Wye’s borough councillor has described how both the leader and chief executive of Ashford council kept him in the dark over Imperial College’s controversial plans for the area.
Speaking at a meeting of Wye Parish Council on Thursday night, Cllr Ian Cooling insisted that he had no inkling of the plans being discussed by ICL, Ashford and Kent County Council until November 18 last year when he had been briefed by Ashford’s chief executive, David Hill, just three weeks before the project was made public. Cllr Cooling said that he had attempted to get the wording of the Wye Concordat changed when he saw a draft copy of it, but his efforts were rebuffed.
Cllr Cooling was at the parish council to report on his meeting with ICL’s deputy rector, Prof Sir Leszek Borisiewicz, on January 20 at which he had pressed the college to reinstate a ‘town and gown’ representative at Wye to improve communications with the village. However, Imperial told Cllr Cooling that this would not fit in with its academic priorities.
Cllr Cooling said that he was merely one of a number of people in Wye who had known of the activities of the Bearman committee prior to the submission of its report to ICL in September 2005 but insisted that he had not known the contents of the report prior to its publication.
The reason for keeping it under wraps with only three people knowing in the borough council — the chief executive, the leader and the chief executive’s PA… was because that was the way Imperial wanted it.
He was challenged to explain his assertion that he knew nothing of ICL’s plans before November 18 in the light of remarks he made to a meeting of Ashford’s Local Development Framework Task Group on May 17, 2005. At that meeting, Cllr Cooling had reported that Imperial College had indicated that it was looking at options for using an existing part of its site as a Science Park. But Cllr Cooling told the parish council meeting that those remarks had merely referred to older options for the empty ADAS site on Olantigh Road which had been originated by the former Wye College before its merger with ICL.
Cllr Cooling said that he saw benefits and disadvantages from any redevelopment of the Wye campus. “One of the benefits I see, is using brownfield land to bring some jobs back in [to the village].
‘The downside is the scale. They haven’t come clean [about] how much land they want. If they stick to the brownfield sites with well-designed, well constructed [buildings] with proper materials, I wouldn’t have a problem with that,’ he said but added that he would resist any attempt to build on the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
One Wye resident, Sue Powell, asked Cllr Cooling what information lay behind his reference in the notes of his meeting with the deputy rector to applications for outline planning permission on the Wye campus being ‘several months away’. Cllr Cooling said he had no firm information, it was ‘truly a guess’.
He said that he thought Imperial was playing ‘the long game’. He believed that Imperial will not put anything out before the Local Development Framework is published in May. ‘If they started putting the plans together, even if they did it as a phased thing, that takes us to May, you can then add two or three months for the actual preparation of the plans, and that’s where I get my months from. There is no inner knowledge.’
Angry: Ian Cooling
Mrs Powell then asked: ‘Is it in your knowledge that they have actually got that far ahead that they are going to be submitting plans within the next six months?’
Cllr Cooling responded: ‘No, not at all. What I’m trying to measure is precisely the reverse of that. It could actually be a long time. I doubt it will be quicker purely because of the bureaucracy of the process.’
Cllr Cooling said that he had been briefed by Ashford’s chief executive, David Hill, on the Concordat on November 18. ‘I went ballistic,’ he said, ‘I said, “This is in my patch, I should have known about it”. The borough council and KCC had assured me that their wish had been to go public much sooner. The reason for keeping it under wraps with only three people knowing in the borough council — the chief executive, the leader [Cllr Paul Clokie] and the chief executive’s PA –was because that was the way Imperial wanted it.’
He said that he believed the borough council could have been liable if it had breached a confidentiality agreement with Imperial and that this is covered specifically in the Freedom of Information Act.
The council’s covert approach, said Cllr Cooling, put him in an “almost impossible situation”. ‘People in the village have been saying ‘you must have known, you’re not only on the council you’re on the executive’.’
When one resident of the village said that he felt as if he had been deprived of his democratic rights by Ashford council’s behaviour, Cllr Cooling said: ‘Could I invite you to think: you feel angry, what do you think I feel? You are certainly not the only one in this village who feels angry.’ He added that the way that Imperial had handled the meeting with residents of Wye on January 9 was ‘a patronising disgrace’.
He was asked what he thought of Ashford council’s behaviour in the light of news that it was championing an effort to get Wye earmarked as an area for big expansion in the South East Plan to cater for Imperial College’s scheme. Cllr Cooling said: ‘I have very serious concerns with the fact that I was kept out of the knowledge because I would certainly have been pressing a lot earlier that we have got to talk with the community. I was furious when I was told and I am subsequently reading the website [save-wye] and becoming more and more furious when I realise exactly how much has been denied to me.
‘What is the point of me being a member of the cabinet [at Ashford council] and a member of the executive if they won’t talk to me about things of this scale on my patch?’
At the end of his question and answer session, Cllr Cooling was asked by Cllr Richard Bartley — a member of the parish council — what, if any, professional relationship he had with Imperial College. Cllr Cooling said that he had been under contract to provide consultancy advice on promoting the college’s catering and conferencing facilities but this contract had been terminated by the college at the end of 2004. His professional services were now used on an ad hoc basis, he said.