Imperial College London is planning to build a large hall of residence in North Acton that will potentially replace halls that are cheaper and located far closer to the South Kensington Campus. The North Acton Halls could be used as a replacement for Garden Halls and the halls in Evelyn Gardens, both of which are in South Kensington. The plans have been controversial amongst the student body and have already been denounced. Students have highlighted distance, cost, student experience, and welfare concerns. The Union have launched a campaigned against the plans, using the Twitter hashtag #AgainstActon. Already many students have voiced their opposition in a rare turn of student activism at Imperial.
The College Council (who are the highest decision making body of Imperial) publically announced on Monday 18 February that it had decided to authorise purchase of the land for the new development, with building work planned to begin in May 2013 and finish before the start of the 2015-2016 academic year. The halls would be located on 1 Victoria Road, Acton, W3 6BL, house 724 students, and will have student facilities that are twice the size of the JCR and SCR combined. To discover how far along the way the plans are Felix contacted Simon Harding-Roots, the Chief Operations Officer of Imperial College London, who said that the land has been bought and relevant documents exchanged. At 10am on Tuesday 19 February Imperial College Union launched the campaign to oppose the decision. The Union have now delivered a response to College, which was passed unanimously by Union Council, and have started putting up posters around campus.
During the meetings discussing the plans, Paul Beaumont, Union President, actively opposed the plans. He told Felix: “We [the Union] believe we’ve already won the quantitative argument against College Management with our analysis of the proposed prices and student accommodation survey data; all we now need is the help of students to assure the qualitative data”. His concerns and analysis seem to have not been taken on board. The Union appear to not be the only ones who are not entirely satisfied. Michael Bluck, Chairman of the Wardens Committee indicated the Wardens’ worry. He said that the “Committee expressed its concern, given that very recent experience of UG accommodation in similar sites had been negative, largely on the grounds of travel time and separation from the support and social provisions based at the SK campus”.
The North Acton halls will be two minutes away from North Acton tube station in a well lit area, with the tube station winning “Tube Station of the Year”. College estimated in their announcement that it will take around 30 minutes by tube to South Kensington. This has been criticised for not taking into account the door-to-door travel time. It has been argued that with the walk from South Kensington and congestion added, the journey could take 45 minutes either way. The Union estimated the journey as 35-40 minutes. Harding-Roots acknowledged that it would be a tube ride every day, but said that busses to and from the Union were something that they were working out. Of the distance issue, Harding-Roots said: “We need a dose of reality”, and that it “would be great to have them in Kensington & Chelsea or Hammersmith & Fulham, but [it is] not affordable”. He said that people need to be “realistic” and that “W3 ticks most of the boxes”. The Union disagrees with this evaluation suggesting Hammersmith, Fulham and other such areas would be more appropriate, as well as highlighting that the Evelyn Gardens and Garden Hall also tick the correct boxes. Harding-Roots said that the location was “frankly one area we couldn’t fill”, and that they “looked at major new redevelopment projects in Earl’s Court and Hammersmith”. He said: “Earl’s Court would have been fantastic” and that the development plan of the area “used to include student accommodation… but not any more”. He said that there were “some student accommodation options in Hammersmith” but rents would have been around £200 per week. Discussing the halls and location in the announcement on the College’s website, Jane Neary, Director of Campus (formerly Commercial) Services, said: “No stone has been left unturned in the search to identify opportunities for student accommodation. Numerous other developments have been considered, including projects in Fulham, Hammersmith and Ealing. These were rejected however because they were either too expensive, too far from Imperial campuses or they couldn’t achieve the critical mass to create a vibrant student community of at least 400 bed spaces in one location.” The validity of the 400 figure and where it is from has been questioned. Felix contacted Jane Neary with questions about the halls, but, at the time of going to print, she is yet to reply.
The distance has been highlighted as a problem for the student experience. Having to travel in such a long distance could reduce students’ ability to participate in Clubs and Societies as well as reducing the sense of community that they feel with course-mates who live closer to the College. In a Union website blog post Becky Lane, Deputy President (Welfare), pointed out how “in 2015, there will be 700 students who may not engage with South Kensington based services such as Ethos gym, the Disability Advisory Service, the Counselling Service and the Health Centre”. As well as this, the Union question the “business case”, stating that prices would be above that of private accommodation in the same area and closer to South Kensington. They also noted that the “only applicable evidence is unfavourable – that a nearby University of the Arts (UAL) hall isn’t full”. At Imperial once a room is offered you must either take it or find private accommodation.
The price of the halls has been an issue that the Union has raised. Harding-Roots said that “affordable rents” were the “main focus”. He said that College needed a “balanced portfolio, including lower band rooms, which are under £150 per week. He went on to say “People will want different things and people have different views. North Acton will double the amount of rooms in the lowest price band”. The rooms are likely to cost £146 per week at the latest estimate from College. This doesn’t take into account the cost of travel. Which would depend on whether or not the student in question had a weekly, monthly, annual, or just a normal oyster card. With an annual travel card for a student between zones 1-2 being about £16 per week, this puts the halls at roughly £162 per week. This is in a similar, and occasionally higher, band than the Evelyn Garden halls, whilst being further away. This is the cheapest possible travel card. It also means that with the price is above the £150 price band described above. The Union estimates the price to be £165 per week due the cost of a weekly student travel card.
The future of Evelyn Gardens is in doubt, with the possibility that it will be closed. College has 32 years left on the lease, which is owned by the Wellcome Trust – who have indicated that they want the properties back at the end of the lease. Imperial are trying to see if they can extend the lease, but current indications are that this is not possible. College has said that to redo the halls for the long term would cost too much money. The Union says that this is simply due to neglect in the past and is “self inflicted”. The Union have urged College to protect Evelyn Gardens. Currently North Acton is said to be an insurance policy.
Garden Hall (which is the most oversubscribed hall) will close at the end of this year if the new part of Wilson House is ready, a move which the Union have criticised due to Garden’s price and location. Wilson House was praised as “a brilliant example of what we would like more of as it is close and affordable” by Harding-Roots. Speaking of Garden, he stated that it is in a poor state and that it needs “urgent remedial works”. He noted that College would “look at redoing [redecorating] Garden or alternatives for all College uses as [we are] very short of space on campus”. This furthers speculation that Garden will be turned into office space.
The announcement of the North Acton halls says that feedback from students was used for the survey, which the Union contests, saying that most students filling in the Accommodation survey wanted to have a travel time of less than 30 minutes and in Zone 1. The Union went further to say that “this project ignored the feedback from students taken in the 2011 Accommodation Survey”. Most students taking part in the survey highlighted that the current halls were in a good location. On the survey, the Union claims that only 13% of respondents favoured halls such as North Acton. The Union also stressed that most amenities – such as an onsite bar – were not asked for by the students.
The Union has stated that College should offer a range of accommodation and set out the three parameters: “High specification and close, but not cheap. Close and cheap, but not at such a high specification. High specification and cheap, but a little bit further away from campus.”
There have also been fears over the wardening facilitiesin the halls. Harding-Roots said that there were “no plans to drop wardening”, and there will be a 24/7 staffed reception. The warden to student ratio that will be in North Acton is, at the minute, unclear. The Union have hinted that they think that the new halls will find it difficult to recruit a wardening team.
As well as pastoral care, safety concerns were raised. The walk from North Acton through to Hammersmith has been deemed unsafe and is advised against. College have said that no first years are accommodated at Hammersmith, but that they could look into providing transport as they would not want undergraduates to walk through an unsafe area.
When asked by Felix if the plans were a done deal and the new halls would definitely be in North Acton Harding-Roots said “it is”. He said that there was no chance of reversing the payment but Imperial now can guide the layout and design, saying “we want to engage with students to find out what they would like to see there”.
The information was made public at this time due to the purchase of the halls being commercially sensitive, with Harding-Roots suggesting that Imperial did not want another university to sweep in and take the halls.
The search for new halls has been going on for three years, and North Acton has been on the cards for one year. The Management Board approved the plans in December, and College Council approved it in January. College now own the halls after buying them off of Berkeley First, who are a specialist student halls developer. The have been involved with Imperial before as they are part of the joint venture at Griffon Studios, which had some problems reported by Felix last year, as well as Paragon.