the Southern Slopes as a whole were forthcoming from individuals and knowledgeable local groups.
The good news is that the mass of evidence and argument put forward in this way has now been taken seriously by Canterbury City Council in specifying the content of the District Plan. Drawing on both lay submissions and advice from planning and landscape experts, earlier this month CCC officials initially suggested that Councillors needed to consider incorporating specific protections for the Slopes.
And this is precisely what has happened as the Plan has proceeded through the relevant decision making committees. It has been amended to explicitly recognise the value of the fields. And it has been good to witness that the issue has been treated as an entirely non-partisan one, uniting all strands of political opinion. First the CCC Overview Committee recommended the adoption of ‘open space’ protection for the Slopes; then the CCC Executive Committee followed, although reframing the proposed protections as a matter of ‘green gap’ policy (because the land is technically outside the ‘urban envelope’, these policies are the more appropriate ones);and finally on 24th april, the full Council endorsed this ‘green gap’ status for the Southern Slopes as part of its general approval of the Plan as a whole.This has taken shape despite a late formal objection to these protections being made by University management, as reported at the final Council meeting (although the substantive grounds for this objection are not currently known).
The idea of a ‘green gap’ here resonates well with strongly held local sentiment that the fields should be suitably protected as a highly significant ‘green buffer’, ‘green belt’ or ‘green lung’ benefitting both local residents and the University community at large. More specifically and formally, this status (Policy OS5) would mean that any ‘development’ which “significantly affect[s] the open character of the Green Gap, or lead to coalescence between existing settlements”; or which would result in “new isolated and obtrusive development within the Green Gap” would be explicitly prohibited.
This is all very encouraging news. However, it is important to stress that the draft Local Plan incorporating these green gap protections for the Southern Slopes is not yet legally adopted policy. There are several further steps to be completed. Most importantly, these include a 6 week period during which interested parties are entitled to make representations concerning the Plan’s legality and “soundness” . The Plan also then needs to be scrutinised and signed off at national level by the Planning Inspectorate (an executive agency of the Department for Communites & Local Government). The Inspectorate will undertake a detailed and thorough review of the CCC Plan, supporting policies, and the representations received during the recent and upcoming consultations.
2. Collaborative Musical Picnic – 3.30pm onwards 11th May
On a less “heavy” note I am pleased to announce that plans for our next picnic are now well advanced! This informal happening is jointly facilitated by CFPS and the Abbots Mill Project (see Blogroll, top right). It is being actively supported by the Save Chaucer Fields group, Greenpeace Canterbury, and by environmental representatives from the UCU (the University of Kent’s main staff union) and from Kent Union (the student’s union). We hope you’ll come if you live locally: 3.30pm onwards, sunday 11th may.
Of course, many of the popular play activities undertaken on the fields at picnics and other times don’t require you to bring anything: including tree climbing, “it” and other tag games, hide & seek and exploratory games – for children, but also anyone who is young at heart.
Alongside these ‘do it yourself’ activities, there’ll be the chance to:
The Jack will have already welcomed the rising sun on mayday, and paraded the streets of Whitstable during may day celebrations earlier in the week. The Jack is made of ivy gathered from various parts of the District, including ivy gathered from the Southern Slopes/Chaucer Fields. His constitution and participation symbolises how respect for green space is a shared priority for local people from across the local area
Let’s hope the weather is good to us!
Hope to see you at the picnic
Chaucer Fields Picnic Society
Opportunities to find out more about the University’s revised proposals for ‘developing’ Chaucer Fields – in conjunction with land north of University road – are looming (on 22nd and 24th september – see their ‘Corporate Communications consultation website’ for more ‘exhibition’ details). So it might be worth sharing some initial thoughts about questions which may be relevant to raise with the proposers. I am convinced the University authorities have fundamentally misunderstood the reasons for extensive and growing opposition to the violation of the unspoilt fields – from local residents, University staff, students, and civil society groups alike. That is to say, it has demonstrably failed to grasp the meaning of the responses to both the ‘local dialogue’ consultation it organised, and of the representations made at the time of the last planning application. If it had taken in the nature of and rationales for this opposition, it is unthinkable that the plans would be taking their current form.
Since the Blog of 10 September, more information has been revealed about the content of the proposals with the belated posting in the middle of last week of the ‘preview’ presentation made to Councillors and ‘other stakeholders’ . Amongst the most important features of the new proposal are:
More details are also given on the proposed timetable – see above. Clearly the idea for the student accommodation is to be ready for academic year 2014/15’s intake. We also see the intention in relation to Chaucer Fields themselves. If the Village Green Application fails, and the Planning Application were to be approved, developers would start concreting over the landscape in two year’s time, and be open for business in Spring 2016.
The Save Chaucer Fields group, in its SCF Newsletter Flyer 11th September 2012, rightly objects in principle the Chaucer Conference Centre proposal – of course, because it would destroy Chaucer Fields! But it welcomes the ‘Keynes III’ student accommodation proposal, and it is easy to see why, not least since the University claims it has taken this step as a result of ‘listening to the community’, and tries to frame this particular step as a reasonable response.
I would tend to be much more cautious about the extent to which ‘Keynes III’ is necessarily a step forward. For sure, there is a need for more capacity to meet the accommodation needs of students, and unfortunately the bungled first Planning Application and delay in moving to the new proposals have wasted a lot of time in positioning the University to meet these needs. But can we yet be certain this is the right answer? I don’t think so. First, we’ll need to see substantiating evidence that there are no major environmental harms involved, and have confirmation from heritage experts that the ‘Keynes III’ site is indeed appropriate. (Historically, this place was known as part of Saw-Pett Field.) We will also need to be absolutely sure that the place does not function as a local green public space, with high amenity and recreation value, for significant numbers of people (individually, or via organised groups).
My impression is that land use here is occasional, sporadic, and limited, compared to the systematic, varied and wide ranging use of the green land further south, while the view does not have the same panoramic qualities. The plan also seems to respect the ancient pathway to Blean church – another obvious contrast with the Chaucer Fields proposals. So, it does seem likely that development on this site would be less damaging than at Chaucer Fields. But we still need to establish this for certain through the planning application process.
Second, feedback from the local community and expert groups verifying this to be the situation should be seen as necessary, but not sufficient, to allow ‘development’. The onus is still on the University to make available in digestible form for public scrutiny its much cited, but never released, ‘detailed’ and ‘extensive’ studies ruling out every other option on its massive Canterbury campus. Especially important to consider are its brown field and central campus sites, and those other places – including in and around Park Wood – where space would be readily available through some combination of new-build and demolition of existing poor quality, low density stock.
Indeed, by accepting in its new proposals that the student accommodation does not need to be directly co-located with the hotel/conference complex, the ‘land greediness’ of the proposals as a whole have diminished. Smaller parcels of land should now be coming into focus as options for development, which were not seriously considered before when it was claimed a single, 10 acre megasite was required. So there is still a great deal of work to be done to convince us all that ‘Keynes III’ on Saw-Pett Field is necessarily a panacea.
Building on these and other considerations it can be suggested that the following three overarching questions are worth raising over the next few days. In each case, I’ve posed a question, and tried to clarify why I think the question is an important one for the community, the University, and perceptions of the University, in brackets afterwards. For sure a mass of other questions will also need to be raised – but the issues below are prominent amongst those that require a clear response.
1. When will University Estates make public its studies covering the alternative ‘development’ options across campus?
(What about other options further North and East on campus, while still well away from other beautiful or populated areas? Clearly Blean and Tyler Hill should also be protected from University sprawl and loss of local green space. But this still leaves other land closer to central campus and around/within Park Wood. And what came of the off-campus options which were apparently being explored earlier this year? These questions are still unanswered but remain fundamentally important. It is a no-brainer that it is not possible to make a rational decision about either Keynes III or the Conference Centre, without having evaluated the full range of alternative options.)
2. If the scheme’s proposers have finally acknowledged the need to ‘listen the community’, why are they still proposing to ‘develop’ Chaucer Fields at all and violate the current democratically mandated District Plan?
(Under the 2012 National Planning Policy Framework, the District Plan, agreed by elected representatives (Canterbury City Council), lies at the heart of policy. It is crucial to stress that our District Plan explicitly recognises Chaucer Fields and the Southern Slopes as comprising an Area of High Landscape Value. But this is not all. Other democratically mandated policies also point to the Southern Slopes’ value from an ‘Open Spaces’ perspective. The evidence generated by the University’s own consultation, the Planning Application responses of 2011, and the Village Green statements and representations, have all systematically catalogued the enormous open space value of the land in practical terms. So we can say for certain in late 2012 that the revised proposals are profoundly wrong headed from an Open Spaces policy point of view. This was actually much less clear cut when the original application was made, but the University seems to be in denial about the enormous body of evidence.)
3. Why has the proposed Conference Centre also not been resituated, north of University Road or otherwise away from the unspoilt Southern Slopes?
(This really follows from the first question, which University authorities have yet to answer directly. It seems obvious in policy terms that this would sit better with the ‘business park’ zoning of the land north of University road, already agreed by Canterbury City Council. Why reject this option? Its very unclear. But my own research on local attitudes here revealed that it is widely assumed in the community that the fixation of the leadership of Estates and commercial/hospitality services on these fields is driven by financial considerations to the exclusion of all other interests.
What are these supposed considerations? There are both revenue and asset aspects. First, the scheme’s promoters are believed to regard the panoramic views south of University road as a commodity to be exploited for financial gain [allowing higher rates to be charged to customers – perhaps a ‘panoramic view premium’, or pricing lower while claiming a ‘competitive’ advantage over other facilities.].
Second, the University proposers are believed by many to reason that, if planning permission is secured south of University road, they would achieve a massive ‘capital gain’ through dramatically enhancing the asset value of their land holdings close to the edge of Canterbury’s urban development. The £2m+ reputedly invested in trying to market the idea of building on Chaucer Fields would then have been repaid as a successful act of speculation many times over. That’s because a very low price was paid historically for the land when a Compulsory Purchase Order originally enabled its acquisition by the University. This low price partly reflected the fact that land was then less scarce than it is now, and because of the general inflation that has developed since. But it may also be because and the Planning Inspectorate at the time clearly specified the condition that the land should be respected as open space, explicitly precluding ‘development’ of the type being proposed. If this open space requirement were to be compromised or jettisoned and planning permissions granted, the economic value of the site itself would rise astronomically. So would the value of adjacent Southern Slopes land, because the market would believe the prospects for further ‘development’ of this land in the long run would have been enhanced. Perhaps the bankers who have been lined up to provide finance the Conference Centre are even factoring in these revenue and land asset value considerations in their profitability calculations?)
Without answers from the University authorities, these community views remain speculative. But in this context, the above slide from the ‘preview’ presentation showing a view from within the proposed Conference Centre is interesting. Compare this with what we currently enjoy. A view now available to large numbers of people of all ages while actively enjoying recreation, play, exercise and fresh air for no charge would be lost. From spring 2016 onwards, the slide portrays how it would be replaced by narrowly confined ones available to affluent fee payers passively sitting in conference facilities or hotel rooms.
What will have changed? At the moment, the community and University people share and treasure a wonderful green buffer with unbroken panoramic views, still discernably continuous in spirit with the pattern inherited from previous generations (see image below). If the ‘development’ were to proceed, this remarkable legacy would have been squandered forever.
We must stop this disastrous situation unfolding. Let’s see what answers the University authorities can provide to these basic questions, and the many other questions set to be posed by people committed to protecting Chaucer Fields in the next couple of months.
And a quick note to finish: if you can’t attend the University ‘exhibitions’ or submit your views to the ‘consultation’, not to worry. Remember what happened last time round! It is far more important that you are ready to submit your views in a form which is relevant to planning considerations when they truly matter: that is at the statutory Planning Application stage, as part of the local democratic process . This is likely to involve a 3 week period sometime between october and december. Watch the SCF pages and this CFPS Blog for more information on that!
Chaucer Fields Picnic Society