Imperial College is giving no answers

Imperial College held a major event last night ‘Launching the Vision’ for Imperial West as a ‘research and innovation hub’.  Over 700 guests attended, including London Mayor Boris Johnson and David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science.

We have no problem with the academic goals of the College, or that part of the development at Wood Lane which will help to boost London’s reputation for innovation in medical science.  What we continue to seek from the College is straight answers to questions on how the scheme is being funded, what level of profit the College expects to take back into its own funds, and what is happening to the £35m Government grant  made in November 2012 (see posts below).

We have written in recent weeks to the Chair of the College Council and to the President and Rector Sir Keith O’Nions.  The brief replies we have received do not begin to answer our questions.  We have written again to John Anderson, who has been overseeing the Imperial West development.  Copies of our letters are here SHRA to IC Rector Feb 2013 and here SHRA to IC JA Feb 25th 2013.

It is not clear why the College feels it has to be so secretive.  It is a public body and (as a university) a charity.  It claims that it cannot release information on grounds of commercial confidentiality.   While it is true that universities now operate in a environment where they have to find funds from private as well as public sources, they are not bodies which should be driven by commercial gain.

We are simply asking for a proper explanation on how the figures stack up, on a development that will derive huge capital receipts and income flows from a 35 storey tower with 192 housing units, a hotel of approx 400 rooms, 600 units of profitable student housing and new commercial office space?   All of this is being packed onto a site purchased from the BBC for £28m in 2009, and is being built at heights and densities above those which London-wide and local planning policies would normally allow.

Since 2009, residential values in this part of London have gone up 50%.  As Kensington and Chelsea Council has noted is a recent report to the Government, the housing market in this part of London is hugely distorted by inflows of offshore capital.

RBKC quote data from estate agents Savills, estimating that with with new build apartments in this part of London, 37% are used as a second home and 27% for investment purposes and not lived in.  Up to 70% go to overseas buyers.

RBKC reckon that up to 40% of new build apartments in the borough will remain empty.   This is likely to prove the fate of Imperial Folly, which will then stand as a pointless (but visually intrusive) monument to the greed of investors and developers, and to a London housing market that increasingly excludes Londoners.

Given that the College seems determined to place itself at the heart of this dysfunctional nexus of global capitalism, the least it could do is to come clean on the figures.  Why is it so reluctant to release them?  What ‘competitors’ are going to make use of the information, and how would this do significant harm to a not-for-profit university body?

Some of the financial information we have managed to dig out from past College documents, and this is available elsewhere on this site.  But both the College and Hammersmith & Fulham Council council are being coy about the Financial Viability Assessments used at the time when planning permission was granted in July 2012.

We have now obtained a copy of one of the documents involved, as a result of FoI requests to the council.  This is a report from the District Valuation Service, and can be seen here Redacted_DVA report in the form in which it was provided.  The report is designed to establish whether the scheme is providing a sufficient amount of affordable housing, as required by law under planning policies.  The council’s conclusion was that no further affordable housing (or ‘key worker’ housing in Imperial’s case) could be achieved.

We do not find the document a very convincing analysis, and are currently pursuing a further FoI request with the College.  But if anything the College is getting more secretive rather than less.  It is notable that the minutes and agenda papers for its September 25th meeting are much less informative than in the past.  The agenda paper on the work of the Development Board simply states that all the material is commercially confidential.  Someone in the College has noticed that we take an active interest in what the College Council is discussing.

As a university body which promises in its mission statement ‘to engage with the world’, the College should not have a problem over openness and transparency with the public.  But it seems that it has.

So we hope the 700 guests at last night’s launch event enjoyed themselves.  The 700 households that this association represents will be continuing our battle to see the Imperial West development modified, before the present plans are built.  More news next month.