Ian Cooling: My open letter to Wye

Print version of Ian Cooling’s open letter to Wye, March 2006

This letter is the on-line version of my open letter to the villagers of Wye (and beyond) that will be distibuted around the village over the coming weekend. I cover quite a lot of ground, but I hope you will bear with me to the end. Even with this length, I can only touch on the range and variety of issue that have been raised with me, so this letter will be the first of a number I shall be writing to everyone in the coming months. Between letters, I shall be happy to respond to queries on this web-site, by phone (812416), or just pop a note through my door at 154 Bridge Street.

Since Imperial College dropped their bombshell on 8 December, I have spent quite some time speaking with a wide range of villagers. I have heard and absorbed their views on Imperial’s ‘vision’ for Wye. I have also met with the Parish Council and the Wye Business Association.

In addition to collecting peoples’ comments, I have received the message, loud and clear, that I should let all villagers know my views and my own position. The aim of this letter is to do just that. I shall also share with you some of the views and comments I have heard around the village and perhaps clarify some of the issues that have been raised.

All my key points are in this first section so busy readers need not read beyond. However, for those with the time and the inclination, I have included some additional details, which I cover more widely in Part 2.

Where do I stand?

Let me start at the beginning — my priority is clear: I have lived in this village for over 35 years and I have every intention of spending the rest of my days here. I was elected to my position on the Borough Council by the villagers of Wye and the wider Parish beyond – I was not elected by Imperial College, nor by ABC, nor by KCC. I owe my duty to Wye. As a Borough Councillor, I have a wider duty, in law, to the Borough as a whole — but I am quite clear that my prime duty is to the people of Wye.

However, I was elected by the whole community to serve the whole community, not just certain groups or individuals. It is therefore my job to make sure that all voices are heard, especially the quiet ones. My professional training (as a diplomat) leads me to make sure that two-way lines of communications remain open to everyone who wants to be involved. I also aim to focus on areas of agreement, while not ignoring the differences. I close no doors to anyone.

I shall continue to speak with villagers and I hope they will want to speak with me. I shall certainly make sure their views are heard. I have offered to meet with the members of the Wye Future Group and am happy to meet with other village groups too. I shall also continue to speak with the senior players at Imperial College and the leadership, political and managerial, of ABC and KCC.

But where do I stand on Imperial’s ‘vision’? Like many I have spoken with, I can see real benefits in developing the increasingly woebegone campus at Wye, but not at any cost. I should welcome new, well-designed, environmentally-sound buildings on the brown field sites. I should want them to be built of local materials and be of a ‘look’ and a scale that harmonises with the rest of the village. I should not welcome constructions that jar with their surroundings. And I shall be especially suspicious if the word ‘iconic’ appears anywhere!

I am not alone in welcoming the possibility of upgrading our roads to Ashford and Canterbury. However, I should strongly resist a hideous slash of asphalt across the countryside. We don’t want anything like the A 2070 as it drops down from the Weald near Ham Street and scars its way across the Marsh.

But above all, I need to see and hear some specifics from Imperial before I decide. I need to know what it is I’m ‘for’ or ‘against’. I like the idea of Wye regaining and exceeding the position it once held in the academic world. I like the idea of reversing the 20-year long seepage of jobs out of the village. I do not like the idea that the price we have to pay should be discordant swathes of new housing. There are other ways of raising funds for the academic venture open to Imperial. They must be explored – and used.

And I shall be watching like a hawk for any proposals about the AONB!

I’ll close Part 1 here and re-open with Part 2. There you will read some of the views I have heard in my discussions around the village and also some of my comments on specific issues that villagers have raised. There is much more to say, of course, but another time. I do not want to test your patience too much with this first letter.

Thank you for staying with me this far.

Part 2

In this Part, I shall focus on some of the views I have heard around the village over the past three months and also offer some thoughts on a few of the issues villagers have raised most often. But first, I’d like to clear the air on two issues.

When did I know about Imperial’s ‘vision’?

The answer is straightforward: 18 November 2005, which is when ABC’s Chief Executive first briefed me. And I was very angry. I had been kept in the dark for months about a huge project in my own village with enormous implications for the community. It also placed me in a very difficult position in the village. People rightly said that I am on the Executive at ABC, I must have known. The reality is that I did not and nor did the rest of the Executive either. At Imperial’s behest, the circle of knowledge in ABC was the Leader, the Chief Executive and his PA. This excessive secrecy imposed by Imperial has backfired spectacularly — it always does.

Do I work for Imperial?

The answer is a most emphatic ‘No’ I used to work as a consultant for the catering and conferencing department of Wye College dealing with marketing plans and advertising as well as sales. Following the merger in 2000, my contract was transferred to Imperial on the same terms. My last contract ended in July 2004. All my business links with the College closed then and they have stayed closed.

Opinions on Imperial’s ‘vision’ in the Village

Back now to the ‘vision’ — the views I have heard fall into three categories: those who are totally opposed; those who are in favour and can’t see what all the fuss is about — and the majority, by a substantial margin, who can see a possible upside and a possible downside. But they want to know more, much more, before they decide. Some of the factors they have mentioned follow below.

Jobs

One comment was ‘Great – good jobs for my kids and in walking distance’. More than a few did not realise how many jobs Wye has lost over the past 20 years or so. Between 12 and 17 shops and a pub have closed. Taylor’s Garages in Church Street and Bridge Street (and the offices upstairs) have gone, along with Denne’s Mill and the Stonegate egg-packing factory.

To these lost jobs, we must add those lost at the College and the 250-plus jobs that went when ADAS closed. We are looking at literally hundreds of jobs – perhaps as many as a thousand – that have seeped out of the village over this time. Only a fraction has been replaced, so the first thousand ‘new’ jobs would just put us back where we started. Perhaps some shops would re-open and even The George (but with a more cheerful landlord please!).

Setting out our stall

Here again, opinions varied. Some saw any negotiations as a sign of weakness – the thin end of the wedge. Others saw this as a way of exploring some of the additional benefits that the village should demand. Three examples were a serious skate park for our youngsters, an Arts and Heritage Centre and affordable housing — so village youngsters can stay in their own village as they grow up and marry. There was also the hope that this venture might give extra power to the village in sorting out the level-crossing problems. A large number wanted full access for villagers, especially the youngsters, to any new sports and leisure facilities.

Beware ‘helpers’ and ‘supporters’ from elsewhere

Certain individuals and organisations have their own agendas on which we are just one item. Also, more than a few have the reputation of travelling a long way in search of a band-wagon to jump on, possibly more in their interest than ours? I can’t help but wonder if we would have heard so many messages of ‘support’ if local elections had not been on the horizon next year. Another local example — certain lobbyists supported the proposal for the wind farm on Romney Marsh against strong local opposition, because of their wider agenda on renewable energy. That position, coupled with those of other non-local lobbyists, carried the day in persuading the Government to play the ‘national interest’ card and over-rule the local voice.

Communications

A constant theme in my discussions has been the question ‘Why won’t Imperial tell us what’s going on?’ To be frank, Imperial’s efforts at communication have been a mess. The meeting on 9 January was a disaster. The six-week silence while we waited for a report of the meeting was bizarre — as were the ‘draft minutes’ that eventually appeared. And why no response to e-mails, no website, no news letter and all the other unfulfilled promises?

Unless Imperial engage effectively and directly with the community here in Wye (not just parachute in and zoom out again) they will dig deeper holes for themselves. For example, Imperial told me that they do know Wye, as staff are always visiting. I had to correct them and point out that staff are always visiting the campus, not the village. But let’s be careful this information vacuum does not lead us into tortuous thinking as we try to fill the gaps.

Beware halls of mirrors

Many asked me how long this had all been going on and they were taken aback when I replied ‘The best part of 10 years’. I then explained the need to separate out three phases in the thinking about re-development at Wye. First, the difficult final years of Wye College, when buying back the lease of the ADAS site for commercial development was certainly an option.

The second phase was the immediate post-merger years. Against the backdrop of BSE and foot and mouth, the financial position at Wye Campus continued to weaken. The creation of a ‘Science Hub,’ like that at Canterbury, was considered but not pursued and the downward financial spiral led to the third phase — the closure of the Agricultural Sciences degree, with all that entailed.

It is possible to read this as a continuous thread and speculate about ten year’s worth of plotting — possible, but not sensible. The reality is that nothing on the scale of the present ‘vision’ appeared before AgSci closed and the need for radical new thinking became stark. The nettle seems to have been grasped in early 2005 when the ‘vision’ began to take shape.

These distinctions are important. Rather too often, I hear that ‘So and so must have known for ages’. The reality is that they did not. Too far down that road and distrust will spread in the community. Then communication, understanding and tolerance will corrode and die.

What next?

For my part, as I said earlier, I shall keep talking with people — in the village and outside. I shall make sure that copies of important ABC documents are placed in the library and flag up key meetings and the various consultations in good time, so everyone can have their say.

Above all, I shall be available. If you have any comments, queries and questions on what I have written here – or anything I have not mentioned — just ask. Drop a note through my door at 154 Bridge St. Phone me (812416) or e-mail me (ian.cooling@invictanet.co.uk) — and I shall be putting this letter on the websites, so you can comment up there too.

And there I shall close. There is much ground still to cover, but I shall do that in later letters. Many thanks for your patience in staying with me through to the end and I hope you have found this initial offering useful and worth the read.

Ian Cooling
Wye’s Borough Councillor

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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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4 Responses to Ian Cooling: My open letter to Wye

  1. Anonymous says:

    There seems to be a view on a number of posts on this site that the AONB only covers the greenfield land around Wye. In fact, the village itself is also entirely within the AONB and as such any developments on brownfield land would be subject to the same planning considerations.

    The Kent Downs AONB unit, responsible for protection of the AONB, is actually located in East Brabourne and so far appears to have remained silent on this very important issue. It would be interesting to know what approach they, and the Countryside Agency who have overall responsibility for protecting the countryside at the national level, are likely to take on this issue. It would also be interesting to hear what the National Association of AONBs has to say on the matter. If development on the scale and for the purpose, i.e. predominantly housing, proposed goes ahead it would set a precedent for development in other AONBs around the country. Could the fact that local authorities, i.e. KCC, are responsible for part funding AONBs be a factor in the local unit’s silence so far?

  2. Ian Cooling says:

    This is a valuable posting as the writer is clearly well-informed on the AONB issues that are central to this whole issue

    What is said above is the essence of my point that Democracy is alive and well in Kent. As I have been saying consistently for several months, the strongest and most powerful defence we as a community have against wholly inappropriate development in the AONB – is the planning laws.

    As this post makes clear, the bar for development in the totality of the AONB is set much higher and it is these criteria that any proposals by Imperial will be tested against – when they get round to submitting their planning application.

    A current example in the village is the Oil Depot site – brownfield and in the AONB. It is the latter aspect that has driven the closest examination of developer’s proposals by ABC planning officers, in conjunction with such Wye organisations as the Parish Council and the Village Design Group

    For my part, the feedback I have received from by far the majority of villagers for over four months now is that non-speculative College development on brownfield sites in the AONB, would be acceptable, subject to the application of the enhanced development controls mentioned above.

    What is and remains unacceptable to that same large majority, would be speculative money-making development on greenfield land within the AONB.

    And that is where my personal line is drawn too.

  3. J.Lo says:

    Mr. Cooling, we noticed that like the Mayor of Ashford, you absented yourself from the WFG launch and awareness day. The press were very interested in knowing your where abouts as the Independent party have two reps there. I am sure they won’t print what we said about you, so you are safe for now.

    Could you however replace the 2 long comments you made on the above subject which was deleted when the ‘spooks’ nailed the site.

  4. Ian Cooling says:

    J Lo – Yes, I was indeed very frustrated that I was not able to attend the main meeting and I was delighted to hear it went well. I did spend time at the WFG stall in the morning but had to attend a memorial event in Tunbridge Wells at noon, an invitation I had accepted before the date of the WFG launch was announced.

    One of my other hats is Kent secretary of an ex-Army association and I was invited in that capacity. I did tell a number of WFG members but I gather from your comment that this was not mentioned on the day. I shall make sure I send formal apologies in future.

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