What follows is an extract from the University of Readings Council Meeting Minutes from 5th July 2021. My thanks to SOLVE member Colin Watts for finding them. The highlights in yellow are my emphasis on key phrases. The numbered paragraphs in italics are my comments.
The President reported that Wokingham Borough Council (WBC) was seeking, as a matter of urgency, clarity about the University and NIRD Trusts’ intentions in respect of Hall Farm in the context of its development of its Local Plan. 1) So it was WBC urgently seeking a solution to the failure of its previous Local Plan that brought about this proposal to build houses at Hall Farm.
The purpose of the current discussion was not to make a decision on the release of land, but rather to agree that the site was available for consideration as a housing/employment development and to commit the University to work constructively with WBC to achieve a successful outcome. 2) What happened to UoRs commitment to working constructively with the local community to achieve a successful outcome?
The Strategy and Finance Committee had had a full discussion of the matter. It recognised that the release of the land would provide very substantial funds.. 3) Ah, that’s what happened: £450 Million for the NIRD Trust! Commitment to the local community clearly comes second to getting big bucks in the bank. (NIRD stands for National Institute for Research into Dairying by the way).
..but equally that the continuity and enhancement of the University’s agricultural and food research was of fundamental importance to the University’s world-class research in this area, its global reputation and its international rankings. 4) Ok, good. UoR do care about their reputation, and they are still committed to teaching about agriculture and engaging in food research...
Having considered the balance of factors, the Committee had supported constructive engagement with WBC with a view to the development of the site. 5) ..but not so concerned about their reputation or committed to education that the money is considered to be more important than either or both!
The Chief Financial Officer explained that receipts from the sale of NIRD land at Hall Farm would be held as NIRD Trust Funds to be used for its charitable purposes, which were to support research into agriculture or food (Its production or otherwise). 6) Now this sounds promising. Trust Funds for Charitable purposes. Ok, I am Chair of the Trustees at Arborfield Village Hall and I know that we have a Governing Document that guides us in our management of the Trusts activities. We also make regular submissions to the Charity Commission on what we are doing with any money we raise. Is this a good time to mention that in 2019 the UoR reported themselves to the Charity Commission? https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/feb/09/reading-university-in-crisis-amid-questions-over-121m-land-sales The University was the sole beneficiary of the Trust. Given the potential financial value of the land, the receipts could be transformational for agriculture and food research at the University. 7) Great! They really do want to teach about agriculture!
For these benefits to be realised, the University would need to purchase an alternative farm, establish the appropriate research and educational facilities, and maintain the continuity of research throughout this period, which were significant challenges. 8) Wait a minute, sell the farm, take the money, buy another farm? Ah, now I understand. The magic here is the difference in value between the cost of buying Agricultural land and the subsequent profit to be made from selling the same land to property developers. You pay from £12K to £15K per acre for Farmland but for residential development land you can currently sell it for £1M to £1.2M+ per acre (in and around the Home Counties)! That is a profit on your investment of a cool 1,000%! At a time when most of us might be lucky to get, maybe 5%?
The University and the NIRD Trust would need to consider other land sales in order to ensure sufficient cashflow to support the sale and development of the Hall Farm site and the purchase and development of an alternative farm. The Vice-Chancellor advised that the Deputy Vice-Chancellor was currently leading a forward-looking review of agriculture and food research in order to identify the 9 emerging major themes of future research and ensure that the University remained at the leading edge of research in this field. The purchase of a new farm and the building of new facilities provided the NIRD Trust and the University with an opportunity to invest in new research areas addressing future priorities. 9) The conclusion? The University of Reading do not care that Hall Farm is greatly valued by the local community as open green space, that it is rich in biodiversity, that the imposition of 4,500 houses on the community will lead to more than 20 years of construction work, that because Hall Farm has no infrastructure locally the whole site will need to be ripped up, turned over and completely rebuilt? All so they can then buy another farm, somewhere else, and presumably do the same trick again at some point down the road when financial constraints demand it?
The Chief Financial Officer outlined the range of benefits for the University and community which would be generated from the development, including employment opportunities.
10) These employment benefits. WBC keep banging on about them too. Employment opportunities can happen without the housing as they are already building facilities on the Reading side of the site. Do not tell me you are building a factory, or a business park, or a film studio, or whatever it is for MY benefit. YOU do it because YOU profit from it. Besides, what use are jobs to any of us when the environment is ruined?
In response to questions, the President and Vice-Chancellor explained that the NIRD Trust and the University had not been planning a sale of Hall Farm in the short term, although they had anticipated that an opportunity to sell the land would arise in the medium term and that the obligation to maximise the value of the Trust’s assets would argue for the disposal of the land.
11) OK, now we get to the nitty gritty. PROVE IT! What are the obligations of the Trust? Where are they published? When the land was gifted to the UoR by generous benefactors did they really say “Here you go, see if you can make a mint on this” or was it more “Here is a highly valuable resource which I want you to hold in trust for future generations so that we can all benefit from the fruits of agricultural research and education”?
It was expected that, in assigning the receipts from the land disposal, the NIRD Trust, as a priority, may help purchase a new farm and establish the necessary facilities, and would then reinvest a proportion in land or other assets and disburse funds to support research in food and agriculture at the University.
12) So the NIRD Trust is now an investment mechanism for funding other research at UoR? The Research Institute in Dairying was established at University College, Reading by the Board of Agriculture in 1912. On 1 April 1985 the Institute was replaced by the Grassland Research Institute, Hurley and the Food Research Institute, Reading. This was in turn replaced by the Food Research Institute at Reading, which then leads us here: https://research.reading.ac.uk/ifnh/ Now this really is interesting, to me at least, because it seems to tie in nicely with the work done recently by the SOLVE Hall Farm working party.
“The Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health (IFNH) brings together the University of Reading’s world-leading expertise in food, nutrition, agriculture, health and the environment to understand how improvements in food production, processing and nutrition can help deliver better diets and health.”
13) Wow! That’s exactly what we had in mind for our alternative vision for Hall Farm. Instead of 4,500 houses, an integrated scheme of community farm, Organic food and sustainability education, mental health care through outdoor activities, environmental improvement through rewilding, the whole “Platinum Park” shebang! So why not do this at Hall Farm?
In response to questions from Mr Knowles and Miss Loweth, the Chief Financial Officer acknowledged that the creation of a garden village comprising some 4,500 homes would inevitably have an environmental impact, and explained that the University would make sustainability a central consideration in the development, promoting innovative ways of living, securing sustainable housing and effective public transport, and drawing on the University’s academic expertise across a range of disciplines to shape the plans. The Council endorsed the University’s commitment to sustainable housing and minimising the environmental impact of the development
14) You cannot minimize the impact of destroying fields, hedgerows, woodland and wetland that are hundreds, sometimes thousands of years old. No weasel words will mend this wanton vandalism. You cannot claim to be concerned for the environment at the same time as you ravish it for your own short term profit. Sorry, but it just won’t (green)wash.
The Council agreed to engage with WBC to promote the Hall Farm site for development and authorised the President to sign a letter to WBC to this effect. It also noted the potential increase in the value of the NIRD Trust’s assets arising from this decision and the opportunity to advance its charitable purposes through increased investment in the University’s research in agriculture and food.
15) Dare I suggest that a "Platinum Park" on the land at Hall Farm and along the Loddon Valley is a fantastic charitable cause which could also contribute to the aims of the INFH (successor to NIRD), would not inflict incalculable damage on the environment here, would be of huge benefit to mental health, could help develop healthy eating, would in fact turn the University of Reading from Local Zero to Local Hero!