"CAMBRIDGE IS a wonderful place to come and have a demonstration," said Reverend Dharmavidya, a friendly, beaming bear of a man among several other Buddhists watching proceedings yesterday in a Cambridge council chamber. "Because if you want to bring attention to an issue, you want to do it in a place where there's plenty of people watching."
The issue to which he was referring to was a formal planning review of an application by Cambridge University to redevelop 307 Huntingdon Road, at present a collection of farm buildings on a trunk road in the west of the city. It might sound dull but the reality certainly is not.
The university wants to establish a laboratory complex for research on certain primates, most likely marmosets and macaques, which are among our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom. To understand neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, scientists want to examine brain function, which inevitably involves vivisection.
The plans have inflamed the sensibilities of animal rights protesters and brought into the open the conflict between them and the scientists who believe such research is essential. Politicians often talk about "having a proper debate"on issues such as genetically modified food and crops, embryology, and animal rights. You might wonder quite where the debate is meant to take place and reach a resolution. The answer is: in places like Cambridge's anonymous council offices, with its Identikit tables and chairs. When it comes to deciding our society's ethos, this is what Americans would call the place where the rubber hits the road.
And it is done through, of all things, the planning laws, which decide issues such as road, town and city planning, mobile phone use, and airport expansion, equally hot topics.
Here, the focus is on animals and the vivisection proposal. "It hits a raw nerve with us, and for many other religious communities," said Dharmavidya (formerly known as David Brazier), who has travelled down from Leicester where he lives in a Buddhist commune. "It moves the boundary closer to experimenting on humans. And we don't draw a hard line between human life and the rest of creation. This shifts the ethical boundary in the wrong direction." He was hoping his willingness to protest might mean he was called as a witness by South Cambridgeshire District Council, which is opposing the application. Not on any ethical grounds (the council insists it is agnostic on this), but because police believe the inevitable animal rights protests surrounding the centre would disrupt traffic and endanger protesters and drivers. The council also fears that such protests could harm the city's valuable tourist trade.
The protests would also clog the city centre where someone dawdling on a zebra crossing can briefly induce gridlock.
The university is pushing hard for the redevelopment of the site, which would accommodate a 10,000sq m laboratory. It insists the work is important, and in the national interest. It is supported by by Lord Sainsbury of Turville, the Science minister, who said the centre was "doing major research in a key area of science". He added: "I think it is very important that this research is done. It also happens to be done by probably the best people in this country to do it."
Its lawyer at the inquiry, Robin Purchas QC, suggested in his opening remarks that beginning primate experiments at the site would not entail a change of use. The site, he said, had been used for animal research "since the early Fifties". This nonplussed the university's spokeswoman, who said that "it hasn't been used for a year; before that, it was just offices".
It doesn't look like offices; or anything much. As you drive west out of Cambridge, you pass a farm - operated by the university - then a collection of farm-like constructions, in ageing …