By Peter Sanderson
Prospective Green Party Candidate for Heslington
Many students who come to York appreciate the community feel that the campus brings. Certainly I felt that, when I was at York, the small size of the University contributed to its success. There’s something to be said for a campus where you can walk easily from one end to the other and meet so many familiar faces on the way.
All this could be about to change. For years, the University has been planning expansion. “Heslington East” will more than double the size of the existing campus. It will encompass an area of land bigger than the historic walled city of York. It will make the last remaining farm in Heslington village inoperable and it will put a considerable strain on local roads and housing.
The Green Party has always voiced opposition to this. My opposition to the expansion is in no way anti-student. Small is often beautiful – a university which keeps itself to a manageable size is a much better neighbour for the city than one which sprawls.
Heslington residents have seen their village change drastically in the last 30 years. It is no longer a rural idyll – they accept that – but to double the campus size would lead to a feeling that the University is hemming them in on all sides.
The site for expansion is currently good quality farmland and part of the greenbelt. Farmland is important – the UK already imports much of its food and we cannot depend indefinitely on cheap food from abroad. Self-sufficiency in food production is vital. Because of this, we need to have a very good reason to build on good quality farmland. The University would presumably say education is a good reason. However, there is more floor space on the new campus for commercial use than for academic departments. The business model is not about university places for domestic students, but about taking more international students and charging them hefty tuition fees. The new campus is much more about a corporate land-grab than the noble goal of higher education.
Myself and my colleagues in the Green Party have been pressing these concerns, but the expansion plans were approved by the majority of the council. I suspect the government inquiry due to report soon will support expansion, as it fits in with Labour targets.
So what’s the alternative? The Green Party suggests that there is not an overwhelming case for expansion but, if it is considered necessary by the University, there are other more suitable sites in York. There are huge brownfield sites within walking distance of the railway station. These could provide a prestigious campus near to the city centre, within a stone’s throw of the station and take the pressure away from neighbourhoods around the existing campus. It is understandable that the University wants to keep its campuses together, but it also has to be a good neighbour to the city.
On May 3, you will have the opportunity to vote for your city councillor. I believe it is important that you are aware of the importance of the issue of campus expansion to Heslington residents, and that it is something you will consider when you go to the ballot box.