Saturday, 5 September 2009

Aberystwyth University - Sports Science Department extension

Aberystwyth University has brought in the diggers again, as the University's apparent plans to replace green areas with buildings and concrete continue apace. This time it is the Sports Science Department, which is being extended onto the green space nearby. We suppose that isn't too unexpected, since the University cut down part of a wood to build the department in the first place.

As part of the work the University's running track will be out of action for over 6 months, when it will be reopened by extending it onto yet another green space. When CIN rang the Sports Centre staff to ask about this, we were told that the running track was the only free fitness activity the University provides.

A member of the Sports Centre staff added that, as usual, there was no consultation with stakeholders, and no advance notice. The University has ignored complaints about lack of consultation in the past, and obviously continues on this course. In fact, it is going to get much worse as the University tries to cram three campuses onto one.

As ever, with Aberystwyth University the first thing you know is when the diggers move in.

In an amazing example of spin, the Sports Centre called this loss of the running track 'Fantastic News' - though of course, since anyone wanting exercise will now have to pay them for it, it probably is fantastic news for them. They went on to say that:
"The Sports Centre is delighted to announce that as part of the Sport & Exercise Science Extension Project, a 400m two-lane 'trim track' will be situated around the existing AU Campus all-weather pitch. This will provide recreational and competitive runners with a much-needed high-performance, measured training facility. The works will be undertaken in two phases.
Phase 1: SES Carwyn James Extension starts 7th September 2009 and will necessitate the current track being out of action from August 2009.
Phase 2: The Track works start 15th March 2010 - with both phases scheduled for completion by 23rd April 2010.
Thus, it is anticipated that the all-weather pitch will be out of action from 15.03.10 to 23.04.10 (6 weeks - 2 of which are over Easter). We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause but are confident our customers will be rewarded with a wonderful new facility."
Why is it spin? How about the fact that there was already a 400m measured two-lane track for recreational and competitive runners - so there is no 'wonderful new facility', just the loss of an existing facility for a huge period of time.

Of course, the work was due to start on 7th September, but started a week early - one CIN member was told by a member of the Sports Centre staff that it is typical of the University's Estates department to give out false information (when they give out any at all).

Aberystwyth University - failure to consult; intention to build on green spaces

This example was a typical one where there was no consultation with stakeholders. The chair of CIN had tried to start a dialogue with Aberystwyth University about this back in January 2009. We asked Dr John Harries, the University's Pro Vice-Chancellor, a number of questions (which were CC'd to the Director of Estates, John Williams):
  1. When the University makes decisions on buildings and campuses there is no consultation with staff and students in the University, or the wider community. Does the University plan to change this in the future, and if so when? It would be easy to provide opportunities for stakeholders to have a say, e.g. any time that a new building was being considered, to include details in a University weekly email, and in the Cambrian News, inviting comment; then for the University to incorporate the feedback into the decision-making process.
  2. Does the University plan to build on any more green spaces/greenfield sites: if so where and when?
  3. What are the plans for Llanbadarn Campus?
  4. If the University is planning to move IGER, the Old College and Llanbadarn Campus departments and libraries onto Penglais Campus, will this involve building on yet more green spaces to accomodate them?
  5. Is there any way of preventing the Arts Centre's plans (up until now not publicised anywhere) to build offices on the only green patch on the plaza, and instead to turn that space into a green feature, planted with trees, flowers and bushes as a natural break amongst all the gloomy concrete?
  6. Does the University plan to build more halls on green spaces at a farm, and to move Pantycelyn students there, rather than building on the foundations of the Llanbadarn Campus halls?
  7. Does the University have any plans to give higher priority to preserving and expanding the green spaces it is custodian of, rather than building on them?
None of these questions were answered in any way.

Since then some of the buildings such as the Arts Centre extension have already gone ahead. Student Services, the Student Fees Office and the Cash Office, International Recruitment and Collaboration, and the University Printing Services have all already moved from the town to Penglais Campus.

As to the future, there will be more of this. The University's Estates Strategy was approved by Council in December 2008 (it has been worked on since 2006). The gist of it is that the University aim to move eveything to Penglais Campus (from town and from Llanbadarn Campus and what used to be IGER).

The University is apparently anti-consultation. Even though it has been planning these things for years, and already got developers and planners involved, it did not consult with its stakeholders: the University's staff, students and local community, all of whom use the campuses. The University could have saved money by consulting them, not paying huge sums to external consultants who don't know the area and the history, and don't have to live with the mess they make.

Just some of the moves still to come, gleaned from public announcements and communications with concerned parties:
  • Old College Library will probably move to Penglais Campus in 2010.
  • The University has already appointed a design team for a new Institute of Biological and Envionmental Sciences building on Penglais.
  • The University will move the Rural Sciences and Information Studies departments from Llanbadarn Fawr to Penglais.
  • The University is planning a new library or Hugh Owen extension. There have also been rumours of plans to build some sort of 'learning centre' on the green fingers at the entrance to the University.
  • The University has started work on planning application A090276, a car park of 200 spaces, even though it will have an irreversable adverse impact on: the local natural environment, wildlife and biodiversity; the air pollution in the area; the traffic on roads in the area; and it encourages car use at a time when it is vital that alternative forms of transport are used and car use is discouraged.
  • Building a new student hall on a nearby farm - see also Cambrian News, Thu 4 Dec 08, p3.
  • The University is also going to build 1000 new student residences (is the University addicted to new build? It had only just knocked down Llanbadarn Fawr residences that could have been renovated...).
Where will it all fit? It won't. If they do move all of that to Penglais then most open green spaces will be built on, despite all the areas they have built on in the past - there is no other way of housing all those departments and offices. It seems to be a crazy decision to try to centralise the University, rather than being better incorporated into local community as it is now. The University currently has buildings in all those places, but would apparently prefer to close them and build new ones - do they have some surplus of cash that they need to spend? Otherwise such wanton changes with their inevitable loss of green space just cannot be understood.

£80 million spare? Click to enlarge this article from the Cambrian News, Thu 18 December 2008, p1

The University's Estates Strategy is obviously an old-fashioned document agreed by a load of backwards-thinkers who can't think of anything original.

Greener options would be:
  • Dump the strategy. Why move everything to one campus? The University could continue to use its existing campuses rather than merging them, which involves huge projects, a waste of money, and destroying green spaces. Multi-campus universities are more interesting; in Aberystwyth they are close anyway, the only requirement is for investment in them all, something the University hasn't done (for example it made a decision to stop investing in Llanbadarn Campus many years ago). One of the reasons people come to Aberystwyth is for the natural environment - trees and sea and green spaces. The University knows this, which is why they plaster their prospectuses with pictures of those things, but the University is hypocritical if it wants to persuade students to come to a green campus whilst planning to build all over it.
  • Another option if the University is determined to combine things on one boring campus: why not ban all cars from Penglais Campus and build on the car parks instead? Perhaps that would be too radical for Aberystwyth University.
What is needed is:
  • For the University to give higher priority to preserving and expanding the green spaces it is custodian of, rather than building on them.
  • For the University to consult when deciding on developments. How? Well, there is a weekly email to all staff and students in the University - for a start this could be used to state plans and get feedback; then later to summarise the comments, results and decision. The feedback is important - consultation only works if the organisation really acts on the feedback if people object. (The weekly emails would only cover staff and students, so the university would need to be inventive to include stakeholders in the wider community, such as CIN members - those that use the Arts Centre, Sports Centre, campuses and eating places).
If there was that level of openness and clarity in decision-making concerning building, then it would counteract the long-standing reputation the University has for not caring about opinions and for being secretive. Currently there are no consultations, as if those who make decisions have disdain for the opinions of everyone else. But that is counterproductive. When people have less stake in an institution it affects their loyalty; they may be more likely to leave to go elsewhere; they feel ignored and disenfranchised; and are not likely to enhance the University's reputation or aid recruitment to it, since they lack faith in the institution. Aberystwyth University has a chance to change its old-fashioned closed-doors reputation for a modern, open and inclusive method that stands a better chance of preserving the natural environment.

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