The Wye bill just got bigger… by half a billion pounds

For a college involved in science, Imperial sometimes has a curiously uncertain way with numbers. The estimate of the number of jobs Wye Park would bring to the area has veered between just over a thousand and 12,500. Now meet yet another astonishing variable. Since the day of the public signing of the Concordat, we’ve all been told this is a plan that would cost £1 billion.

But that was not what the governing body of Imperial College was assured when Wye Park’s mentor Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz briefed them on December 9. This was three days after the public version was signed, with a press release that put the £1 billion price tag on the event. So how much did Prof Borys say the thing would cost when he spoke to the college’s bosses? Er, £1.5 billion, a 50 per cent rise in 72 hours, surely a record for fast expenditure over-runs, even for the public sector.


What is going on here? Peruse the minutes of the meeting for yourself (it’s a 3.1 mb file, though, and you will need to go to page 33 to start reading Prof Borys’ PowerPointed version of events) and tell us. Please. The gobsmacking bill for this pipe dream is scarcely slipped in as an afterside. It makes a slide all of its own, thus…

Chart

For those baffled by the gobbledegook, let me try to explain. Central Govt, EU, public/private endowment are self explanatory. ‘Land value release’ means flogging off greenfield protected land for commercial use. DfT for J10a is the money the Department for Transport will stump up for a new motorway junction. Section 106 funding is the cash developers have to provide for their share of the transport costs.

Even for the dodgy medium of PowerPoint, the addition of an extra half a billion pounds on the bill seems a little rich. Amazingly enough, the Imperial Council minutes make no note of any comment on it by those listening to Prof Borys. Did the council members notice? Do they have any clue why the people behind this scheme seem so hazy about key data, not least how much it is going to cost?

There are also some interesting timeframes in this presentation. The earliest project start, for example, is June 2008. The first academic building would open in the first quarter of 2011, though phase two wouldn’t begin until 2014, with its first academic building opening in 2018. In the meantime, of course, plenty of commercial and housing development would doubtless be going up, which is why the planning consent period is predicted to run from this year right through until 2009.

There are no great surprises on the teaching front; there won’t be any. While this will be an ‘academic-led environment’, there will be no focus on undergraduate education whatsoever. Everything will be ‘research led’, with a ‘critical mass’ of ‘minimum n~100 scientists’, whatever that means. The role of the ‘academic workstream’ (I hope you realise how painful it is for me to type out this brainless jargon for you) would be ‘non-food crops (biomass and biofuels?)’ That’s their question mark, by the way, so perhaps they are as unsure of that as they are of the total cost.

Then Prof Borys adds gnomically…

  • Link to a local KCC agenda for a Global Centre on Non-Food Crops
  • Converting Biomass to product
  • Major and International imperative

You can see why Imperial don’t run any degree courses on the English language, can’t you? Though were a college to introduce lessons on sticking a damp finger in the air and trying to work out which way the wind is blowing, it’s hard to see a finer candidate for the job.

Between the hideous English and the rotten punctuation, though, one thing is surely clear: these people are punching in the dark and hoping something, somewhere lands home. One larger question surely remains. At what point will members of the Imperial Council — effectively the college’s non-executive directors — start to ask some pointed questions? The first being this: why does an organisation that is constantly telling us it is among the world’s brainiest have such constant and recurring difficulties with its basic sums, and what, exactly, all this vast, unestimated largesse is supposed to be spent on?

PS. Imperial have always said there is no map for this project. But that didn’t stop the Imperial Council getting one in the presentation, below.

Big map

And here, if you didn’t get the message, is a close-up of ‘Wye Site’. Doesn’t the village look small by comparison?

Close up

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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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