So is Mr Prescott calling the tune?

Another fine mess....

Another fine mess: Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Wye Park’s mentor, the deputy PM and an expectant property man David Brooks Wilson. Is this really John Prescott’s show?

Here’s a genuine news item for your interest…

Rt. Hon John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State launches the new Kent Science Park as a driving force in the UK’s science economy. LaSalle Investment Management will expand the 125 acre site to provide crucial grow-on space and specialised premises for biotechnology and other science firms as the revival in the industry continues.

Plans include improvements to the transport infrastructure, connection to a high-speed broadband highway, the addition of quality housing in line with the UK’s Sustainable Communities Plan and… it will now be an important resource for biotechnology companies, providing grow-on space to allow them to build up critical mass and retaining skilled jobs in the area.

It’s OK. Don’t worry. They didn’t build Wye Park while you were sleeping off that Easter lunch. This is a press release from our old friends Locate in Kent (whose members, remember, have included KCC planning boss Pete Raine and Imperial’s estates director David Brooks Wilson over the years). It was dated April 2, 2004, and marked a visit by Mr Prescott to another supposed science establishment in Kent, the 125-acre Kent Science Park near Sittingbourne. What was Mr Prescott’s Jaguar du jour doing driving down to Medway for the day? Why, only launching KSP ‘as a driving force in the UK’s science economy’, with lots of fluff and hype about biotechnology and other high-tech enterprises living alongside ‘leisure and hotel facilities’, presumably of the KFC/Travelodge level of aesthetic elegance we can already see in Ashford at Junction 9, on the Eureka Science Park.

Except Eureka isn’t a science park any more. Trinity College, of Cambridge, have given up the ghost on that particular dream, and are now pitching it as one more industrial and commercial estate, high-tech only in the sense that people who work there use a lot of computers. Much as they do, er, everywhere else really.

Here’s the bad news for Mr Prescott. KSP has gone the same way. The ‘relaunch’ Mr Prescott was there to unleash was, in truth, both a commercial takeover and the forerunner to a sellout of the park’s original principals. The former Shell research site was getting bought out by the investment managers LaSalle. And what do they want to do now? Why, expand, primarily through building new houses on greenfield land, a new road and stacks of commercial development around the village of Bapchild. Oh, and let’s not forget the ‘grow-on’ space, which presumably is space with…. um, space in it. It’s bad enough having these people mangle the environment without letting them murder the English language too.

Oh yes, and one other thing is on the way too. They want to change the name. No longer will it be a ‘centre for technology based businesses, in particular life sciences’. Instead it will be a ‘regionally significant centre for technology based businesses’. I’ll leave it to you to judge how many businesses that aren’t to some extent ‘technology based’ would want business park accommodation in an era where access to technology is vital for pretty much any company. In short, the message is clear: LaSalle want to change it from a science park into an industrial and commercial estate for general use, with lots of goodies such as housing and leisure on the side. Sound familiar?

Bapchild has a wonderful village website detailing these proposals which you will see summarised here. You only need to peruse it for a few minutes to realise there are some interesting differences between Wye and it, though. For one thing, Bapchild has a local MP who has taken an active and questioning stance against the whole plan, Derek Wyatt, the Labour MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey.

Mr Wyatt scraped into Parliament last year on a slender majority of just 79 votes, which may explain why he takes a keen interest in a local rural matter such as KSP. Nevertheless he has been busy asking awkward questions of both KCC and the government. His eager beavering has for example involved…

  • Getting a response from the Highways Agency on KCC plans for a new junction on the M2. The HA said, ‘The HA have advised KCC that a new junction on the M2 for the reason proposed by them would be contrary to Policy and therefore unacceptable to the Highways Agency.’
  • Writing to the then KCC chief Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart ‘asking how he could square his public comments of standing up to the ODPM’s apparent wishes to concrete in Kent with his own department’s wishes to do just that for Bapchild and southern Sittingbourne.’ If he got an answer, he isn’t making it public by the way.
  • Extracting a written statement from John Prescott’s office stating categorically that ‘The Deputy Prime Minister announced the change of name from Sittingbourne Research Centre to Kent Science Park, and the press took this to mean that he approved the ambitious expansion plans. However, that was not the case.’

Unfortunately we have to remove the ‘nice guy’ tag from him because he lately and opportunely started waving the green flag for Wye Park — which is nowhere near his constituency and frankly none of his business — simply because it would get him some brownie points back home.

That said, you have to give Derek Wyatt some credit. He’s harried John Prescott, albeit meekly, and made some visible and public inquiries on behalf of his constituents. Compare that with the deafening silence coming from Ashford’s MP, Damian Green (majority last year more than 13,000 and holder of one of the safest Tory seats in the country) and you do wonder whether local democracy might not be better served by a representative who couldn’t take re-election for granted, whatever horrors happened in his constituency.

But this tale also tells you something else, I think. Mr Prescott and his department know Kent and the ‘science park’ scene very well indeed. His officials must have dealt very closely with Locate in Kent over KSP. Somewhere along the way, someone from government has surely bumped into those same people who are now putting together Wye Park, including Mr David Brooks Wilson, a man who walked into a senior position with a major university with no obvious experience in the academic field, though a long track record in property development.

So the big question is… how much did Mr Prescott and his department know of Wye Park during those two lost years when it was being assembled, in secret, outside the normal processes of local government by Imperial, KCC and Ashford Borough Council? Did they give informal advice? Is it, perhaps, possible that Prescott’s department, having watched several other science park projects stumble into disarray, decided that, with Wye, it would take a firmer rein from the outset and steer this one through to a ‘successful’ conclusion?

We don’t, of course, know. But it’s a question worth asking. And if Derek Wyatt can risk the opprobium of the deputy leader of his own party by asking something similar on behalf of his constituents then surely is is not unreasonable to expect that Damian Green, a senior member of the opposition, might just consider doing the same for us, and letting us know the results?

One way or another, this is a story that will fall on the desk of Mr Prescott before long… if it hasn’t already. It would be nice if he didn’t think our own local MP was, unlike the endangered Derek Wyatt, a pushover.

Advertisements

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.
This entry was posted in Opinion. Bookmark the permalink.