Will the green belt buckle?

July 21, 2006

Universities are under pressure to expand, but development often leads them headlong into battle with locals, reports Anna Fazackerley

If York University gets its way, the rural village of Heslington will never be the same again. The small community, which sits to the south of the institution, has about 750 residents, a local church, a farm and a sizeable cluster of listed houses. If the university succeeds in pushing through its plans for a £500 million development to the east of the village - plans that are the subject of a heated public inquiry about green-belt land - the village will be surrounded. "We will be swamped,"

Richard Frost, chair of Heslington Parish Council, who is battling against the expansion, says with exasperation. "The last working farmer in the village will lose his livelihood because the campus needs to go across his farmland. He rents the farm now. He will have to go." Ninety per cent of residents in the village are opposed to the plans, citing heavy traffic, pollution and noise as key problems - as well as the hugely contentious issue of taking over 100 hectares of green-belt land.

The new campus will take student numbers from 10,000 to 15,000, an increase that the residents regard with dread. The university recently built a new hall of residence on the edge of the village, and the locals aren't at all sure about their first taste of student life. "They live rather different hours," Frost says. "They come into the village late at night and disturb people's sleep. We aren't anti-student, but this will change the whole personality of the village."

The development won't just be about student head count, however. York is also planning to devote a large proportion of the land to spin-off companies and research institutes. This makes Frost particularly angry.

"This is basically business. We don't think business should be expanding on to green-belt land when there are plenty of brownfield sites. They should go to the city centre," he fumes.

Disputes such as this are hugely time-consuming for institutions. This one has been running for more than two years. The local opposition will present its evidence to the public inquiry in September, and Ruth Kelly, now Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, is expected to announce a decision by the end of the year.

It epitomises a key challenge facing all universities. The Government is pushing them to take on more students and fierce competition means they need to keep building on their research facilities, but how do universities manage this expansion and at what cost to the environment?

York was unwilling to put anyone forward to be interviewed about this in case they jeopardised the public inquiry. But the university is adamant that its plans are not selfish and will be of substantial benefit to the community. In an area damaged by the decline of manufacturing, the development will create 2,000 academic posts and 2,500 related jobs.

While most cities are watched over by assiduous planning departments, inevitably universities in beautiful heritage sites will face a tougher fight to realise their visions for growth. The Roman spa city of Bath is a case in point. Bath Spa University might have no trouble luring students when they see its Georgian buildings and parkland during open days. But the university buildings are mostly listed and therefore difficult to change, and the Duchy of Cornwall, which owns the land, has a right of veto over all their plans. On the other side of the city, the bigger, research-intensive Bath University has just won a long planning battle to move the green belt that cuts through its playing fields - although the permission doesn't go as far as the institution wanted.

"This in no way extends the university campus," explains Peter Reader, director of marketing at the university. "We need to get more academic space and more student accommodation. But most of all we need some flexibility to make the best of what we've got."

Reader argues that the term green belt is unhelpfully emotive. "I was brought up on the edge of London. To me, green belt means trees, fields, animals. A large chunk of this is playing fields that pre-exist the university." He adds: "There are particular tensions in world heritage cities such as Bath that make it more difficult than it would be in a more industrial area. Bath hasn't got brown land."

These sort of planning battles can threaten the whole identity of an institution. Reader says that Bath is keen to continue as a campus university, but if the decision had not gone its way it would have had to think seriously about whether this was viable in the future.

One way of leaping the hurdles and impressing the planning committee is to go green.

York has clearly thought hard about environmental impact. The university's plans include a large naturalistic lake and wetlands for wildlife, together with grassed areas and extensive tree planting. Students and staff will be encouraged to walk, cycle or take the bus, and the university estimates that traffic will be reduced by up to 40 per cent.

Paul Goffin, the new director of estates at Leicester University, has placed the green agenda at the forefront of his university's £300 million development plan and is keen to see the idea taken up more widely throughout the sector. While Leicester is a more industrial city than Bath or York, its university is still on a cramped site, and development - particularly on this massive scale - requires careful management.

Goffin is determined not to follow the usual templates. Recently he toured wealthy US universities, including Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to borrow ideas about what makes the perfect academic library.

Despite President George W. Bush's poor example on climate change, many US universities are considerably nearer to developing environmentally friendly campuses than their counterparts in the UK.

Hence Leicester's new £28 million library has a high greenness rating. Some of the elements are high tech - photovoltaic arrays will be installed as part of a research project - but others are much more simple.

Goffin explains that taps in the toilets will turn off automatically to save water, and there will be natural ventilation to dump heat at night and bring in natural air.

Crucially, universities now have an extra incentive to go green. "Our two-year electricity contract went up by 30 per cent last summer," Goffin explains. "Some universities are renewing their gas contracts and their bills are going up by 80 per cent. We are talking several millions here. It is a big hit and it is causing many institutions a lot of heartache. You can see why green issues have suddenly shot up the agenda."

But while environmentally aware designs might keep the planners from the door, getting the local community on side is likely to prove a bigger hurdle. Universities are intent on getting bigger, but those around them often have different ideas.

As Andy D'Agorne, Green Party councillor for York, observes: "This isn't just about land. It is about the life of the city."

He adds: "Does an institution automatically have to expand, or can it focus on its strengths? There is an assumption that you have to get bigger if you are going to compete on a global scale, but is this true? Ten or 15 years down the line we are likely to face a major energy crisis. If that happens our views about development will have to change completely."

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