Imperial College suggested that it would only build on the 60 acres of brownfield land it owns in Wye during secret negotiations with Ashford and Kent County Councils but saved its bombshell that it wanted up to 300 acres of housing until after the two so-called ‘Concordats’ had been signed.
Addressing a meeting of Ashford Borough Council, its leader Cllr Paul Clokie (Con), defended entering into secret negotiations with Imperial and said that he believed that the best way for residents of Wye to proceed was to ‘fully engage’ with Imperial as it draws up its plans to build a science park and what is now believed to be up to 300 acres of housing in the North Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Although Cllr Clokie continues to insist that no-one has ‘any clear idea of what the college’s plans might be’, it is clear that in the original covert negotiations throughout 2004 and 2005, Imperial was only suggesting that it wanted to build on about 60 acres of its estate in Wye — a total which implies that only brownfield sites would be redeveloped. He said that most of these 60 acres had orginally been farmland but most of it ‘then got some form of activity on it’ thus making it brownfield land.
Cllr Ian Cooling — the Conservative ward member for Wye who, said Cllr Clokie, had been told of the college’s plans about two weeks before the rest of the council — also suggested that the impression given by Imperial had been that it wanted to build a ‘science hub’ on 15 acres and release 45 acres for housing.
But in response to questions from residents of the village and members of the Wye Future Group, Cllr Paul Clokie admitted that ‘we have all heard Professor Borysiewicz say they need 300 acres’.
The leader of the Independent group, Cllr Peter Davison, severely criticised Cllr Clokie, demanding to know where the authority to sign the two concordats came from, whether he had taken legal advice before putting pen to paper and whether he accepted personal responsibility and liability should a judicial review — sought by Wye Future Group — go against the council. ‘Who do you think will bail you out?’ he asked.
The council leader tried to brush Cllr Davison aside, saying that he would not discuss legal matters in open session but that as leader, the constitution of the council entitled him to sign the secret agreements with Imperial College.
Paul Clokie: This could be called in by the Secretary of State
Cllr Davison said that the leader’s behaviour had meant that Imperial had received ‘tacit support’ for their plans from both Ashford council and Kent County Council. He said that he was concerned that Cllr Clokie — as a member of the South East of England Regional Assembly (SEERA) and the South East of England Development Agency (SEEDA) — had given further support to Imperial without the council’s knowledge by getting Imperial’s scheme inserted into the South East Plan and he wondered whether there had been any agreement with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister or any other government department.
Cllr Clokie said that without the support of SEEDA, it would be difficult for Imperial to raise the public money for its project and that ‘we hope the college raises the total sum needed for their project’. He said that it was certain that Imperial had been in discussion with the Government but ‘that does not mean the Government has promised them anything’. He did not know whether it was likely that the Secretary of State would call the plan in for decision but said that this was entirely possible.
Cllr Clokie added that the first Concordat — signed by him and the then leader of KCC Sir Sandy Bruce Lockhart in April 2005 — had been ‘subsumed’ by the second.
But Cllr Davision said that should a planning application be called in by the Secretary of State for decision, the actions of the leader could have put Ashford council in a weak position.
Doctor Paul Burnham, a former lecturer at Wye College, asked if Cllr Clokie knew whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Budget announcement of a £1 billion public/private partnership to create a future energy institute had anything to do with Imperial’s plans but Cllr Clokie said that he had no information on this.
In response to further questions, Cllr Clokie said that he could not rule out development in the Wye AONB because planning guidance allows for building within AONB’s in ‘exceptional circumstances’.