Saturday, 10 July 2010

Regent House votes non-placet

The Regent House has voted 1,142 non-placet to 345 placet to retain the lift. The results was, I fear, inevitable once the Council managed to delay the vote until the lift was installed and so presented the Regent House with a fait accompli. Given the financial circumstances many members of the RH, who wanted to censure the Council for their conduct of this matter, felt that they could not force the Council to expend more money on the removal of the lift. So they held their noses and voted against the lift. If the vote has been taken last year when it should have been the boot would have been on the other foot. But even so we must recognise that this was the decision of the Regent House, the governing body of the University, it is legitimate decision and we must respect it. At least we ensured that it was the Regent House that decided and that - given the opposition to that from the Council - is no small thing.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Ballot Papers: Thinking of Abstention?

Members of the Regent House will have received their ballot papers with all the flysheets. The wheels of democracy have ground slowly but at least they have ground...and the Regent House, not the Council, now has the opportunity to decide this issue.

Some comments may be made. First, no flysheet urges non-placet on the ground that the decision to build the lift in the Combination Room was a wise and sensible one. There is only one argument left in favour of the lift: that in current circumstances it will be expensive and wasteful to remove the lift. But, second, it is equally clear that Council through its misconduct of this matter (and again no-flysheet defends the conduct of the Council)has lead to this state of affairs.

In these circumstances many members of the Regent House find themselves torn. They wish to censure the Council both for its failure to consult(or seek a Grace) in the first place and for its shenanigans afterwards trying to prevent the Regent House from considering this issue. But they recognise the financial argument that presses with particular force at the moment given the state of public finances.

This blog would, of course, like everyone to read the flysheets with care and then to vote placet. But if because of the financial argument you cannot bring yourself to do that (and we understand and respect that) perhaps you might consider abstention. And might you also consider then writing to the VC to make clear your view of Council's conduct?

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Main placet flysheet

Members of the Regent House,

We, the initiators and supporters of the Grace upon which you are asked to vote, are now able at long last to address you and explain why we consider this Grace important and why we urge you to vote placet.

In early September of last year it became apparent – through the arrival of workmen – that a lift was being constructed in the unspoilt elegant early-fifteenth-century surroundings of the University Combination Room. The Combination Room is the ancient heart of the University, the original Regent House, where the governance and character of our university were forged. Many users of the room and others who know and love the Combination Room were shocked, and naturally asked what could be done to stop the desecration. (If you do not know the room you will find before and after photographs at:

From the beginning it was clear that the lift was being constructed in order to provide access to the Combination Room for the disabled. But this vote is not about access to the Combination Room for the disabled. Whatever the outcome of this vote, access to the Combination Room for those unable to use the stairs will be secured. If this vote is carried the Council will be obliged to Report to the Regent House on its plans to secure such access. And there are several alternative ways, equally convenient for those unable to use the stairs, by which access may be secured without despoiling the room. Everyone is sensitive to the need to make good decisions about disabled access, but that is no reason to support bad ones. It should be stressed that the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 does not require a lift to be constructed in this position. The Act only requires (s. 21) the making of adjustments that are reasonable in all the circumstances of the case to secure access for the disabled, leaving the University with a wide choice of methods whereby it complies with the Act.

The decision to build the lift, it turned out, had been nodded through the Council with scant consideration. No user of the room had been consulted, and neither had the Regent House itself. It seems to us almost certain that, had there been any serious attempt at consultation within the University, the decision would have been taken to build a lift in one of the other less-intrusive sites. But Regent House opinion, not for the first time, was considered irrelevant. It seems that the decision squeaks within the Statutes (which require a Grace of the Regent House to approve any substantial alteration to a building) on the grounds that the lift is an insubstantial alteration to the Combination Room. (It has certainly led to a substantial row!)

Private representations were made to the Old Schools to no avail. A Discussion on a topic of concern to the University was then called, at which it became clear that there was serious concern in the Regent House over the lift, but to no avail. (For the report of the Discussion see:
At this stage we hoped that the work might be stopped before significant money was expended and that the matter would be reconsidered with care. At least we thought the Council would publish a Report justifying the construction and submit a Grace seeking approval for the works. But nothing happened.

At that stage we had either to give up the struggle to prevent the despoiling of the Combination Room or use the remedy provided under the University’s Constitution: the fifty-member Grace. The Statutes allow a Grace to be initiated by any 50 members of the Regent House; and so it was that, just before Christmas last year, some 79 members of the Regent House initiated the present Grace and submitted it to the Council. This put the issue on the Agenda and at its meeting of the 18th January 2010 the Council considered for the first time what should be done about the lift. (Remember it had been clear in September that the issue was controversial.) The Council, it turned out, was divided on what to do, but it voted by a narrow margin for the work to continue and postponed consideration of when, if ever, the 50-member Grace would be put to the Regent House. As required by the Statutes, the Grace was referred to the Finance Committee to find out how much it would cost to demolish the lift (unsurprisingly the Finance Committee said quite a lot). Fortified by that information the Council, still divided, published a Report recommending (because demolition would be expensive and inconvenient) that the 50-member Grace be not submitted to the Regent House. In so doing the Council purported to act under a section of the Statutes designed for a completely different purpose.

This was a dangerous and unconstitutional decision. If the Council could control in its absolute discretion which Graces come before the Regent House, the Regent House would no longer be the Governing Body of the University. To their credit some members of the Council saw the point and dissented from the Report, but the majority, it seems, saw nothing untoward in acting as they did. But what they had done was to manufacture a constitutional crisis out of a dispute over a folly in the Combination Room!

Fortunately, the university’s constitution is robust and not lightly disregarded. The Report (to be found at: recommending that the Grace be not submitted had to be placed before the Regent House for Discussion. And at that Discussion the Council found itself under sustained attack for its unconstitutional action which was described as an “abuse” and the Report as “disgraceful”. No member of the Regent House (or the Council) spoke to defend the Council’s action, but several of the dissenting members of the Council spoke in support of submitting the Grace. (For the report of the Discussion see: Faced with this barrage of criticism (and, one suspects, fearing defeat on the Grace to approve its Report) the Council abandoned its Report and recommendation, and the decision was taken to submit the 50-member Grace. That is how it comes about the Regent House is now at last in a position to vote on whether it wishes the lift in the Combination Room to be demolished and replaced with a less offensive structure elsewhere.

Now, how should the Regent House vote? It is believed that, if the clock could be turned back, not even the Council would now defend the original decision to build the lift where it is. The decision may be technically valid, but clearly there should have been consultation, clearly consideration should have been given to whether a Grace should have been sought and clearly it would have been prudent to seek a Grace even if the lift was “insubstantial”. And no one still argues that, since the lift costs less than £1 million, it was a “minor work” and there was no need to trouble the Regent House with it (especially if they disagree). If this Grace had been submitted late last year as requested there would hardly be any argument that could be plausibly mounted in favour of a non-placet. Even those who are not offended by the aesthetics of the lift would surely recognise the flaws in the original decision.

The vote, however, is being taken six or seven months later than it should have been, and the Regent House is now faced with a fait accompli. The lift is complete. In a time of financial astringency some members of the Regent House may feel that, while the lift is an outrage, the position should be accepted in order to save money. Most members of the Regent House can probably think of several examples from their departments of eminently-worthwhile projects costing but a fraction of the cost of the lift, which did not proceed because of the shortage of funds. They may well feel that, notwithstanding the Council’s failings, the wider interests of the University call for substantial sums not to be spent on setting this error right.

We understand this point of view, but must make it quite clear that the responsibility for the current situation lies with the Old Schools and the Council. They delayed for so long before considering the concern over the lift and then, knowing that the matter would be taken to a vote of the Regent House, persisted in its construction. It is the sclerotic response of the Old Schools that has led to this state of affairs. They should not be rewarded in this vote for their failures in government. Instead, these sums should be seen as an investment in the good government of the University. If this Grace is carried it may be confidently anticipated that never again will Regent House opinion be treated with such disdain, or an important decision of this kind taken without consultation (and probably a Grace).

Moreover, we stress that the Grace has no time-limit specified in it, so it does not require the immediate demolition of the lift. Thus, the financial impact of demolition need not be immediate. Various interim solutions could be considered that would spread the cost over years. There would be no need for the lift to be demolished before an alternative had been provided. The cost must also be seen in perspective. An inappropriate structure has been built into a 600-year-old room of historical and architectural importance and great beauty. The room is not just for our generation, but for countless generations to come. We should not bequeath them a permanent reminder of a time when the University had an annual operating and capital budget of over a billion pounds yet was unwilling to rectify a mistake made in the course of its minor works programme. After all, the sum needed to rectify this error is only small fraction of the money spent by the University annually on new buildings and alterations to old ones.

These are the questions the Regent House must now weigh. We urge you to vote placet: to prevent the despoiling of the Combination Room, to resist the disdain implicit in the fait accompli and to improve the government of the University.


In order to be circulated with the ballot papers signed copies of this flysheet must reach the Registrary by 1 pm on Thursday the 10th June 2010. Signed flysheets may be sent in the UMS or post, by fax to (3)32332 or by scanning the document (including signature) and sending it by e-mail to

Flysheets for the Ballot

The deadline for the production of flysheets has now past (more than a week ago). Ballot papers will be circulated to the Regent House with the flysheets on or before the 28th June. Ballot papers will have to be returned by the 8th July almost exactly ten months after work began on the construction of the lift.

The main placet flysheet will be put up on this blog (immediately above this post) as will be any others (placet or non-placet) if requested by their authors for the benefit of Regents unable to wait for the 28th June!

It seems inappropriate to put up flysheets here without the consent of their authors but several flysheets are available elsewhere in the web. Two non placet flysheets will be found at and ; and the main placet flysheet will be found at

The first non placet flysheet recogises the procedural and constitutional failures by Council and recognises the aesthetic failings of the lift. The flysheet suggests that in "In due course there may be finance available for the University to rethink the changes to the Combination Room, but this is not the right time to do so." The reason for this is essentially the financially difficult position of the university at present. This is of course a powerful argument that many Regents (including the objectors to the lift) will have sympathy with.

But, of course, the Grace imposes no time limit of when the lift should be removed. So a placet vote would not require immediate demolition and would simply provide the spur to find a solution that would be absent in the case of a non-placet. And it should not be overlooked that the Council, not the objectors, are responsible for the delay and the failings that has meant that the lift has to be demolished at signifcant expense.

The other non-placet flysheet is a bit of an intemperate rant. It makes the mistake of supposing that the lift would need to be demolished before the substitute were constructed but even it says "The central authorities may have misjudged and
mishandled this project..."!

On the whole it is plain that the objectors have won the argument. Unless there are other flysheets as yet unseen there will be no serious suggestion in the flysheets that the decision was rightly taken. There should have been consultation, there should have been a Grace and it is outrageous that the Council should have tried to prevent this vote both by delay and by shenanigans with the statutes.

We will see how the Regent House votes. There will be few who vote non-placet by conviction but many, while disapproving of the Council's action, will think that in view of the cost the fait accompli should be accepted. But whatever the outcome of the vote there will be improvements to the the government of the university. The Board of Scrutiny is seized of this matter and there is talk of amendments to Statute A to ensure that Council cannnot refuse to submitt a fifty member Grace...all this is good but it would be even better if it were coupled with the demolition of the lift. Vote placet.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Decision to submit Grace now in the Reporter

Council's decision to submit the 50 member Grace, previously noted here, is now the Reporter:

This decision of the Council to do the right thing and submit this matter to the vote of the Regent House must be welcomed. Welcome also is the Council statement that it is "grateful to members of the Regent House and others who have commented in the Discussion". The objectors are also grateful ....for the Council's return to constitutional rectitude. But eloquent as the remarks made at the Discussion were and persuasive as the almost unanimous condemnation of the Council's actions were, the decisive rejection of the Statute U Graces gave Council an unwelcome taste of defeat....and that surely concentrated the collective mind.

But has the Council returned to constitutional rectitude? It gives as its reason for submitting the Grace "the level of interest expressed in this matter is such that it would be appropriate for the initiated Grace itself now to be voted upon and the Council is therefore submitting it". 79 members of the Regent House initiated this Grace; and 50 members is all that is required for the Grace to be submitted. That is all the Statutes require. Any level of interest above 50 is irrelevant to the question of whether the Grace is submitted. This reason for submitting the Grace is as rubbish as the reason given earlier by Council for declining to submit it - ie we disagree with the Grace because it would be awfully expensive. Council does not have an unfettered discretion to submit or withold Graces as it sees fit.

Anyway the focus now shifts to the ballot. Who know how the Regent House will vote but at least the objectors have already succeeded in securing a ballot. The deadline for flysheets is the 10th of June.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Council backs down: the Regent House Grace will be put

At its meeting yesterday (17th March 2010) Council backed down and abandoned its Report recommedning that the Regent House Grace was not submitted to the Regent House.

This is a triumph for the Constitution of the University in which the Regent House is the governing body. The majority of Council's shenanigans were an attempt to avoid facing the Regent House on this issue. That attempt should never have been made and was doomed to failure. None the less, we should welcome the Council's return to rectitude and constituionalism. A word of thanks is also due to all who spoke at the Discussion against the Report with such eloquence.

So now the the Grace will be put. It reads:

That all construction works for a lift into the Regent House Combination Room be removed and the building returned to its former state, and that the Council report, as soon as convenient, to the Regent House with proposals to secure reasonable access to the Combination Room and associated rooms for those unable to use the stairs.

Of course, due to its delay the Council now presents us with a fait accompli and money will be wasted in removing the fait accompli. Will the Regent House, none the less, force it to be removed. We shall see. But at least it will be the Regent House that will decide.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

What the fuss is all about

This is the republication of an earlier post for readers who start at the top of the blog

The print to the left shows the room as it should be with its elegant structure and form unbroken. Note the 15th century hammer beam roof and the pargetted ceiling. The photo below has the lift sketched in on the dais; it destroys the symmetry of the far end of the room and will dominate the room. Especially since the entrance is just to the left of the lift, the lift will lurk over everyone who enters the room.