‘Local government akin to a Banana Republic’

Rachael Moorhead has been in correspondence with Sir Sandy Bruce Lockhart about his pivotal position as a council leader in Wye Park. Here is her latest letter to him…

Unfortunately, your letter did not deal with the substantive points raised in mine. Therefore, I am raising these again.

It is felt that each of the officers at KCC (and at Ashford Borough Council “ABC”) who had been involved in the so-called Concordat should now be removed from all matters to do with the proposed Wye development on the basis that local government (government at any level) should be impartial when considering planning and development applications, especially ones of this size. Other than the impartiality issue, I understand that the KCC and ABC councillors who were signatories to the secret unpublished April’05 Concordat and the November’05 Concordat did not have the authority of the respective Councils as a whole and certainly not of the local communities. I understand you were a signatory to the spring 2005 secret Concordat with Imperial. The only way of restoring some integrity back into Kent’s local government is for each of the signatories to be publicly identified and officially taken off the Wye Science Park project.

You state in your letter that KCC never said it would arrive at a favourable outlook for a Science Park. How much more favourable could KCC be than to have put pen to paper and signed a Concordat (two actually) with Imperial without giving the local community even an inkling that this vast development was forthcoming let alone an opportunity to make representations?

You state at the beginning of your letter that you stood down as Leader of KCC last October and that all formal correspondence on this matter must now be handled by the new Leader. So, how is it that you still feel authorised and empowered to take the lead to “fight hard for the science park to go ahead” (your interview with Kent on Sunday last weekend)? In what capacity and on whose authority are you “fighting hard for Imperial’s science park” as it is clear you do not have the mandate of the local people and had already arguably acted ultra vires as Leader of KCC in signing the secret concordat. Many wonder whether you are perhaps discreetly acting for central government (deputy prime minister’s office) through your recent elevation as a working peer.

For those of us who are interested in local democracy, your role at KCC remains of great significance in answering for the secret Concordat that you signed as Leader of KCC in spring 2005 and in accounting for the wilful breaches of basic governance in Kent’s local authorities (as regards activities described in this letter) not least because you are Chairman of the Local Government Association.

I had to re-read the part of your letter that says “I do believe Imperial College was right to announce publicly that it was considering a major redevelopment before it drew any blueprint or detailed plans.” This is intended to give the impression that when Imperial announced the development plan to the community in December 2005, the matter was virtually brand new, in its preliminary/conception stage (same stance Imperial, KCC and ABC tried to sell at the January public meeting). We now know that this is a falsehood. You as leader of KCC in the spring of 2005 had already signed a prior Concordat in secret with Imperial College. This would suggest that Imperial College had been planning this move at the very least since the beginning of 2005. On the alleged absence of plans on the part of Imperial College, no one believes this. How could Imperial’s advisors Ernst Young have done computations to reach the conclusion that the cost of the project will be £1Billion and that 12,500 jobs would be created if Imperial has no idea what buildings they will need /to house which projects and on which parcel of land. The land and building costs significantly impact the cost of such a project. It would also be unthinkable that KCC and ABC without seeing any meaningful plans would consider entering into a Concordat with Imperial. If that were the case, our local government is akin to a Banana Republic.

Regarding the figure of 900 acres, I believe that Imperial College owns around 840 acres near the College – 60 acres of which are brown field sites. Imperial confirmed in the public meeting that 350 acres of the College’s land holdings would be sold for housing development to realise cash to provide part of the funding for the Science Park. It is reasonable to assume that the science park itself will be a 200 acre site as it is intended to rival or be bigger than the Cambridge one which is around 155 acres. The rest of the College’s agricultural holding will undoubtedly go to support services required for this kind of large scale housing and semi industrial development. Hence, the 900 acre mark is not far from reality when the science park product is finished. Consider also the likelihood of other plots needed for leisure, retail and other community support facilities that go with this kind of explosive development. In time, after the completion of the science park, parcels of land in the vicinity will no doubt become eligible for house building and other developments – the usual in-filling. Who would have thought that in less than half a generation, this area of outstanding natural beauty might be covered in concrete and Starbucks coffee shops.

I do not believe there is any opposition to a centre for excellence and learning/research. The crux of this matter is that there are thousands of brown field sites in the UK including abandoned and derelict industrial estates that would be ideal for this sort of bumper sized project. It was notable in the public meeting that Imperial would not entertain any such concept.

The truth is that Imperial wants to do the project on this site not because Wye has a ready made community of outstanding scientists or established unique research facilities but because it is the most cost effective for them. They do not have to pay for the land and in fact they came by the land for very little consideration. Now, they find themselves in a position to turn 350 acres into millions and millions of pounds. They know however that in order to achieve that, they have to procure support from the higher echelon of local and central government in order to overcome/override all the usual planning rules and safeguards. Why should we assist Imperial in such an “indecent proposal”, as CPRE has aptly described this project.

I was not convinced by your argument that you have fought hard for the countryside; you also alluded to KCC’s track record on this. You only have to drive through Kent to appreciate the lack of planning and the flippant “rape” of the countryside. Ashford is already running out of water and the roads are wholly inadequate for the oceans of new houses, mostly built without amenities for the community but with the best configuration for developer’s profit. For someone who “personally insisted on the toughest new environmental and countryside protection policy in the Kent Structure Plan 2005”, your actions do not marry up in any way with your political paper offering. I and many others found it distasteful that you had heralded your entry into the House of Lords with the words “I will fight for green fields in the Lords”.

According to your interview with Kent on Sunday, you would see to it that some greenfields in south Ashford would escape development as a sort of exchange for the Wye development going forward. In this way, building the massive development in Wye’s AONB land would be quite acceptable to you. This is akin to saying that you are a saviour of rivers because you are electing to pollute the Thames in exchange for not polluting the Avon! Incidentally, which are the greenfields in south Ashford that will escape development and how is this decision arrived at? I know of no planning laws that allow an “exchange” of this nature. Isn’t it one of the most basic premise of planning laws that each application is considered on its own merit, based on the site in question (particularly a site with AONB status)? Has this country reached the stage where those in high office simply “exchange” one site for another in evaluating development approvals? Do the local communities know about or approve of this proposed “exchange”?

You “believe there could be a real benefit for East Kent from a Science Park of exceptional quality”. We already know from Imperial at the January public meeting that all of the world class scientists will likely be recruited from outside Kent and likely outside the UK. It seems that Wye will become a hub for an influx of imported high paid specialists rather than become the provider of organically grown jobs for local communities. The actual jobs for locals may only be in the support industries or ancillary lower paid service jobs. Is this the economic benefit you are thinking of? The only way there is going to be genuine long term multi level job creation for Kent would be if the Science Park became both a research centre and a full blown related manufacturing/industrial base for key industrial giants such as BP and Texaco, the latter of which Imperial has denied would happen in the Wye area.

In short, the proposed Science Park is no more than a big banner for the present government (unashamedly keen on swish sounding headlines) and a grand stage for local dignitaries. Along with all of this comes the degradation of the entire area in terms of countryside, quality of life, fabric of existing small local communities, air, water and noise pollution. Your reference to social advantage escapes me altogether. In fact our local communities would be permanently and severely damaged. Within a five year span, Wye will become a town of imported residents and the strong fabric of the existing community would fall apart, along with the pristine environment, countryside and wildlife habitat. The overall economic and social benefit argument does not really hold water for Wye. Imagine also the wasteland this development would leave if the big new Imperial facility became a flop. In the bigger picture, the South East of England is relatively affluent. There are many areas in Britain that need regeneration and there are millions of square feet of industrial estates that are distressed in those regions. Why is this development not being considered for those localities?

Finally, I would remind you of the history of science park development in this country. Developers (academic institutes alike) know that it is far easier to over-ride normal planning conditions if they propose a research and development facility. Currently, there are around 60 operational science parks in the UK with around 1.2M sq.m of built out floor space. Many science parks have turned into semi-industrial estates. There are already two science parks in Kent, one in Sittingbourne and another in Canterbury. The Sittingbourne Science Park is already one of the largest in the UK. Currently, the owner of the Sittingbourne Science Park is hoping to expand the present 116 acres science park to 300 acres plus. Has Imperial considered this site? This would make a very large and impressive world class research and development centre – in an area that is already urbanised with established infrastructure that supports R & D projects.

It really would be a scar on our conscience to allow the unique beautiful countryside around Wye to turn into an urban concrete sprawl. I urge you to reconsider your position and your support for the Wye development in its proposed size.

I would just add that I am not a member of any of the lobbying groups and am writing this letter purely to express my personal views and in response to your letter.

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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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2 Responses to ‘Local government akin to a Banana Republic’

  1. Mike Holland says:

    Well said – and this needs saying again and again. The only reason that Imperial are proposing a science park at Wye is MONEY – and the potential to make lots of it by converting agricultural land (in which imperial are no longer interested) into development land releasing massive sums of cash for investment or whatever else.

  2. Peanuts says:

    Yes, yes and yes again.

    If I had a million pounds I would buy Rachel Moorhead a peerage. But I’m not the kind to flog off our legacy to future generations for a few quid. That’s bananas.

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