It’s time for those silent voices to speak

Later this week the national media will, apparently, unveil one of those surveys that tell us something that falls into the category once memorably described by Basil Fawlty as ‘the A-level bleeding obvious’. This time round it will be the amazing news that few people trust the political process — or, perhaps more pointedly, the politicians — any more.

Well, duh… as the Americans like to say. From Iraq to simple sleaze, we have all watched the rather ungratifying spectacle of a political class behaving as if it lives in a world governed by different rules and mores to the rest of us. A funny place it is too, one where the husband of a cabinet minister can trouser £350,000 tax free, while the average citizen struggles to keep up with tax and fuel rises that far outstrip inflation or increases in wages and pensions.

What has this to do with the sorry saga of the Wye Concordat? Everything. It is one more alarming symptom of a fundamental shift in the relationship between the public and those in power.

There is, and always will be, a governing class because someone has to do a job that is often tedious, exacting and thankless. But over the past decade the nature of that job has altered The governing class has become the ruling class, one which does what it does because it knows it is right and expects us to sit back and be grateful for its wisdom. Now, having ignored the popular voice for so long, they’re turning and asking each other in bewilderment, ‘Why on earth are we so unpopular and mistrusted?’

This website has, from the beginning, held to the view that the Wye Concordat is not, as the authorities have suggested, a pie-in-the-sky hazy idea for some unspecified time in the future. All along we have viewed it as a concerted effort, well-planned over a considerable period of time, to achieve two things in particular: the release of valuable land for commercial sale by Imperial College, and the construction of extensive new housing, commercial and industrial facilities in an area that is currently either in a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty or precious close to it. Given the information we have uncovered here over the last two weeks is anyone seriously in doubt about that now?

I don’t believe for one moment that the people who have come up with this idea are motivated by anything sleazy. Imperial wants its money. Ashford Council and Kent County Council, having clearly been bounced by the college’s threat to abandon Wye, are now rubbing their hands at the prospect of a £1 billion project on their doorstep.

But do not think, for one moment, that everyone in the councils’ camps is happy with what has gone on. Elected officials outside the inner circles have been as much in the dark as the rest of us. Damian Green, the area’s own MP, says that the first he heard about the project was a few days before its public announcement which, as we have already revealed, occurred seven months after the signing of the initial secret Concordat. Doesn’t that, in itself, give people pause for thought, that the area’s own MP was outside the discussion loop too?

Three weeks ago we wrote to the Independent, Labour, and Lib-Dem groups on Ashford Council, and to Damian Green, with essentially the same set of questions…

  • When did you first hear about the Concordat project? Do you feel you were informed early enough?
  • Are you happy with the project timeline outlined by KCC in this statement? Obviously confidentiality is needed in these kinds of discussions. But many people are baffled why something outlined in principle should be kept secret for seven months, even from Wye’s own borough councillor? Do you feel this was justified?
  • Given the controversy over the subject, do you feel it appropriate that the draft plan should still be included in the blueprint for the South East? If it is ratified, how much hope do you think Wye has of changing this plan in the future?

The Lib-Dems replied almost immediately, and we wrote up their responses in this article. Mr Green replied as follows…

Thanks for the offer. I have been asked your first question a number of times and the answer is that I was told a few days before the public announcement — that was the first I had heard of it. As for commenting on the other matters, I think it would not help the progress of sensible negotiations if I carried on a running commentary on how everyone was behaving, however strongly I may feel about this. So on this occasion I will have to decline your offer.

From Labour and the Independents we have heard nothing in public, though there are continuing private rumblings of discontent from many quarters, in the borough council and at county level, about the secret way this entire project has been prosecuted. The invitation to Labour and the Independents to outline their stance here still stands. We hope that, one day, they will take it.

Why will no-one speak out? Mr Chris Took, the Lib-Dem’s parliamentary candidate for Ashford, offered the following explanation…

The great problem with local governance (County, District etc). is saying something openly (press, websites, etc), can (certainly with development issues) bind you to that opinion and potentially not allow you to change your mind because you have “pre-judged the issue”.

Sadly, I think he’s right. Several other councillors have said exactly the same to us and then added, sotto voce, ‘But don’t quote me.’

What on earth do they think they are doing? We elect councillors and MPs to be our representatives not our rulers. Of course they often deal with matters that require confidentiality. But an issue the scale of the Wye Park project is not, in general principles, among them. It is a plan to change the entire nature of an area that is, in no way, in desperate need of economic development, unlike other parts of Kent. Nor is it the only means to achieve a successful outcome to Imperial’s threat to leave the area. There are two other universities on our doorstep: Christchurch and the University of Kent. Couldn’t they take over the college instead?

We simply don’t know, because few of our councillors seems prepared to speak up publicly and frankly about a spirallling farce that is trying to pose as democracy. The solution to this question lies in the hands of the elected representatives of Ashford Council and KCC. They can stay silent, and let the rest of us think what we will. Or they can summon up the strength to do what we expect of them: say their mind, and let us know whether they feel the way this project has been handled does any great service to the political process in Kent.

For all our sakes it is time to restore at least some of the public’s faith in the idea that there is a two-way street between the governors and the governed. That will not happen if every straight and reasonable question is met with silence. Only elected officials can change this miserable state of affairs. They should speak their minds and they should do it now. If they are content to remain mute and impotent over an issue of this magnitude, what possible purpose do they serve?

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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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