THE UNIVERSITY’S plans to expand on Heslington East have provoked a backlash from academics both within the campus and in the wider community.
The plans, which favour an expansion on an unprecedented scale to the east of the village of Heslington, were recently approved by the Councils planning committee in a lengthy and bitter meeting lasting over nine hours.
Ever since the University’s inception there have been plans to expand onto the farmland east of of Heslington. This expansion, it has been argued, is essential if the University is not to stagnate as other ‘less constrained’ institutions seize opportunities at York’s expense.
Unfortunately the plans for what will be one of the largest commercial developments in York for decades have been attacked by critics as both “unimaginative and unsustainable”. Not only have the usual suspects of local residents and student pressure group, been up in arms, but also numerous academics have launched vitriolic attacks on the premise that the University’s plans are universally supported.
While the need for the University to expand on academic grounds has been met with little opposition, the manner in which expansion will occur has angered many. Dr. Richard Firn, from the Biology department has spoken out against what he sees as the University’s “selfish and horrific attitude” that has marked every stage of the planning process.
Instead of being a development simply for the improvement of educational facilities, he sees it as an opportunity for business expansion on greenbelt land by the back door. The plans show that over thirty per cent of developed land will be devoted to companies not directly involved in the running of the University.
Under the guise of a ‘science park’, non-academic staff levels will rise by around 370 per cent compared to student number increases of just 50 per cent. The suspicion that students are being marginalized in the development is further compounded by the admission that more land will be allocated on the new site for a conference centre than for sporting facilities.
Students can however look forward to “guaranteed accommodation on the new campus”. The Vice Chancellor, Brian Cantor, along with his team of consultants, have attempted to reassure concerned counsellors and residents that Heslington East will house all the extra 3,700 full time students it is set to attract.
However, according to evidence from the existing campus this assumption is wildly optimistic. Currently, only ten to fifteen per cent of second and third year students return to campus accommodation each year, preferring the freedom of private lets with the unique opportunities they provide.
The University have yet to answer how they are going to persuade students to stay on campus, other than offering Alcuin style facilities, but not cheaper rents. The potential strain on local housing if the University cannot contain expanded student numbers remains one of the chief concerns of Labour councillors who favour a comprehensive study into the issue.
The design of the new campus has also come under heavy fire from a series of academics including Dr. Geoffrey Stern, Dr. Guy Wooley and Dr. Roger Pierce. Dr. Pierce, a Politics lecturer who has experience in planning, has voiced his “strong reservations about the proposals to accommodate the expansion by extending the University into Heslington East.”
Pierce believes that the University did not properly consider its alternative options, arguing that the original planning restrictions on the current campus could have been lifted.
‘‘Innovative design could dramatically reduce the extent of the proposed site but the potential size of Heslington East has worked against radical design solutions.’’ He added, “By utilising sites within the city as well as the existing campus, the potential for greater integration between the University and the city could be realised.”
Crucially, the needs of students to be “centred on one site” has been the guiding force behind the Heslington East expansion plans. These are the grounds on which the University has dismissed alternative sites in and around York, insisting on an all-inclusive joined up campus.
Furthermore, the choice of Heslington East for the University’s expansion has provoked such severe criticism because it will mean a large swathe of green belt land will be developed. Dr. John Lovett, from the Environmental Science department, argues that this is against planning policy guidance on green belts, which clearly states that “higher education institutions are no longer appropriate developments in the green belt”.
The University defends its proposals by claiming that it has exceptional circumstances, which mean it is adhering to both government policy and its own development plan, which also favours “development within the city”. These include its commitments to “sustainability” throughout the work on the new site with an extensive environmental portfolio including “recycling and sustainable building practices throughout”.
“The Heslington East proposals involve great emphasis on its commitment to sustainable development, yet it is not committing itself to the highest European standards for developing the site” maintains Dr. Firn. “I also have great concern about their interpretation of ‘sustainability’, which they take to include potentially environmentally damaging economic factors.”
The central feature of the landscape plans for the site feature a lake that will occupy ten per cent of the total footprint. The highly managed lake will involve the pumping of ground water supplies to keep it at adequate levels. “Creating a system which places extra demand on limited water supplies is hardly indicative of sustainable design”, said Dr Firn.
The precedent of the existing campus is not encouraging. Recent developments such as the £21 million Biosciences building have been plagued by “spiralling costs leading to cutbacks in features to improve energy efficiency” a source within the university revealed.
Elsewhere the provision of recycling within accommodation blocks relies on student volunteers to both set up and run schemes. If no-one is willing to run these schemes, as occured recently in Languith College, they collapse.
Dr. Firn also questioned why the University needs to build huge business facilities, including a conference complex that features a hotel, with two hundred bedrooms, right next to the academic structures. And why a science park should be built next door to academic counterparts.
The planners suggest that this will provide a fusion of ideas between the science park employees and the academics. Firn, however, has pointed out that surely this would lead to businesses putting restrictions on academic freedom, forcing research to follow the needs of businesses rather than the wider community.
The University contests that ‘Spin-out companies’ need to be based around academic departments to allow the “diffusion of ideas and resources” and site the success of facilities like the York Primary Care Facility on the existing campus.
Research by Dr. Firn conversely reveals that the University is unwilling or unable to explain how a number of companies based on the Science Park, such as the Yorkshire Housing Trust, relate to academic departments in any meaningful way.
Regardless of wider problems the proposals do at least address the failure of the University to provide students with a central venue they can use.
James Alexander, SU President maintains, “We do not have a usable space for large-scale events which can permit big acts or large shows to be put on”.
However, there is no guarantee that we will get the fabled central venue as the plans state “uncertainty in planning and funding will require flexibility in the layout of the campus and the design of building.”
This has fuelled further criticisms that the University are failing to prioritise students in the planned development.
“I can’t find anything positive in the University’s plans to expand and develop. Their solution is unimaginative at best” Dr. Firn concluded.