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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