King's College London has a long, illustrious history. Founded in 1829 with patronage from George IV, it has a strong academic record and is the largest of the University of London's constituent colleges. Having gobbled up the medical and dental schools of Guy's and St Thomas', it now boasts the biggest medical school in the UK. Its international reputation was sealed recently when it shot up the league table compiled annually by The Times Higher Education Supplement to come 24th in the world and sixth in the UK, reflecting its reputation for research. But, as Adam Boulton, a lay member of King's College's council and political editor of Sky News, says (see page 6), its reputation is not enhanced by its buildings – quite the reverse.
King's inhabits a cramped site on the Strand next to Somerset House, and some of its accommodation, was built in the 19th century and is unsuitable for today's world. It would make perfect sense for the college to be able to buy the "New Wing" of Somerset House, which has now been vacated by the Inland Revenue. That would allow it to expand into the new space, provide some interesting new facilities like the International Policy Institute, and to present a much better front to the world.
The problem is that Somerset House has other ideas. It is understandable that its trustees appear to be leaning towards accepting a bid from a firm of hoteliers which would be more lucrative and enable them to do some of the things they are charged with, such as developing Somerset House as an arts and cultural centre. The ball will then lie in the Government's court as it will have to approve a new lease. We believe ministers should insist that Somerset House compromise with King's College.
The country's interests will be best served by the New Wing staying in public hands and being used to improve the fabric of one of the UK's top universities. If universities are as important to the success of the nation as the Prime Minister says, it cannot be in our interests for Somerset House to do a deal with an international hotel group. Can public access really be maximised by part of the building becoming a five-star hotel even if space is given over to gallery space and offices for arts organisations? We think not.