Jonathan Bate, Worcester Provost, last week sent out an email to students at the college by encouraging them to object to Exeter’s plans by commenting on the online planning application.
In the email, Bate emphasised the “excessive elevation of the proposed building at the end of the site that overlooks the orchard and our accommodation, and the inappropriately garish and intrusive materials proposed for its roof and upper level,” and encouraged undergraduates to protest online to “help us to reduce the level of intrusiveness upon the College – something for which thousands of students in future generations will thank you.”
The building, which is planned for the former site of Ruskin College to Worcester’s north perimeter, will, according to Bate, “severely overshadow” parts of college. Exeter, however, hopes the building will provide rooms for 90 undergraduates, alleviating some of the college’s housing shortage.
The Rector of Exeter College, Frances Cairncross, has condemned Mr Bate’s campaign. She said: “We do not feel that colleges should go out of their way to deprive undergraduates of affordable accommodation.”
She described how the scale of Exeter’s housing shortage had left the college short of “approximately 100 rooms”. She added: “We have 147 student rooms on our central site, and 320 undergraduates. Our other student housing is on the Iffley Road.
“We have been on our very constrained site since 1315 and are desperately short of student housing, especially for our third years and in the heart of Oxford.”
The extreme nature of this shortage even lead for calls in Michaelmas for the Rector to move out from her College lodgings, which JCR President Edward Nickell made part of his successful election campaign.
Nickell commented: “A few months ago the OxStu reported my call for more rooms in our Rector’s lodgings, well now it seems Worcester’s head of house is aiming for fewer rooms because it might shade his orchard.”
He added: “I’ll happily pay to have it flood lit if it’s so important.”
However the Worcester Provost explained the college’s concerns: “When we were first shown a drawing of the planned building we immediately said that the section at the western end, immediately next to our more discreet recent buildings and overlooking the historic orchard that has been a part of our College for over seven hundred years, was far too high.
“We very much hoped that the architect would come to see us, and work with us on a compromise design that we could fully support, but it was only very late in the day that we were given a full presentation.”
The colleges took part in discussions prior to the beginning of the planning process, but no consensus was reached. Frances Cairncross emphasised that Worcester had been invited to two public consultations and a third had been held especially for them, as well as a number of lengthy meetings with the Provost, where Exeter agreed lower the roof line and to change the cladding.
Dr Bate, however, said that, although they College were “very grateful” for this compromise, “we very much regret that the matter was not resolved through compromise before the public consultation phase.”
Despite this, Dr Bate expressed his sympathy for Exeter’s difficulties, stating: “We are very conscious that many of our fellow colleges have more constrained sites than ours, and with that in mind we recently offered to sell four large houses to Exeter, containing 24 students rooms in a location precisely opposite their new campus.” However Exeter claim that this offer was refused because “The houses on Worcester Place would have been for Faculty only.”
Former Worcester JCR President Samuel Barker, who was in office at the time of some of the consultations, commented: “There is an understanding that unnecessarily ambitious and oversized building works that were heavily disruptive would be bad for both Colleges; it seems that the extensive proposals are likely to be ruinous to the oldest part of Worcester – what used to be Gloucester Hall.”
However his comments were not echoed by former Exeter JCR President Benjamin Clayton, who claimed that: “Exeter’s annexation of the Ruskin is a perfectly reasonable expansion of the fatherland.
“Worcester should not feel threatened, although we may briefly occupy their lake in the summer if they’re not using it. Further appeasement is welcomed in the form of invitations to formal hall and the occasional bottle of something nice.”
Current Exeter JCR President Nickell has also been vocal about his outrage at Worcester’s resistance, exclaiming: “Never mind a bloody college orchard, 2nd and 3rd year Exonians don’t even get rooms! Worcester have ducks and lakes, while at Exeter we’re bottom in Oxford for living cost satisfaction and second from the bottom for our hall.”
He suggested that Worcester should be more accommodating of Exeter’s attempts to neighbour them: “Exonians make great neighbours, that’s why so many Colleges have moved in next door to us on Turl Street.”