Brief encounter with Sheffield University VC, Sir Keith Burnett

Walking with my son through Sheffield City Centre, Jessop’s Grade II listed Edwardian building not far from my thoughts, demolition imminent,  it was a bit odd to realise I had just walked past the Vice Chancellor of Sheffield University.

N.R    Sir Keith?
K.B    Yes?
N.R    Nick Roscoe…I’ve been involved in the Jessops campaign…   Sorry to disturb you, but I’ve just walked past and noticed you and as I’ve been trying to meet you without success I thought I might as well try and take this opportunity

K.B   (looks at watch)   10 minutes.. sorry but I’m meeting my wife!
N.R. Would it be OK to talk for 10 minutes?
K.B   Well more like 5 minutes really, sorry but..
N.R   …Even 5minutes -that would be brilliant
K.B.   Really sorry but…
N.R    Would it be OK if I walked along with you for a few minutes?
K.B    Gestures forwards

Sir Keith did speak for a couple of minutes, but the conversation was quickly curtailed. He was doing his best not to be drawn into discussion on any particular detail and just kept returning to the point that the planners approved it, almost as if it was the planners who had pushed this through.  I could have asked a million things, this was what came out in the two minutes I had – sorry I didn’t ask about his thoughts for the feelings of thousands of people in Sheffield.

NR: It’s difficult to know where to start. One thing I’m very curious about is your position on the architectural and historical merits of the building. I don’t know if you genuinely believe the building has no architectural or historical merit, or if this is a position that has been adopted in order to achieve your ends?

K.B. (not really answering the question)  It was a balanced view… We were told that overall the benefits to the city in terms of a lot of building work and jobs created for that and other benefits made it worthwhile

N.R. Are you aware that the University commissioned an historical report in 2008, written by a historian working for RMJM, who wrote in no uncertain terms about the historical and architectural merits of the building?

KB Raises eyebrows and doesn’t answer.

K.B. We worked on the basis of the advice that was given to us about the value of the building and that was that on balance it was a worthwhile thing to do.

N.R. Are you aware the that planners were strongly against these proposals? Having looked through emails via FOI that seems very clear. What seems critical, was a meeting that took place between yourself and John Mothersole – you seem to have managed to apply a bit of pressure there and got your own way after that?

K.B. Not at all. That was a meeting purely about process, about discussing how things would be done and the different options that were available……     It’s not my decision. It was the planners’ decision to allow this. The planners advised that on balance this was the right thing to do.

N.R. It IS your decision. You managed to get what you wanted out of the planning process but it’s up to you now what you do with the building. You must have seen the letter from the planning officers condemning the proposals? The planners involved in processing this application were strongly opposed to it, it was only the most senior staff that finally pushed this through.

K.B. We followed all the rules with this, we took the advice we were given and we consulted with the public, things were done properly.

N.R. Are you aware of the precedent you are creating for listed buildings?

K.B. Now that’s not true at all…

N.R. …It is true…

K.B. (Interrupting and parting ways) I’m sorry but I’m going to have to meet my wife now – you’re a good man, but I don’t want to argue about this.

And off he went.

(Will update this later with more discussion about the critical role of that 13th July 2012 meeting with Chief Executive John Mothersole.)

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