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The Dragon Says: Why The Secrecy Over University of Surrey’s Student Housing?

Why is there so much secrecy over the University of Surrey’s student housing?

The university and Guildford Borough Council (GBC) have been talking about it in private for months. According to the Surrey Advertiser, the influential Vice-Chancellor, Max Lu, emailed Council Leader Paul Spooner on November 2, saying, “I know that the discussions with GBC on building Phase 3 accommodation on campus are going well.”

Really? Who with? The Dragon understands there have been few discussions, even in private, among most of the borough councillors.

At the council budget meeting on February 7, Cllr Tony Rooth (Con, Pilgrims) complained about the proposal having little debate whether in public or private. He said: “The proposal is very new to councillors. It was only brought to the council on January 8. Frankly, the proposal should have been brought to councillors earlier, in early December at the latest. Councillors have actually had only 30 days to look at this item of £81 million.”

It seems obvious that the university wants the council to fund the building of their student accommodation and Cllr Spooner seems willing to negotiate a deal. But what is in it for both sides? And why all the secrecy?

The university undoubtedly needs to increase its accommodation for its 15,000 students in the 2016-17 academic year, 37% of whom, coming from outside the UK, pay high, lucrative fees. The university is keen to expand and plans to add around 2,000 more students by 2022.

The university has itself funded the student accommodation to date. It’s latest financial statement for 2016-17 records that: “During 2016-17 we drew down the £120m of private placement funds we secured in 2015-16.”

£80 million of this is to finance, the next phase of Manor Park student residences comprising 1,150 units to be opened this year and next.

It is not easy to determine how much accommodation has been built on campus to date and planned for the future nor how those percentages measure against the 60% target required under Guildford’s submitted Local Plan.

The university’s £80 million is remarkably close to the £81 million provisionally approved for student accommodation investment by the council at its budget meeting. Is it to finance a further stage?

Anyway, it is clear that private investment funding can be obtained by the university but perhaps it is hoping for cheaper money from the council? If so, what is in such a deal for the council and us taxpayers.

The question remains, should GBC really be thinking of investing council taxpayers’ money in student housing when:

  • the university has primary responsibility to provide its own accommodation for its students and its past record indicates it can obtain private funding
  • funding the university housing on campus means that the council is helping the university achieve the target which the council itself set in the Local Plan
  • the university is set to expand yet more (so when will it ever be able to meet the Local Plan target of 60% accommodation provided on campus?)
  • funding housing on campus will not reduce pressure significantly on housing in the town – as Cllr Spooner has stated, the university has not met its 60% target as its student numbers expand
  • the council should seek the best return for money invested using taxpayers’ money for university student accommodation should produce a similar rate of return to other types of investment?
  • if the council funds the university once, it can do so again. How many more injections of taxpayers’ money will be required for the university’s coffers?

For democracy to work we all need to be informed. Just what is the justification for secrecy here? If the policy of the council is to lend or invest in student housing, so that the university can borrow or acquire finance at a more favourable rate, why should that be a secret?

This is public money and if the consequence of Cllr Spooner’s policy (it does not seem accurate to call it the council’s at this stage) is that we are to forego a higher rate of return, available from alternative investments, we have the right to know.

We might agree that it is worthwhile to get more student accommodation built – or we might not. In either case, we should be informed so we can make a judgement and make our views known. In a democracy, councillors should be interested to hear them.

Openness is not something that it is meant to be an option for councillors. It is a rule they have all signed up to, along with the other Nolan principles, when they were elected. It is high time some remembered that.

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8 Responses to The Dragon Says: Why The Secrecy Over University of Surrey’s Student Housing?

  1. Peta Malthouse Reply

    March 13, 2018 at 5:42 pm

    A very sound piece and an opportunity for me to repeat that the university has yet to become a good neighbour to the town.

    Our resources are sucked up into a plan for growing expansion of what has become a very lucrative business. I love having the university here but we have never kept them to their promises. The idea that the borough (which continues to pay their staff at levels which mean they struggle to provide their own housing) are planning to use our money for the university is morally wrong.

    It really is time our councillors looked after the council tax payers who pay all the bills. They should pay their bin men and other hardworking individuals much more than they pay at the moment. They may then be able to retain staff.

    I now hear they are getting rid of a large number of middle management Housing Officers and the like who know what they are doing…to cut costs? Why? So they can waste our money on things like this?

    It is for The Village and the bike scheme no doubt. Well, I for one am sick of the experienced officers in our council workforce being removed. We need people with good local knowledge to provide us with information and the means to make good decisions. We need our council to run efficiently and openly in accordance with Nolan. Rant over.

  2. Jules Cranwell Reply

    March 14, 2018 at 12:37 pm

    Some at GBC have ignored the Nolan principles on so many occasions (consider the Juneja affair) that it seems they hardly apply.

    There is no transparency. Too too many decisions are taken in camera, by a small group of the leadership such as the Donying partnership.

    I suggest all councillors require training in the Nolan principles and their responsibilities to residents.

  3. K White Reply

    March 14, 2018 at 1:41 pm

    Who has the final say on how many students can/should be at the university? Surely, it cannot be permitted to continue increasing its student numbers without regard for the natural increase (or decrease) in the town’s own population and the effect it has on housing, given that it only has to provide accommodation for 60% on campus – a target that it has failed to meet.

    Further increases in student numbers should be blocked until all the on-campus accommodation is built.

  4. Steve Jones Reply

    March 15, 2018 at 6:31 pm

    The Dragon is right. Why can’t Surrey University and Guildford Borough Council be honest about future investment in rooms for students? You don’t need a degree to see the obvious – the council will fund university student housing with £81 million of taxpayers’ money.

    The university’s Vice Chancellor, Max Lu, has clearly been talking in private with Council Leader Paul Spooner for months.

    Everything at Millmead seems done in private by Cllrs Spooner and Furniss. Where is the opposition on our council to hold them to account? It is surprising that it took a fellow Tory, Cllr Rooth, to complain about little debate and short notice for this £81 million project.

    Cllr Spooner now offers the university the chance of cheap money to achieve the 60% target for housing on campus – a target set by his own Local Plan. It sounds all wrong.

    But Guildford residents will do their own homework when it comes to the next council elections. Cllr Spooner and his Tory tribe will fail unless and until they tell the whole truth and convince their examiners, the residents, that they know what they are doing and for the right reasons. No more failures like The Village fiasco will be allowed.

  5. John Perkins Reply

    March 16, 2018 at 11:38 am

    Will other local businesses be offered cheap loans by GBC or would that contravene EU regulations on state aid?

  6. Lisa Wright Reply

    March 16, 2018 at 1:21 pm

    If GBC retains ownership of the new £81 million of student housing as landlords, I hope Max Lu has guaranteed full occupancy of the accommodation so taxpayers are ensured a good return on their property investment.

  7. David Roberts Reply

    March 16, 2018 at 9:10 pm

    According to Freedom of Information disclosures, the University Vice Chancellor allowed the public to pay £1,600 to relocate his dog from Australia. As far as I know, he has not undertaken to admit this was unwise or to reimburse the money, though he can well afford it. What does this say about his public-service ethos?

    His cosying up to the council appears to be giving him undue influence and we still don’t really know what interests he has in Dongying, the Chinese city to which he persuaded the GBC leadership to link Guildford. It is not unreasonable for the public to want this information so full probity can be assured.

  8. John Robson Reply

    March 17, 2018 at 10:50 am

    Will the Bank of Guildford Borough Council give me a soft loan for £81 million so I can get on the buy to let gravy train and milk the student cashcow for the foreseeable?

    How do you apply?

    Do I just drop the Leader of the council an email?

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