It’s Groundhog Day

A science park in the Ashford area providing hundreds, possibly thousands, of high-quality jobs and attracting leading research and development companies to East Kent? Forgive the cynicism, but haven’t we been here before?

Trinity College, Cambridge, promised much the same at the nascent Eureka Science Park on the outskirts of Ashford. World-class bio-tech, pharmaceutical, manufacturing and engineering companies would, we were told, set up in Ashford to take advantage of its low land costs, skilled labour market, fantastic communications and proximity to both London and continental Europe. But here we are, more than two decades on from such an extraordinary vision, and what do we have at the so-called science park by the M20? Just one manufacturing facility – a cosmetics company – surrounded by a sea of health clubs, burger bars, pizza outlets, fried chicken restaurants and an enormous nightclub. Oh, and several hundred new houses.

So here is the rub: houses, cinemas and shops first; ‘world-class research’ second, but, just possibly, not at all. It’s called ‘enabling development’ and it’s the one that Ashford falls for every time.

Those who have had much to do with Ashford Borough Council over the years will know all about the spin and inflated claims used to impress us with its vision. Several years ago, while I was editing the local newspaper, I was a party at two off-the-record briefings by council officers. First, we were told, Ashford was very close to signing a deal with a leading semi-conductor manufacturer which wanted to build a plant in the town. Then, and even more sensationally, we were briefed that a ‘leading Japanese company’ was going to start building cars in Ashford.

Neither, it goes without saying, materialized. Instead, we got three Tescos, an Asda, some car dealerships, a McDonald’s, warehouse shops, a tented shopping mall and thousands of houses.

Now fast forward to December 2005 and the agreement signed by Imperial College, Ashford and Kent Councils and the claims become even more inflated: 12,500 jobs; a world-class centre for scientific research; the involvement of government, European and United Nations bodies; manufacturing facilities; research into sustainable energy systems; the biggest change since the coming of the railway. What, we must wonder, are the chances of Imperial and Ashford pulling this little lot off when the borough’s success rate with this sort of thing in the past has been, at best, patchy? Should we not be paying more attention to the paragraph in the original document which states: ‘The Parties to the Concordat will work together to assemble the necessary external funding from a range of sources, recognising that the whole Project is likely to cost in excess of £1billion. The local authorities understand that some of that funding will need to be derived from Imperial College’s landholding at Wye.’
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So here, in our own little version of Groundhog Day, is the rub: houses, cinemas and shops first; ‘world-class research’ second, but, just possibly, not at all. It’s called ‘enabling development’ and it’s the one that Ashford falls for every time. You almost feel sorry for our elected representatives: they’ve been taken in by grandiose visions so often that they must be starting to feel like Albert Speer listening to Hitler as the Russian T32s queued up on the outskirts of Berlin.

Do Wye and the surrounding villages have to accept this? Is it inevitable? It certainly sounds like it if you heed those who speak on our behalf. Just listen to Damian Green on this site: ‘There will be a number of those in the village who are just opposed in principle to any large-scale development. Obviously I respect this point of view but I do not share it. I think there will be a mixture of benefits and problems caused by the proposals, and the trick will be to maximise the former and minimise the latter.’ In other words, our MP has already made up his mind and will not support attempts to stop Imperial’s plan to transform the village.

The other numerous questions – have Ashford and KCC been acting ultra vires, do those who actually live and work in Wye want such a massive change to their village, is this just a ruse to raise the price of Wye College land from £4,000 to £1million an acre – will be the subject of much debate here and elsewhere.

In the meantime, the people of Wye and its surrounding villages need to know what everybody else in the area thinks about Imperial’s plans. We have to find out whether Imperial’s ultimatum (‘the status quo is not an option’) has much support. Wye needs a public meeting and not merely a repeat of the stage-managed affair of January 9. And Wye probably needs a highly-motivated and well-supported action group to co-ordinate its response.

The village needs these things quickly. Before long, those who back this plan to utterly transform the area will build up such momentum that they might become unstoppable.

References:

Minutes of a themed debate on economic development at Ashford Borough Council on April 21, 2005. Considers failure of Eureka Science Park to attract science firms:

http://save-wye.org/wp-content/uploads/2006/01/ABCEcondevelop1.pdf

Report by Halcrow Group for Ashford Borough Council into ‘Ashford’s Future’ in December 2001 which concludes that the market conditions in the borough do not favour a science park:

http://save-wye.org/wp-content/uploads/2006/01/AshfordFuture.pdf

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About David Hewson

Professional novelist, published in more than 20 languages. Creator of the Nic Costa series set in modern Rome. Most recent book the novel of the Danish TV series, The Killing.
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