On the 25th of March 2010 Cambridge City Council’s Community Services Scrutiny Committee discussed “Open Space and Recreation Projects” which could be funded by contributions made by developers in lieu of providing sufficient facilities when building in the city. During this discussion Labour opposition councillors Lucy Walker and Kevin Blencowe questioned what the ruling Liberal Democrats had been doing about pushing the University of Cambridge to get on and build the sports centre which they promised would be part of the university’s West Cambridge development.
Including plans for a sports centre as part of the development gave the university a bargaining chip when negotiating with the city council about how it would contribute to mitigating the effects of constructing its West Cambridge. There is now the potential, and strong likelihood, that funds from “development taxes” raised elsewhere in the city could be spent on sports facilities on the site, potentially boosting what the university already has a commitment to provide. Projects the council is considering using development taxes to fund in the near future, include:
- An indoor gymnastics training and competition facility
- A martial arts training and competition facility
- An ice rink
- Community sports provision
Many members of Cambridge City Council, particularly the Liberal Democrats, are employed by or have other personal interests relating to the University of Cambridge. This might be making them reluctant to act in the public interest and demand that the university meet their obligations, though my impression is that its probably not that but a general reluctance by the Lib Dems to grasp the reigns of power which is behind the council’s apparent inaction.
There is currently a negotiation in progress between the city council and university on the community use of facilities. There is an understandable difference of perspective here, but from what I can tell the problem is that both sides are taking unjustifiably extreme views. I think a good starting position would be to treat all residents of the city, students and non-students, equally and then make concessions allowing for the fact that Cambridge University student use of sports facilities is generally concentrated into a series of short bursts though the year and ensuring provision was made for preferential access for students in those times. Perhaps wider access to other university (college) facilities across the city could be thrown into negotiations too.
The City Council’s position as expressed at the March Community Services Scrutiny Committee was to say that “the university has no clear strategy”, and the council is “awaiting a lead from the university”.
Cllr Blencowe, a Labour member of the planning committee, said that the council could be doing more. He said there were £4m of unallocated developers contributions available; he urged the ruling Liberal Democrats to take a tougher stance with the university on ensuring they meet their planning obligations, he argued this was in the interests of the city as a whole, the university itsself and particularly university students.
Cllr Julie Smith, the Liberal Democrat Executive Councillor for Arts and Recreation decided not to engage with the questions the opposition members were putting to her. She said it was a matter for the council’s planning committee and not for her.
Discussion at the Peterhouse Hustings
At a Parliamentary Hustings on the 20th of April 2010 in Peterhouse College students asked the candidates their views on the fact the university is delaying building the sports centre. The question, from Charlotte Roach, which kicked off the discussion asked the candidates how they would support a student campaign to get the university fundraising for the sports centre. The questioner said the university had recently been fundraising, highly successfully, as part of its 800 year centenary, using the sports centre prominently in materials encouraging donations but was not putting any of the money which had been raised towards building the facility.
Liberal Democrat Julian Huppert (a member of university staff) said that he had pledged to support those students who are lobbying the university to get on with it. He said he had signed up to the questioner’s campaign. Notably though he avoided saying anything about the inaction of his Lib Dem colleagues on the City Council. Huppert illustrated one of the key problems with the way the university is run by saying: “The University needs to decide how to prioritise”; academics like him don’t have enough of a role in running the university, I would like to see a state where an academic in his position speaking to a room of students says “we in the university have to decide…”, at the moment though there is far too much professional, and disconnected, “management” at the top of the university. (More of my views on the governance of Cambridge University)
As well as calling on the university to listen to the strength of student opinion, Conservative Nick Hillman was candidate who explained to the largely student audience that this was a city council issue; and one on which they should think carefully about how they voted in the upcoming city council elections which will also be held alongside the Parliamentary elections on the 6th of May. Mr Hillman said:
We [the Parliamentary candidates] are only a very small proportion of the people up for election in Cambridge on May 6th. Every single ward across the City of Cambridge has a council election and actually I believe in real devolution of power and you, as campaigners, ought be able to talk not only to us, but to them, as it is the case that it is the council which makes planning decisions.
While I agree with the sentiment, in fact too often planning decisions are made by unelected, unaccountable planning inspectors and not local councillors; many local councillors in Cambridge don’t vote on planning applications because of restrictive rules.
Daniel Zeichner expressed a view that putting public resources towards the University Sports Centre wasn’t a good thing to be doing because it wouldn’t be of any benefit to the poorest people in the city. He said he’d help the student campaigners in anyway he could but seeking facilities for privileged university students would not be a primary focus for him. He made the point that it’s not the technicality of if residents are allowed access – but more a question of the existence of the town / gown divide which would mean residents would be unlikely to make much use of a university facility. I think though that this is an opportunity to break down those barriers if a facility open to all was built. If, for example, the facility was to be available for use by schools then that would a route through which all in the city, including the poorest, would directly benefit. Zeichner indicated that one of his aims was to unite the city, I think supporting this scheme could help achieve that.
Green Tony Juniper commented briefly saying: “I agree with Nick’s view”; he expressed support for the idea of “campaigning” for something which you believe is needed, when pushed to make a further comment later in the debate he said:
I don’t really have anything to add, shall we get onto a new question.
Mr Juniper has made no pretence of any intent to be an MP for Cambridge with an interest in local issues; he has made clear he wants to be a national politician.
A student, who introduced himself as “the student union sports and societies officer”, suggested that the fact the university provides sporting facilities on a college level; and is reluctant to move away from that model was behind their sluggishness on the sports centre project. He said he understood they were “technically going ahead with this and raising funds” but expressed his lack of faith that they were putting much effort into it. I think the university’s failure to reform the college system to account for recent massive growth in student numbers, particularly among graduate students is a major failing of the way the university is currently being run.
An alternative suggestion was that the sticking point is the city council pushing too hard a bargain on behalf of residents and making it hard for the university to be able to justify its investment in the project. I don’t agree with that take on the situation.
- The Lib Dems on the City Council should enforce their planning policies and insist Cambridge University gets on and builds its sports centre; and ensures there is equitable access for all the city’s residents.
- I think we need stronger students’ unions. I think Cambridge University treats its students unions very badly; and perhaps consequently students don’t see their potential for representing students as students and providing an opportunity to direct the universities policies. University council, and general board elections should not be separate from student union elections.
- I support Nick Hillman’s comment that this is a question for the City Council elections, and City Council candidates. I would urge students not to vote in the Local Elections on the basis of national party policies, but to look carefully at the way in which the Lib Dems have been running the city and at the alternatives offered.
- I think there needs to be a huge amount more openness and transparency with respect to these negotiations so that the debate is well informed.
- I would suggest that students, perhaps represented by their elected representatives, ought use the public speaking opportunities at council meetings to engage with councillors.