Daniel Whitehead investigates the progress of the Heslington East development
Senior University officials are “very confident” of receiving planning permission from government minister Ruth Kelly within weeks for the controversial Heslington East expansion.
The admission comes during a period of heightening protests from academic staff, councillors and local residents about the legitimacy of the proposals to build a second campus in the surrounding village, and the validity of the on-going public inquiry.
A recent survey by Nouse on the thoughts of academic staff about the proposals revealed that 87% of respondants were concerned by the expansion, and 27% were strongly against it. Reasons cited for their disagreement included the legitimacy of the need for expansion, whether it was in the interests of students, and the environmental problems associated with such a large-scale development.
Alistair Rider, a teaching fellow in History of Art Department, was one of many who felt that the motivation behind the proposals was more commercial than academic; saying “The reasons for the expansion have little, if nothing, to do with educational values; it strikes me as having much more to do with commercial interests.
“Currently the University seems only interested in quantity – more subjects, more students”.
This argument was echoed by Green Party Councillor Mark Hill who, when giving evidence to the inquiry, called the proposals “a commercial land grab”.
Hill also questioned the legitimacy of the public inquiry, calling it “biased”. He said “You have to see the inquiry to understand how largely it is stacked in favour of the developers. The public enquiry system is a farce”.
Along with many other councillors and academic staff, Hill agreed that permission was likely to be given but did not reveal whether he planned on taking further action if the decision, expected to be made in January by Ruth Kelly, is in the University’s favour.
One of the most prevalent arguments against the proposals is the effects it will have on already disgruntled residents of Heslington village. Since plans for the expansion were announced in 2001, hundreds of residents have voiced strong disapproval. Evidence given at the inquiry stated that a survey of local residents found that 90% totally disagreed with the plans. One disgruntled resident recently stated “I feel like a stranger in a village I have lived in for 60 years”, while another asked “Why are our lives of no importance?”
Ceredig Jamieson-Ball, councillor for the Heslington ward has been particularly critical of the proposal, stating that the vast majority of residents believe there are “insurmountable difficulties”, adding “the University has come up with a formula I don’t agree with.”
As recent figures show the University is suffering from a large budget deficit and with estimated expenditure on the public inquiry at over £1 million so far, there are concerns from many stakeholders that University finances and teaching standards will be severely affected over the next decade. A senior English academic said “At this point the financial crisis connected to the expansion seems to be having a supremely negative effect on both teaching and research. A few new buildings seems a poor return for decreasing the current excellence of the University.”
Dr Helen Hills from History of Arts also questioned the need to expand, saying “Does anyone really know [what the reasons for expansion] are? The University should not adopt the modes of our competitors who are much larger and richer than we are. Such an approach will set us firmly in the second tier of research institutions in this country.”
John Meacock, the director of Heslington East, stated “The overall benefit to the city and the wider region from employment and better education is something which has to be weighed in.” However, he did admit that the University faced several problems, including the effects on the environment, residents and University finances. “If it doesn’t go ahead we will have to reconsider what that means. It would set back the University from its current plans quite significantly”.
The final evidence is expected at the public inquiry on Monday 27 November, and a decision is to be announced in January 2007.