Thursday, February 19, 2015

Not just a little local difficulty

Last week I attended a debate on a proposal for work to be carried out to improve the appearance of the Castle Mill student residences at Oxford. This article reports the outcome of the debate, and the basics of the background to it. The proposal to remove the top floor of the residences was rejected with 210 votes in favour and 536 votes against. But (as reported here) supporters of the proposal are now requiring a postal vote of all approximately 4500 academics/senior admins who are eligible to vote. I’m glad I went along to the debate, even though my opinion was unchanged; I just became slightly more convinced that it would be daft to remove the top floor of the buildings. I would encourage anyone to read the transcripts of the speeches, that appear in this supplement to the latest issue of the university’s Gazette. I couldn’t give the debate a write-up that would do it justice; it touched on interesting and fundamental issues such as the extent which someone is obliged to remedy an accidentally bad outcome, what’s to be done about the shortage of housing, and the fundamental nature and purpose of Oxford (the city, as much as the university).

The following are a few points I took away. It was pointed out that the cost of implementing the proposal is a very small fraction of the university’s turnover. The counter-argument is that nearly all of the university's turnover (including philanthropic donations) is devoted to specific projects, and is not discretionary income; the cost of work on the residences would have to be met from discretionary funds. That’s a reminder, in turn, that such discretionary funds are very valuable, and should be carefully looked after. It was also pointed out that the 38 student rooms that would be lost by the proposal represents a very small fraction of the university’s estate (and an even smaller fraction of the total amount of student housing in Oxford). The counter-argument is that it is (or ought to be) pretty hard to demolish student rooms (at a substantial cost) at a time when Oxford is the most unaffordable place in the UK. It also occurs to me that due to the inelastic nature of housing demand, it could easily be the case that a small change in student housing availability could have a disproportionate effect on the price of student housing, one that would impact on the cost of living for all Oxford students. (Although Oxford’s absentee-landlords may cite a positive externality.)

I chose the title of this article since it notes the “bigger picture”, which I felt got slightly less attention in the debate than it deserved. It is taken from a speech by one of the supporters of the proposal, who argued that if it did not go ahead, that outcome would make the university appear uncaring about its surroundings, and it would be less favourably regarded by outsiders, including potential benefactors. Against that, the same problem arises with spending a lot of money in getting rid of high-quality student rooms. Another “bigger picture” point was made that the university has to change and evolve in order to maintain its leading position in the wider academic world. The city of Oxford’s raison-d’ĂȘtre has got more to do with an internationally-leading university than a nationally-competitive meadow. Personally I would have liked one or two speakers to emphasise the point that at a time of worsening housing shortage at the national level, decisions to build have to be made in a more hasty manner than may be desirable in an ideal world, and we sometimes have to make certain sacrifices in order to ensure that people have roofs over their head.

As a final note, surely the view of St. Barnabas Church is no great loss. I’m quite a fan of Victorian architecture, but the main reason to preserve St. Barnabas Church is as a reminder that occasionally the Victorians got things badly wrong. That picture on the Wikipedia page speaks more eloquently to that point than I possibly could.

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