In 1995, at the height of its financial crisis, Lancaster University bought a 1930s art deco house on the edge of Bailrigg Village (along the cycle path towards town) called The Downings. The news broke at the start of 2020 that this property, left derelict by the University for a quarter of a century, is to be knocked down to make way for new, luxury visiting lecturer accommodation.
Granted, Lancaster University in 2020 has far bigger problems than how it disposes of one minuscule part of its estate that it isn't even using. Indeed, The Downings is a derelict property. It would cost substantial amounts of money to refurbish it, especially for use by visiting lecturers. But why did Lancaster take 25 years to make that decision?
The saga begins in 1995 when Lancaster originally purchased the accommodation. The purchase was described in detail by foreign languages lecturer Gordon Inkster in his unofficial University newsletter Inkytext. In November 1994 he reported the following:
We are buying The (ghastly) Downings mainly because of complaints about the loss of amenity resulting from the cycle path, which runs alongside its garden (VC's drive). Moans about late-night student revellers disrupting the calm of the up-market hamlet and reducing the value of property. Allegations of used condoms being thrown over the hedge by passing cyclists (SIC). (Just how they managed to use them while cycling is a useful conversation topic. Were they going uphill or down at the time?) What do we intend doing with the place? Mutterings about accommodation for visiting staff (after suitably costly refurbishment.) And of course it would also make a possible Staff Club if we had money for that kind of thing. Anyhow it has a large garden and adds to the PINECREST property empire.
The house was bought for £200,000 in 1995. By March 1996, the property was being let to postgraduates, and by September Lancaster was planning to sell it. At this point, the well runs dry on Inkytext's coverage of The Downings, as it gradually became an issue of the distant past. Minutes of an Academic Planning Board in 1995 indicate the official line on the University's ownership of the house at the time:
Questions concerning the University’s purchase of The Downings in Bailrigg village were also raised. It was reported that the acquisition had proved problematic owing to restrictive covenants, but that these difficulties had now been resolved. Overall the property was intended to provide sound accommodation of immediate use to the University, but also, importantly, was a strategic purchase, achieved at an advantageous price, which consolidated the institution’s long-term interest in the area to the north of the campus.
The Downings was left derelict by the University to rot and become uninhabitable. However, there is nothing to suggest this was done nefariously, per se. The University has constantly changed personnel over the last 25 years, and its priorities have shifted, particularly as higher education has become increasingly marketised. Horizon scanning is not always as efficient as it might be.
Despite this, the recent plans to knock down the house after such a long period of doing nothing with it do not reflect well on the University's external image, and certainly do not endear University House to their neighbours in Bailrigg Village. Bailrigg Village Residents' Association (BVRA) has made representations to the University 'on multiple occasions regarding the derelict state of The Downings and the associated problems of anti-social behaviour.' BVRA, in their comment on the planning application, said they were 'disappointed in the stewardship of Lancaster University's estate.' They encouraged Lancaster City Council 'not to let similar situations occur in the future.' Similar concerns were expressed by Scotforth Parish Council.
Another issue with the University's demolition plans, in the context of the Climate Emergency (which the University has so-far refused to declare), is whether or not anyone should really be going around knocking down and rebuilding serviceable houses when it could renovate them, potentially generating far fewer carbon emissions in the process.
Students forced into unsafe private accommodation at Caton Court by the University might also wonder why the University's priority is building luxury accommodation for visiting lecturers, as opposed to safe and affordable student housing. From the Health Innovation Campus to a new Engineering building, the University's capital expenditure programme is vast, yet repeatedly fails to address the needs and demands of its students.
In 2019, Pro-VC Dame Sue Black declared the University's 'firm commitment to our city and region.' Spineless hopes that this commitment will mean there are no more, quite literal, 'derelictions of duty' on the horizon.