Ulster property miscalculation paves way for Magee expansion

The University of Ulster at Magee, Derry. DER3115MC002
The University of Ulster at Magee, Derry. DER3115MC002

Ulster University faces a crisis over the massive development planned for Belfast.

The crisis could provide a golden opportunity for Magee and Derry.

The plan to move the Jordanstown Campus to Belfast city centre, expanding the Belfast campus from 2-3,000 students to around 15,000 students, was devised at a time when property prices were at their height in Northern Ireland.

The idea was that 100 of the 170 acres at Jordanstown would be sold off at more than a million pounds an acre.

Land in the area was going for that sort of figure at the time. The university paid top dollar for buildings around the existing York Street, Belfast, campus, on an assumption that the outlay could be recouped from the expected Jordanstown bonanza.

The cost of the new Belfast campus was estimated at £250 - £350 million.

But then came the property crash. As early as November 2009, Department of Employment and Learning Minister Reg Empey warned that the project was facing funding and planning difficulties.

The plans were made public in 2012. They showed a site of approximately 75,000 square metres on York Street and Frederick Street stretching to North Queen Street.

The plans included four linked buildings with entrances from York Street, a reopened York Lane and Frederick Street.

But the funding and planning difficulties which Empey had warned about mean that only two of the four proposed buildings will be available when the move from Jordanstown gets under way in 2017.

Already, staff members in Belfast are complaining that their space has been considerably reduced.

For example, the School of Art has lost its large kiln, which means that students can no longer produce large ceramic pieces, while studio space has been considerably reduced; there is real concern that an archive of transparencies of art pieces going back over a century could be lost forever because of lack of space in the library.

It is for this reason that People Before Profit suggested that one of the six Jordanstown faculties could move to the Ebrington site in Derry where there would be more than enough space and where a real and lasting legacy of the City of Culture could be housed.

The 3,000 students in the university’s Faculty of Computing and Engineering are currently spread across three campuses.

Several hundred are already at Magee. Bringing the faculty as a whole to Derry would bring well over 2,000 additional students to the city and more than 100 well paid jobs.

Moving the faculty to Magee might well encounter less resistance now than would have been the case just a few years ago – on account of the chronic lack of space at the new Belfast campus. We believe that this is do-able, given the political will and solid backing from then wider North West public.

Academic staff who are to move from Jordanstown have been told that they can bring nothing with them – no books, no papers, no teaching notes. There will be no space for any of these fripperies because, astonishingly, there will be no offices; lecturers will “hot desk”. If a student receives bad news or otherwise needs pastoral care, they had better hope there is an empty “meeting room” that their lecturer can use to calm their fears, staunch the tears, and help them resume their studies.

The Belfast campus was always going to be smaller than Jordanstown. The staff expected that. But funding and planning problems mean that it is now HALF the size of what it was supposed to have been. The reason is that the original planning approval included a condition that read “No part of the development hereby approved shall become operational until an enhanced public transport service ... has been fully implemented”.

In February 2014, this condition was revised. It now reads: “The buildings hereby permitted known as Blocks A and C shall not become operational until an enhanced public transport service has been fully implemented…”.

Given the funding problems it is unclear when, if ever, Blocks A and C will be built or become operational.

Last week, proposals for building 600 houses on the university’s Jordanstown site were denied planning permission by Newtonabbey council’s planning committee. This may be appealed. But there is real reason to believe that it has become virtually impossible to fund a Belfast campus big enough to hold 15,000 students.

Derry now has a window of opportunity to bring several thousand new students to Magee. The chance should not be missed.