(Featured image via Paul Fargher, used with permission.)
The news in December that the LUSU Trustee Board had relented and decided to abandon plans to sell the Sugarhouse came as a relief to the thousands of students who voted against the sale in the campus referendum.
In an astonishing feat of student democracy, not even the besuited ivory trade policy advisor Graeme Osborn could ignore the sheer number of angry students this time. Nor could the two PhD students, Jenna Higham and Kathy New, sit idly by while the wishes of University and LUSU management were implemented by the external trustees. Perhaps it is the case that when your membership vocally tell you not to do something, it is no longer in the charity's 'best interests', contrary to what Mr Osborn repeatedly insisted at the AGM.
Despite the victory, LUSU remains tight-lipped about the sale. They have put very little out in an official capacity, and most of what has been revealed about the sale was released by the University under freedom of information laws. The original plan, after all, was to have sold the club to the developer by September/October, and to only announce it when planning permission was applied for, by which stage it would have been too late for students to stop it.
A handful of reasons have been revealed for the sale. In the original announcement, LUSU cited two reasons: the area nearby is being 'heavily developed with accommodation' and 'student social behaviours are changing' meaning fewer students are drinking. The nearby developments create the potential of future noise complaints, although LUSU had worked hard to mitigate that by forcing developers, in the planning stages, to implement good soundproofing. This appears to have worked, as SCAN reported in November, there have been no noise complaints made about the Sugarhouse. The 'changing social behaviours' argument also does not stand up to scrutiny as the size of the student body continues to increase and the capacity of the Sugarhouse does not. It will be in demand and continue to be profitable for the forseeable future.
One of the documents released under freedom of information law also cites the inflexibility of the venue. The Sugarhouse is licensed to put on plays and show films. It previously hosted a comedy club. The logistics of running a nightclub in the same venue are probably difficult, but by no means impossible, if the appetite is there. It could be used as a society space, as a cafe, as a study area. The potential options are endless, as LUSU would find out if it should choose to explore them.
Vaguer reasons are also present in the documents. One of them cites 'future capital requirements', which indicates that LUSU requires a quantity of money in the future. Lancaster University redacted large parts of the documents released, fearing that it could 'prejudice the commercial interests' of either the University, LUSU, or the developer. In particular, the University argued that if information about LUSU's wider finances was released, it could prejudice future negotiatons with a variety of possible suppliers for different goods and services.
But the requests under freedom of information law were made while the sale was ongoing. It has now been ended. Students have already demanded to see unredacted minutes of LUSU committees in the 'Motion on Saving Our Sugarhouse' passed at the AGM, so maybe it's time for LUSU to step up, start respecting its members, and tell the truth about the sale. Was it just potential future noise complaints, or were there bigger issues at stake that the membership should know about?
Students have already told LUSU where the answers can be found: in the minutes of the Sugarhouse Strategy Task Group, also known as the Future Facilities Group. A sub-committee of the Trustee Board, the group was chaired by Mark Alexander, a commercial property lawyer, and LUSU trustee. At least one other member is known: the University's estates director Paul Morris. The group is mentioned in several of the minutes of the Trustee Board which are available online. A redacted item on 'Future Facilities' was voted on during the Trustee Board meeting of 17th January 2019, the same meeting where Trustees took the original decision to sell the Sugarhouse.
So what has been LUSU's progress on releasing these minutes? On 11th December, during a Facebook livestream that is apparently an excuse for actual accountability, the education sabb Bee Morgan said, 'The first thing to say is that the Sugarhouse Strategy Task Group doesn't exist', therefore its minutes can't be released. Either the sabbatical officers' detective skills are more Inspector Clouseau than Sherlock Holmes, or they are being misled.
Only when students know why the Sugarhouse was being sold can they be satisfied LUSU won't pull the same stunt next year. Those who turned up to the AGM or voted in the referendum cannot now sit back and think their work is done, if they want to keep the nightclub they have fought so hard for they have to ensure checks and balances are put in place via the Constitutional Convention voted for at the AGM.