Having your Concordat cake and eating it

We have just experienced an extraordinary week in the extraordinary soap opera that the Wye Park saga is becoming. Thankfully my colleague Justin Williams has been finding the time to keep us all in touch with events as they unfold.

In case your head is still swimming a little from the tide of developments let me highlight just three of the items of news Justin has broken here over the past few days.

  • On Thursday he revealed that ABC was pressing ahead with its fervent desire to see the Wye Park scheme included in the development blueprint for the south east region. Council chief executive David Hill explains this in a letter thus, ‘This investment could attract up to 12,500 new value added jobs to the area not only within the centre, but on new business parks within Ashford such as Eureka Park at junction nine of the M20. This exciting project has the ability to drive forward the objectives of SEEDA in developing greater research and development capacity within the region, greater creativity, innovation and skills within the workforce and greater enterprise and productivity for local, regional, national and international companies.’
  • Only hours later ABC Council Leader Paul Clokie is berating the residents of the Wye area for their ‘premature’ and ‘misplaced’ concerns. ‘We must remember that we are only at the start of what could be a long process,’ he says. ‘Imperial have yet to work out exactly what facilities might be required at Wye, how much they would cost and how that might be funded.’
  • And on Saturday it becomes apparent that ABC have rejected the Wye Future Group’s claim for a judicial review, with a swiftness one rarely associates with local government. The Concordat, says ABC’s lawyers, ‘is a declaration of understanding between the signatories. As made clear on its face, it does not bind the council and has no legal force. No legitimate expectation can possibly arise in respect of the document.’

So, when it comes to dealing with the unelected quango of SEEDA, the Wye Park scheme is so important it needs to be written into the development blueprint due to be agreed next month, quickly, and with no genuine prior public debate. Written in, moreover, with specific estimates of the colossal number of jobs the project would create, and, it seems to me, some pretty firm idea of what might follow from its successful prosecution.

Fine. And what’s the message for the public, and in particular those looking at blighted jobs, blighted homes and possibly a blighted environment before long? Cllr Clokie and ABC’s legal team made that very clear. It’s only an idea, people. What are you moaning about? Just sit back and let the due democratic process take its course. As the men with torts say, ‘no legitimate expectation can possibly arise’.

Really? If three large public bodies are sufficiently confident of themselves to boast out loud about a £1bn development bringing in 12,500 jobs I would have thought quite a lot of legitimate expectations could easily arise among interested, intelligent people. The trouble is these selfsame public bodies appear to be treating us like children waiting for Christmas. They keep pointing to this well-wrapped box marked ‘Concordat’ and nodding to each other, looking for all the world as if they’re in on the secret about what wondrous goodies it contains (because, let’s be grown up here, they wrapped the thing in the first place).

But each time we ask it’s always the same reply: Santa put it there, kiddies. It’s not for you to know or guess at until the appointed time.

How many different ways do these people want it? Either this is a serious prospect for the future or it isn’t. If it is, and the various parties are sufficiently au fait with the detail to want to package it nice and tidily into a ‘things we promise to do’ letter to John Prescott, then the rest of us deserve to be let in on that act and engage in the kind of debate that is supposed to happen in an allegedly mature democracy like ours.

If it isn’t, then Cllr Clokie is right. It’s all just hot air, futurology, pie in the sky stuff. Like, er, the Channel Tunnel, Ashford International Station and the Rail Link used to be.

I can’t help but wonder if Paul Clokie, a resident and representative of Tenterden, would be quite so sanguine and, frankly, impertinently dismissive of residents’ concerns if someone was planning to put a massive quasi-industrial development on his own doorstep.

Oh yes, and there’s one other thing I can’t help but wonder too. How stupid do they think we are?

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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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