Tower Hamlets challenges university’s move out of borough
By Clare Melhuish, on 22 October 2015
Having expanded its operation into the East End two years ago, following a merger with London Guildhall University, troubled London Metropolitan University (formerly University of North London) has revealed that it is now to sell off its Tower Hamlets premises and re-consolidate back on its existing Holloway Road campus in London Borough of Islington.
The university moved its highly-regarded school of Architecture and Spatial Design to join the Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Media and Design in Central House, opposite the Whitechapel Art Gallery in Tower Hamlets in 2013. The establishment on the site of a prestigious new Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design – described in glowing terms as an ‘Aldgate Bauhaus’ – was accompanied by an internal re-modelling of the building by London Met’s own school-based Architecture Research Unit, headed by professors Florian Beigel and Philip Christou, with the potential to extend the building upwards by three floors.
However, the shock decision to vacate the school and raise £50m for the cash-strapped university by selling the building off for demolition and redevelopment as flats has been challenged by the new Mayor of Tower Hamlets, John Biggs. As reported in the London Evening Standard last night (21/10/15: 10), he claims the move has been prompted purely to address the university’s own “financial mismanagement”, and will “diminish” the community of Tower Hamlets. The paper further reports that more than 1,000 people have signed a petition against the plans to consolidate the campus in the borough of Islington, closing down all its university teaching centres in Whitechapel, Aldgate and Moorgate – with potentially deleterious effects on the East End borough.
As an ‘anchor institution’ for associated creative and cultural economic development in the borough, the Cass has represented a vital resource for local regeneration, forming part of a new cultural hub in close proximity to the Whitechapel Art Gallery and fast-transforming Brick Lane. So this latest news prompts an interesting question as to what happens when an anchor institution decides, for whatever reason, that it is time to move on and redistribute the benefits of its presence elsewhere.
As quoted in the Standard, John Biggs’ view is that ‘The ideally situated Cass faculty has roots in the East End and a reputation for combining academic study and creative production. To put this heritage at risk [in order] to address the LMU’s financial mismanagement is a tragedy.’
A tragedy for Tower Hamlets perhaps – but not presumably for Islington, where an expanded single campus for London Met on Holloway Road (albeit reducing student capacity by 2,000 to 10,000 in total) could well bring benefits to a borough which is in fact one of the most deprived local authority areas in the country. 45% of children live in poverty, the second highest rate in the country, and almost all of those live in workless families. Holloway ward in particular is one of several in the borough where multiple deprivation is most concentrated, with male life expectancy at second lowest.
So perhaps it makes sense for London Met to bring the Cass back to north London, as a catalyst for local regeneration on the Holloway Road. At least, that is, until the developers are ready to move in to replace the university facilities with unaffordable flats there as well. In which case, where will the Cass go next? Peterborough (the largest UK city without a university)? Who knows, it could even re-locate as far as South Korea. And that really would be a loss.