I never thought I would write these words but… Praise be to the Kentish Express! The old beast finally got its act together this week and delivered a page of news on the Wye Park controversy that is informed, impartial and contains a damned good scoop too.
It also documents KCC’s planning chief Pete Raine putting his foot so far into his mouth you half expect him to be in casualty at the William Harvey at the end of it. The only odd part of the story is it carries no byline. But whoever you were… thank you, please come again. Soon.
Some excellent journalism in Ashford’s local newspaper confirms the scale of the plan
The story hangs around a presentation Mr Raine gave to a cross-party environment overview committee of KCC, and is full of quotations which will surely dog him for a long time. For example…
- Wye Park is potentially the biggest development in Kent in the last 20 years, after the Channel Tunnel rail link
- We are back to the prediction, once downplayed, that it could produce 12,000 jobs in and around Ashford and the rest of east Kent
- Parts of the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty would be ‘irrepairably’ damaged. ‘There is a level of housing that will be necessary as a result of the jobs being created. Inevitably, you are going to change the face of the village.’
- That total will include between two and three thousand jobs within the village of Wye itself — more than the present population, remember — and three to four times that number elsewhere.
- And a real cracker for the files. ‘This will use up most, if not all, the available brownfield sites in the village and at that point you are straight into AONB and planning problems.’
- KCC signed the Concordat partly to stop Imperial walking away from Wye altogether, and still fears the college might decamp abroad, to Dubai or Shanghai, he is quoted as saying, if the project grinds to a halt.
There’s a lot to think about here, but let’s tackle that final point first. Imperial say that in order to fund this project (the core of which may, for all we know, be something Wye might quite want) it has to raise £300-£400m by selling off AONB land for housing. It has no land in Dubai or Shanghai, as far as we are aware. How come this project would be viable on the other side of the world without despoiling the environment, but not here in Kent?
Here’s another mind-blowing statement to ponder. The population of Ashford in 1961 was 28,000. In 2004 it is 107,000 and still showing substantial growth (and people have the nerve to label us nimbies). SEEDA wants to create a further 31,000 homes and 28,000 new jobs in the town by 2031 — outside the Wye Park project. Even this astonishing race for development — which makes Ashford one of the fastest-growing places in the country — isn’t enough to meet the demand the new Wye will create, says Pete Raine, the man who surely ought to know. If these figures are true, these people aren’t talking about building a ‘bustling university town’, as Raine claims. They are simply planning to swallow up Wye and much of the currently protected land around it as a new suburb of some greater Ashford municipality with one of the largest populations in Kent.
Oh, and one final point too. Note the language. Nowhere does Pete Raine qualify a single statement, as a planner should. These are, after all, supposed to be simply exploratory ideas, subject to planning approval, by public bodies meant to represent the interests and views of their residents (albeit two which have already signed a secret agreement with Imperial that promises they will do what they can to see the thing is built).
Instead, what do we get? ‘It is impossible to estimate how many jobs will be created… This will use up most, if not all of the available brownfield sites… There is a level of housing that will be necessary…’
Have they stopped pretending altogether that this is anything but a shoo-in as far as the local planning process — which Mr Raine will presumably oversee — is concerned?
In passing, at the meeting, he noted, ‘If we had not (signed the Concordat) we would not now have a relationship with Imperial College.’
One wonders why a public body would want a relationship with an organisation which has the stated aim of trying to overturn current planning practice designed to protect one of the most beautiful remaining areas of greenery in Kent.
But at least we now know what that relationship is. Imperial says, ‘Jump!’ Straight away both KCC and Ashford Council chirrup in unison, ‘How high?’