Friday, 30 April 2010

Professor C F Forsyth's Remarks: Let the Regent House Speak!

There is a preliminary but important point. This dispute is not about access to the Combination Room by the disabled. Whatever the outcome of this dispute access to the Combination Room for those unable to use the stairs will be secured. It is true, of course, that it is the University's obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 that led the Old Schools to decide to build the lift. But the Disability Discrimination Act does not require the University to build this lift in this place. 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. This leaves the University with a wide choice of methods whereby it complies with the Act. There are several alternative sites for the lift none of which are as intrusive as the one chosen. If we succeed in stopping the current plans a lift will be constructed in one of the alternative sites. The objectors to the lift take second place to no one in their desire to see proper arrangements made for access to the Combination Room by those unable to use the stairs.

Now to the dispute itself. It starts with an aesthetic judgment. When it became apparent last September that a lift was being constructed in the University Combination Room regular users of the room were shocked. The lift, it seemed, would dominate and despoil the Combination Room, the ancient heart of the university. This many felt should be resisted because, apart from this Senate House which is magnificent and in a category of its own, the University Combination Room is the most beautiful and elegant room in the University (not including the colleges). Views will of course inevitably differ on aesthetic issues but this sense of shock and outrage was pretty universal amongst users of the room with whom I had contact.

That shock deepened as it emerged that no user of the room had been consulted, no member of the Regent House had been consulted, and no Grace had been sought approving the construction. The Council, it seems, nodded through the approval of the lift without any substantive consideration of its merits or whether a Grace was required. It was barely aware of what it was doing. No one was alert to the aesthetic questions. No one was alert to Regent House opinion. It may be that the decision squeaks within the letter of the statutes –as an “insubstantial” alternation – but it is not within their spirit. Whatever else might be the case this decision was an example of bad government.

So what was to be done? The disquiet within the Regent House was first raised with the Old Schools in September, the Discussion on a Topic of Concern, following petition by members of the Regent House, took place took place on the 10th November. At that Discussion strongly critical views were expressed by many members of the Regent House.

By November then it was as plain as a pikestaff, that unless the Council was prepared to compromise, there was only one way in which this matter could be legitimately resolved. And that was by the vote of the Regent House...which is after all the Governing Body of the University.

It would have been so sensible and so easy for the Council in November (or even October) to submit a Grace to the Regent House seeking approval for the construction. If the Regent House did not approve the construction of the lift, alternative and inoffensive plans could have been made and the wasted expenditure would have been modest. If the Regent House did approve the construction of the lift then the objectors would have had to accept the patently legitimate decision with good grace and learn to live with the lift. Was there no wise counsel urging this course? Or if there was, why was such good advice not followed?

Instead we have the sorry saga that has followed with the majority of the divided Council seeking every opportunity to delay the moment of truth when it must allow the Regent House to vote on the lift. Astoundingly “the lift” was first formally considered by the Council only on the 18th January 2010 more than four months after it had become clear that there was serious concern in the Regent House about it. Surely it is reasonable to ask that concerns of this kind should be dealt with in a less sclerotic manner....

What became clear on the 18th January was that the Council was divided on what should be done and the small majority insisted on pressing ahead with the construction. The Governing Body of the University is the right place to resolve divisions in the Council. And this division in the Council shows again with clarity that it is right to bring the matter before the Regent House for decision. It is the only legitimate way in which it can be resolved. Again submission of the Grace at this stage (now insisted upon by seventy nine members of the Regent House) would have minimised wasted expenditure and brought the matter to a legitimate conclusion. But the majority pressed ahead with construction and delayed the day of reckoning.
And now the majority of the Council has opted to make this Report to the Regent House seeking the Regent House’s approval for their decision not to submit the 50 member Grace to the Regent House instead of simply submitting the 50 member Grace. Of course, the only way – and fortunately the statutes make this crystal clear - in which the Regent House can approve anything is by there is no escape from a Grace. The majority of the Council will have to let us vote! True we will be voting on whether the 50 member Grace should be submitted not on the Grace itself but I venture to suggest that no member of the Regent House will be found who would have voted for the removal of the lift, but will be voting to approve this Report! So little other than delay in facing the Regent House has been, or ever could have been, achieved by this Report.

Now what is to be said about this wretched Report? It barely defends the decision to build the lift. There is really only one argument in it, viz, that a significant sum of money will be wasted if the lift, by now effectively complete, is demolished and replaced with an inoffensive construction. Of course, this argument could readily be made in a flysheet opposing the approval of the 50 member Grace....and that is where it should have been made. There seems to be absolutely nothing in the Report that could stand as a proper reason for not submitting the Grace...disagreeing with it is not enough!

But who is responsible for all that wasted expenditure? The Old Schools and the majority of Council 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 the construction. It is that wholly inadequate response to the concerns of a significant part of this House that has maximised the cost of setting this folly right. The responsibility for the waste of money then lies squarely with the Old Schools and the majority of Council.

But the true cost to the University of this sorry saga is much greater than the money that may be wasted in removing this lift. It lies in the loss of goodwill and loss of trust in the university’s institutions of government and in the damage done to the university’s reputation. The instinctive understanding by all concerned of the university’s constitution seems to have vanished. The craft of self government is almost forgotten. This matter is in some ways a storm in a tea cup – the university will survive a folly in the Combination Room - but the response of the Old Schools and the Council to this matter raises grave questions about the quality of our governance.

So what happens now? It may be that the majority of Council having successfully delayed until it is in a position to present the Regent House with a fait accompli will now rediscover its common sense and submit the Grace initiated by the 79 members and let us vote. Or it may be that the majority of Council will submit a Grace asking the Regent House to approve the recommendation in this Report in which case we will be able to vote on that. Given their record we must expect that latter course will be the one chosen; and we will get to vote on a Grace approving the Council’s decision not to submit the Grace. Given the controversy the Council ought of its own volition to order a ballot on that Grace but if it does not, I can report that sufficient members of the Regent House stand ready to force a ballot. There will have to be a ballot.

Nobody knows how the Regent House will vote. It is my hope that large numbers of Regents will be implacably opposed to despoiling the Combination Room with this lift. It is my hope too that large numbers of Regents will, for the reasons given above, see this Report as the unconstitutional distraction that it is. If this Report not approved, the 79 member Grace will have to be submitted to the Regent House. The Council will doubtless then start seeking a serious solution.

But it may be that the argument about wasted expense will carry weight. Regents may feel that, even though it is the majority of Council which is responsible for the waste, it is in the wider interests of the university in a time of financial astringency not to waste this money. They will recognise the fait accompli. With heavy hearts they may hold their noses while they mark their ballots approving this Report. If this happens that decision will be legitimate; and it will be accepted as such with good grace by the objectors.

But whether the lift is approved or demolished will have been decided by the Regent House. It is right and in accordance with the constitution of the university that this should be the case and whatever the outcome of the vote we will at least have secured, against opposition, the right of the University’s Governing Body to speak on matters concerning it members.

But now we must concentrate on the coming ballot. Those who know and love the Combination Room unspoilt will not hesitate in casting their ballots and will know how to cast them. But many Regents will not know the Combination Room. May I urge them to visit and browse the before and after photos to see what the fuss is about. Who knows when Council will submit a Grace. There may be more delays but every day that passes brings closer the day on which the Regent House will be able to vote. For the objectors the message has always been simple: Let the Regent House speak!

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