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Waterside: Too big to fail?

It’s one of the most dramatic changes to Northampton in the town’s history: two university campuses are closing and being rebuilt on a swathe of brownfield land along the River Nene and Bedford Road.
The Waterside project will see over 13,000 students relocating to the largest enterprise zone in the uk, where a university of the future will sit alongside new office and housing developments.
The development connects to the town centre through the Cultural Quarter and in the other direction to Delapre Abbey.
The impact on Northamptonshire’s county town will be enormous, bringing alive a neglected sector of the borough and potentially reviving the fortunes of the town centre.
The man charged with navigating the project into place has been University of Northampton Vice Chancellor Nick Petford.
NQ Editor Steve Scoles spoke to him about conceiving and delivering Waterside, and asked him what could possibly go wrong…

NQ: Where did the idea for Waterside come from?

I came here in 2010 on the back of Anne Tate the previous Vice Chancellor and there was already something called an Estates Masterplan where the board of governors had set out what the university might look like in the future.
It was quite ambitious, they had some ideas to either close Avenue and rebuild it at Park or expand Avenue in a massive way including covering it with a giant glass dome… so there were lots of exciting projects.
That was put on hold when I came in and round about 2011 just after the local enterprise partnerships were set up. The brownfield site where Waterside will be was designated an Enterprise Zone, one of 15 across Britain and it’s the biggest one actually, that all of a sudden opened up a new possibility that we could relocate the university into a zone specifically designed for redevelopment with some serious backing from the local enterprise partnership and possibly the Government because it was on message.
So that’s where that idea came from. We went down and we looked at it slowly from about 2011-2013 built up a series of plans and slowly got a project team together.
All the time, I can’t make this decision on my own, it has to be a decision for the university board of governors. They were encouraging and the chair at the time Milan Shah was very supportive of the overall direction of the project. We finally put a bid together and pitched to the board with the architects and the planners in 2013 and the board approved the relocation project and that is when the real work started from that point on.
Others have done it. We have been looking around the world and how university relocations over five to ten years can really regenerate an urban environment , bringing in art, creativity and money bluntly because you have got people there who weren’t there before buying stuff, and all of that helps an urban economy.
We looked at Portland in Oregon where a university had moved, there is a classic case study of the university of Sandiego which moved into a dockside area and not a million miles away from us Lincoln and also Salford in Manchester, Salford Docks. There are examples from around the world where universities have been bold enough and ambitious enough to take on a redevelopment challenge and the outcome always appears to be really positive for both parties.

NQ: What have been the big challenges?

Everything should be on schedule, we have got a topping out ceremony for the Senate building later in April. Providing there is no disastrous weather coming up in the next few months we should be in a position to take the site over in spring next year, so its all looking good. It’s all on budget.
In terms of the challenges, the sheer scale of it, dealing with up to 30 agencies simultaneously; highways, council, water companies, British Gas, British Telecom, all wanting their slice of flesh and all the rest of it, introducing complexities and conflicting demand. We are through that period now but you can see why these projects tip over, just the sheer weight of demand from all the third parties involved is tremendous and it is a very complicated transaction.
We got through all that, keeping all the people on board is a challenge, there are the staff at the university, the students, but also local stakeholders, local people and individuals who have been with the university a long time and have seen it grow and flourish in its present estates, making sure that those indivuals are happy with the direction of travel, so it is a constant challenge actually.
The Environment Agency were part of the discussion early on. They wanted us to work to a one in 200 year flood risk and we thought that wasn’t enough so we have raised the whole site a meter above the present level and that has given us a flood risk of one in a thousand years, so hopefully it won’t flood, we have mitigated the risk substantially.

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NQ: What got left out?

It is such a big project and the complexities of dealing with all the financial agencies things have come in, then gone, then come back in again. One big issue for me was making sure that we had decent sports provision. There was a time in the project when we thought that might not be as good as we wanted it but we have won that back now, there is also scope to develop that subsequently.
There is a gym, we are going to build a sports dome now. What else would we have wanted? Perhaps more Halls of Residence, we would have wanted two or three hundred more student homes. We have had to cut back on that. It’s not the end of the world at all, we have still got over 1000 beds there but we could have done with a few more on site in the initial phase, but I am sure it will happen in the future.

NQ: We have heard that the new campus will promote something called a Blended Learning Environment, what does that mean?

We thought about what a future university could look like in terms of transforming our lives, if you look at your own industry (media) think about how digital has kind of ripped through local press, it just changed the game. The same thing could happen in higher education, the old model where you have a lecture theatre full of 300 students and talk at them for 50 minutes and then that’s it. Is that really worth a £9000 experience? I would argue that it isn’t. What is the alternative? How do you build a teaching and learning environment that is fit for the 21st century but balance that with a personalised approach?
We decided against the lecture hall model, we are going to have a couple of fairly large lecture theatres but we are not going to have extensively this kind of structure. We are going to go for small class teaching, groups up to 30 to 50 in size. The blended aspect – what we call the flip classroom – we already do it it’s just not in a purpose designed building. We went to Singapore where they are quite advanced in this area.
What it is, is that you consume the materials beforehand and the lecture isn’t a broadcast, it is a discussion around what you have learned. It places more onus on the student as a learner which I think will help them because it helps employability if you are self directed. It is slightly different for the lecturing staff because they wont be able, as I have done for years and got away with, to stand up in front of the students talking at them perhaps seeing them for a bit, the staff will have to change their mode of delivery as well, but using technology to break the back of the heavy lifting. It all goes online as much as possible, students download that on their mobile phone wherever they are any time of night or day.
The idea that you have to turn up for a lecture at 9 oclcok on a Monday morning … why? It doesn’t make sense. Television doesn’t work like that any more so why should higher education? You still have to teach the students of course, but in a more face to face way, be more creative. There is no template for it steve, it is up to Northampton University to invent its own reality for higher education in the 21st century and that is a tremendously exciting opportunity for the staff and the students.

NQ: How will Waterside benefit the wider community of Northampton?

We want to build a community university, Massachuessetts Institute of Technology, is a good example one of the top five in the world by any measure and yet it is totally accessible to the public, they walk there, they have a picnic, they play with their children in the campus, it is open to the community in a way that Park Campus, although its been very good to us, and Avenue Campus simply aren’t.
Being in this new location in the Enterprise Zone, being in a thoroughfare from the train station, through the culture quarter, down on to the campus, there will be cafes open and art installations going on and then to Delapre Abbey which opens up a whole facet of the town that currently isn’t being utilised.

NQ: Is Waterside too big to fail?

I guess it has happened now. The crash would have happened around the tendering and the land transactions and the affordability. Now the money is being spent, the buildings are coming out of the ground and you can see for yourself that it will be completed. What goes on inside is really important but we have a fantastic story to tell about a new teaching and learning model. That bit I cant see that not working. There will be teething problems and hiccups and all the rest of it, you can imagine what the snagging issues will be like next year. They will be there for sure but we have put something in place that will be sustainable 50years in the future, plus we have land there that we are not using all in one hit. What I mentioned earlier about it being an ongoing project is that whoever comes into this role in the future will actually have land to build on to grow and develop the university. That is putting us in a very strong position. It is something we can’t do on this campus because we are physically constrained by space.
There is a great quote by Buckmeister Fuller the architect: ‘You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something build a new model that makes the existing one obsolete.’
I don’t mean to be critical of the existing model because this is a fantastic university, we have got brilliant staff and students and as I say, Park Campus and Avenue Campus have been absolutely superb. It is time to move on. We need to remain competitive. We need to be fit for the 21st century.

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NQ: What difference will Brexit make?

Like most universities we were keen to remain part of the European Union partly for vested interests because of students and access to markets. Our university wont be hit too badly because our numbers of EU students is about five to six percent, it is not a huge number and we can easily make up numbers from overseas full feeing paying students. We don’t get a huge amount of research income like more elite universities from things like the Horizon 20/20 programme so we wont miss that money. Where there might be an issue is if other universities come in for our market share, so they will be more focussed on uk students, down the line.
The great comfort to all of us was the timing issue. I don’t know if it would have happened post Brexit but we managed to get the lion’s share of the funding from the bonds that the university issued, they are protected by a £231.5 million uk guarantee. The treasury was interested in our project so they have underwritten it.
That makes it very secure for the next 40 years… unless an asteroid hits us.

  •  The Topping Out ceremony for the new Senate building is due to take place on April 25.

Hear the interview on Soundcloud:

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