NOT SO FREE SPEECH: Union in turmoil after failure of multi-million-pound deal

£10 million development project scrapped, but hundreds of thousands have already been spent

building Cambridge Union Society funding money project society Student Trinity Trinity College Union union development project

-The Board of Trustees has thrown out plans for a multi-million-pound redevelopment project.
-The project, involving the sale of Union properties, was meant to take place in tandem with Trinity college.
-Trinity told The Tab “Trinity college remains committed to the Round Church Street redevelopment.”
-The plan was to generate revenue to reduce expensive membership fee.
-Upwards of half a million pounds has already been spent by the Union on architects, fees and fundraising.
-Former officers are “pretty furious at how it has ended.”

Plans to extensively develop the Union site – intended to provide revenue to bring down the £199 membership fee – have been thrown out of the window, weeks before the fundraiser was due to take place.

After several years of preparation and planning, a large-scale project to expand, renovate, and rebuild parts of the Union Society has been cancelled after a vote held at a trustees meeting on the 21st of February.

According to anonymous sources, the Union have already spent upward of £500,000 in preparation for the project. The money spent covered consultancy, architects’ fees and fundraising efforts, but also paid for an extensive rebranding of the institution by a marketing firm, culminating in a new logo and slogan.

The redevelopment was meant to expand the Union

This decision has caused huge contention between the senior trustees and the Union’s former officers. One anonymous former President who was involved in the early stages of the project’s development commented: “This project has been worked on for years and years and there was so much passion and enthusiasm behind it. I think the ex-officer community is pretty furious at how it has ended.”

With initial meetings with architects taking place in January 2015, the project was part of a high-stakes collaboration with Trinity College, involving a £4.5 million sale of four Union properties to the College and a £1.5 million investment from the Union’s own pocket.

The projected cost of the venture was £9.5 million, which was later whittled down to £7.2 million, leaving roughly a £1 million gap that needed funding. 

Before the plug was pulled on the project, a significant amount of money had already been spent on the venture. Sources told The Tab that the Union had already spent upward of £500,000 in consultancy, architects’ fees and fundraising.

CGI drawings are a bit pricey

The multi-million pound venture would have seen the expansion of the existing café, the re-opening of the Footlights entertainment space, and general refurbishments to the current Union site, along with the construction of a new building for Trinity on Round Church Street to house a restaurant and 38 new post-graduate accommodation rooms. A former senior Union official also confirmed that the project was intended to bring down membership fees in the future, which currently stand at £199 for life membership.

Part of the development was a rebranding process, most notably including a new logo and slogan, swapping out ‘Celebrating 200 years of free speech and the art of debating’ for ‘Defending Free Debate since 1815’. It is unclear how much this cost, but the most visible result has been to lose the traditional shield and crest in favour of a simpler design featuring quotation marks.

According to publically available presentation boards on the Cambridge Planning Register, the project was “an exciting collaboration between the University’s largest Society and largest College providing a unique redevelopment proposal to refurbish the Union buildings and significantly enhance the environs and appearance of a key area within the city centre.”

When asked for comment, Trinity College told The Tab “Trinity college remains committed to the Round Church Street redevelopment, the proposals for which have been approved by Cambridge City Council and will greatly improve this historic quarter of the city centre.

Trinity College continues to work closely with the Union Society in advancing the project collaboratively. The College is supportive of the role the Union Society plays in University life and recognises the opportunity this development presents for this historic institution in the 21st Century.”

The Union in 1870 – not so different to how it looks today.

The Board of Trustees is one of the governance committees of the Union and ensures that the society can maintain charitable status. The business side of the Union is run by The Directors of Cambridge Union Society Ltd. According the 2016 trustees report, the Board are in a position to  “continually review the major strategic, business and operational risks which the charity faces.”  

According to the 2016 trustees’ report, the Union has just under £12 million of assets to its name.

The Board of Trustees, who vetoed the grand-scale development, are made up of twelve members, including the current President and Vice President of the Union. Members of the current board of Trustees include The Rt Honourable Lord Chris Smith of Finsbury, who acts as Chair, and The Hon Daniel Janner QC. Trustees during discussions of the development project included all of the former Presidents and Vice Presidents from Michaelmas 2015 onwards.

The Trustees who were involved with the development project in the financial year 2015 – 2016.

In an anonymous statement to The Tab, a senior ex-Standing Committee member said of the trustees “with a couple of notable exceptions, I would describe the non-student trustees as prevaricating omnishambles, who haven’t considered that the Union might have changed since the 1960s and have made no effort to do so.”

Another former senior Standing Committee member told The Tab of their disappointment of the rejection of the plans. “I’m very sad to hear the building renovations will no longer be going ahead as planned. I know it has been worked on very hard over several years, and would have provided a hugely positive change for the Union and its thousands of members. I can only hope the Trustees are able to come up with an alternative solution to the issues the project was designed to fix.”

“The new building was designed to help the Union reduce fees for students in the long term, and it is a real shame this now looks much less likely to happen”

Bricks and mortifying

Current President of the Union, Kate Dunbar, who currently sits on the Board of Trustees issued the following statement:“The Union’s board of Trustees elected to downsize the Development project as it was found impossible to bridge the necessary funding gap. While we won’t be pursuing that specific scheme we will continue to make improvements to the building.”

“Our fundraising debate on the 11th of March will go ahead as planned and will focus on raising funds for a refurbishment of the Union’s Chamber – one of the spaces most integral to the work we carry out.”

Mention of the refurbishment of the Union’s Chamber is significantly different to the original plans, in which only the addition of one door to the chamber was proposed.

The future of this project, therefore seems unclear, with the Union now committed to the refurbishment of the Chamber, whilst Trinity have expressed their commitment to the continuation of the building and redevelopment project.