The University of Bristol has called time on its twice-yearly liaison meetings with residents groups as part of changes to the way it handles community relations.
These could involve a relaunch of an alternative body, the Bristol Student Community Partnership, which the university is discussing with the city council.
Although UoB says it will maintain “close contact” with residents’ organisations, the implications of the changes are as yet unclear. Chandos Neighbourhood Association has expressed concern that residents’ voices may be lost in the change.
Expressing disappointment at the “apparent demise” of the Community Liaison Group, Chandos chair Diana Swain said: “I hope the university will reconsider and not shut out voices which make for unpalatable listening.”
The first sign that something was afoot came in December, when UoB normally invites residents’ groups to a discussion of issues that have arisen in the autumn term. Having received no notification, I emailed UoB’s community liaison officer, Gordon Scofield, on December 17. He replied as follows:
With regard to the Community Liaison Group there are no plans to hold future meetings in that format. The University is going through a period of reorganisation and it is proposed to relaunch the Student Community Partnership with the City Council and other partners – early discussions have been held with representatives with the City Council.
In future, meetings will be held with the various community groups and any parties such as individual streets, neighbourhoods or groups that would like to discuss community relations with the University and the City.
Presently I don’t have any further information but I am happy to speak to any groups about complaints received to date this academic year.
With the Christmas and New Year holidays over, I emailed Mr Scofield again on January 6 seeking clarification of what is planned—particularly, whether residents will be included in Partnership meetings. In a phone call, Mr Scofield said they would, but indicated he had referred my questions to a more senior member of university staff for a formal reply, which is likely to take some time. (The full text of my letter is at the bottom of this page.)
The Community Liaison Group has existed at least since 2010 and in recent years there have generally been two meetings, in winter and summer, reflecting the academic calendar. UoB’s website describes them as “a twice yearly forum with representatives of local resident associations, local and University police, Bristol City Council officers and local ward councillors.”
A “Community Liaison Group” link on the website that previously led to a dedicated page containing minutes of previous meetings no longer works.
The last meeting, in July 2019, was attended by representatives of at least six residents’ groups, as well as two individual residents (of which I was one), three ward councillors and a police officer from the local beat. One of the main agenda items at meetings was the university’s presentation and analysis of complaints statistics, principally noise incidents reported by the public, and the actions taken by the university in response.
It’s unclear whether the Bristol Student Community Partnership, which Mr Scofield indicates UoB hopes to “relaunch”, would cover the same ground as the liaison meetings, or how the Partnership would be a more effective alternative.
An undated document on the university website describes how the Partnership worked in the past, but doesn’t mention direct participation by residents:
The University of Bristol is part of the Bristol Student Community Partnership in conjunction with the University of the West of England, both Student Unions, Bristol City Council, Bristol Waste Company and the Police. The Partnership has been established to increase community confidence by bringing together partners and provide a coordinated approach to promote student/community relations and cohesion, in the context of the positive contribution of both universities in Bristol.
While Mr Scofield’s email signals a willingness to talk to residents’ groups (as he did, for example, at the November meeting of the Chandos association), his reply suggests UoB envisages communicating with groups individually rather than in a forum. In his reply to Diana Swain, he also commented:
In future the University will hold meetings at the request of the various community groups, resident associations, individual streets, neighbourhoods or any group or residents that would like to discuss community relations with the University. The University will also continue to record complaints and share the data with those groups. …. I believe that this approach will enable us to create a more bespoke response to specific area problems; which extend from the Gloucester Road through to the Clifton Suspension Bridge and the City Centre and Harbourside to Stoke Bishop.
Comment: In principle, it may be a good thing that UoB is rethinking how it does community relations. The university has expanded rapidly in recent years, and there is more to come, with the planned satellite campus at Temple Meads and construction of purpose-built student accommodation at numerous sites throughout the city. As a result, UoB will have a substantially bigger footprint than it did a decade ago. Change of this magnitude inevitably calls for structures to be reviewed. We will have to wait for a formal statement from the university before we can judge whether the changes will help or hinder residents’ concerns.
That said, UoB has not helped itself in the way it has gone about this. Community trust in the university’s willingness to deal with residents’ concerns is pretty thin in many quarters. Ditching the current form of community relations before a new one is ready to take its place fuels suspicion that this is aimed at putting the university in a stronger position to deal with views it may not like. The phrase “divide and rule” comes to mind.
It surely would have been better for UoB to go ahead with a December meeting, as normal, and explain its ideas directly to the residents’ groups. At the very least, a timely and unprompted explanation of why no meeting was being called, and some hint of the changes to come, would have been advisable.
Until the university publicly explains what it’s trying to achieve, we cannot know whether the changes are ones that residents should support. There is also the worry that management time and focus will be taken up in coming months with future meeting formats, rather than dealing with pressing concerns—such as delivering a far more effective in-house campaign to ensure students understand their responsibilities when they move into the community.
Full text of my Jan. 6 email, which I'm told will receive a formal reply from the university:
I’d like to follow up regarding the email you sent me before Christmas (Dec. 17), replying to my enquiry about the Community Liaison Group.
It appears the university has decided not to continue with its twice-yearly meetings with residents’ groups and is considering instead a revived Bristol Student Community Partnership.
I’d like to ask a few questions to try to understand the reasons for this change, and its implications:
Will the residents (whether groups or individuals) who attended CLG meetings be invited to attend meetings of the Partnership? If yes, in what way will the Partnership be a better alternative to what currently exists? If no, then why is the university abandoning the current form of community liaison? (Your email indicated you will continue to talk to residents’ groups individually, but the CLG forum allowed for collective discussion, which surely benefited both residents and the university.)
What is the timetable for the Partnership’s revival (with or without residents)?
A key element of the CLG meetings was the university’s presentation of figures for complaints from the public and the resulting disciplinary actions. Are these still being compiled? How will they be presented (or published) in the future? *
The CLG page on your website, which displayed minutes of past meetings, seems no longer to be accessible—it is still referenced on your “Students and the community” page, but the “Community liaison group” link no longer goes anywhere. Has this been disabled as a result of the decisions mentioned above?
Why didn't the university hold a CLG meeting in December, as normal, and discuss its ideas for the future of community relations with the residents' groups themselves? Surely that would have been a more open and transparent way to make this change (and, some might say, more courteous). Since the revival of the Partnership is apparently some way off, it seems there was no pressing reason to bring the current arrangements to an abrupt end.
To the best of my knowledge, there has been no public announcement of these plans. I forwarded your Dec. 17 email to a couple of the residents’ groups with whom I’m in regular contact but have not yet written about it on The Noise Pages (www.thenoisepages.com). I plan to do so this week, so any further information you can give me in relation to the questions above will help me provide a clearer picture.
* If there is an analysis of the first-term statistics available, would you be able to send it to me--thanks.