When we moved to east Kent from central London twenty years ago friends back in the smoke used to shake their heads and ask… where? There was a time when you said the name ‘Ashford’ and people immediately thought of Middlesex. Those distant years before the Channel Tunnel and the astonishing rapacious house-building boom that has gripped the area for the past ten years. It used to take me twenty minutes to get from my first house in Kennington to catch the 8.30 Charing Cross train to work (one that only stopped at Waterloo, and took just 55 minutes if I recall correctly).
One thing I can tell you about this area twenty years ago though. It was deprived. The unemployment level was among the highest in the south east. Wye was a nice middle class place to live, with a college that seemed thriving, socially and academically, compared with today. But Ashford itself was in a bad shape. Had someone come along then with a plan to pump the equivalent of £1 billion into the area, and with it thousands of jobs, it would have been a different question altogether. Who, in all honesty, could have objected?
But today? Things are very different indeed.
There are still parts of Kent that need an injection of private and public capital. The Medway towns and Thanet are obvious examples, and those mining communities around Snowdown have still not recovered from the closure of the mines. But Ashford? And Wye in particular? Take a look at any of the indices that are used to denote deprivation. Unemployment? There’s an interesting analysis of work trends in East Kent here. It’s based on 2003/2004 figures but I doubt they are much changed. Over that period the national unemployment rate in the UK was 11.8 per cent. For the south east it was 13.3 per cent. For Kent as a whole it was 1.9 per cent. And for Ashford… just 1.5 per cent, compared with 2.4 per cent in Shepway and 3.6 per cent in Thanet. Even Canterbury had a higher unemployment rate at 1.7 per cent. As any economist will tell you, a rate as low as 1.5 per cent is effectively full employment.
Does the existing population of the Ashford area need new jobs? Absolutely not. In fact, anyone who’s been struggling to find a plumber or an electrician of late may find it doubly hard to do so if this artificial inflation of the local economy goes ahead.
Here’s another interesting figure: house prices. The BBC keep a pretty tight check on this. Take a look at the latest figures. In the quarter to November, the average price of properties sold in the Ashford area was £214,519, an increase of a staggering 8.5 per cent over the previous three months. We were beaten only by Sevenoaks, Tunbrige Wells, Tonbridge and Maidstone. In Thanet quarterly inflation was just 3.1 per cent, and in Medway 2.1 per cent, with the latter suffering an annual fall in prices of half a per cent. What does this mean? Two things: we’re well off. And if the authorities really want to bring in stacks of new jobs and investment, there are undoubtedly places more deserving.
Any way you look at it, there is simply no economic or social case for an investment of this scale in Wye. Perhaps I’m being ungrateful in saying this, but it seems self evident. We don’t need the money. We don’t need the extra jobs. In fact the quality of life in the area will probably suffer, not improve, if this goes ahead. Did I really write ‘probably’ there? Unbelievable. Things will get worse. It’s as simple as that. The plain truth seems to be that there is only one reason this burgeoning Titanic is heading our way. It’s this: Imperial happen to own the land on which it can be sited, and stand to make a very fat packet if it goes through.
Is this really what the public planning process is supposed to be based upon? A serendipitous windfall for a distant academic body that, to all intents and purposes, seems to be asset-stripping the very thing it supposedly bought to save?