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

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