Before you read this article, allow me to point out the usual Imperial/Ashford/KCC health warning about the Wye Park: there are no plans, no drawings, no models and no studies to help to inform you about the desirability or otherwise of the trop grand des grand projets. So what the hell, you may well ask, is this:
The answer is that this is our interpretation of a slide, shown to those attending a workshop held by Imperial’s masterplanners last night, to show how the college’s vision for Wye ‘might’ be arranged. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the huge US-based architectural firm, stressed that this was not something that had been approved by Imperial College or that the college had even provided SOM with any idea of figures or size of its Wye Park, despite the fact that the Powerpoint presentation took the same form and used the same graphics and typefaces as previous presentations by the college.
The workshop — run by Dan Ringelstein and Angela Cox from SOM and landscape architect Stephen Richards — comprised of more than 30 people representing organisations from around Wye. It was, said Mr Ringelstein, a way of showing the village what progress had been made so far in the masterplanning process and a chance for residents to influence Imperial’s plans. Those present were told:
- Colonies of great-crested newts in 17 ponds across the Wye estate presented a ‘significant setback’ to development. save-wye.org understands that the colonies may be of national significance
- A planning application would not be submitted by Imperial College until spring 2007 at the earliest
- SOM has held a recent meeting with Kent County Council and Ashford Borough Council senior officers — including Richard Alderton from Ashford and Pete Raine from KCC — at which SOM was ‘advised on the best way to overcome the problem of building in the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ and given a list of 17 contacts at both councils who would help in the masterplanning process. Despite public protestations by both councils that they remain open-minded about Imperial’s plans, ‘there was,’ said Mr Ringelstein, ‘an air of co-operation and wanting to help us’
- There would not be any building on the Sites of Special Scientific Interest which make up about a third of Imperial’s 850-acre landholding although these could be ‘improved’, possibly by turning them into woodland
- SOM’s remit will end in July, after which Imperial will make a decision on the viability of the project
- SOM had not been asked to identify the land needed to raise £300million from speculative housing development despite their map clearly showing an area — towards Brook — of major housing development
- Between 25 per cent and 33 per cent of the 1,400 staff at the science park would live in Wye
- SOM believes that it can ‘improve the AONB’ with ‘better ecological features’ and the use of state-of-the-art building techniques of the highest environmental and sustainability standards
- The development could contain a public park called ‘The Commons’, with Withersdane at its centre, in which the environment would be improved
- There would be a biomass laboratory on site with ‘renewable orchards and working woodlands’
Mr Ringelstein said that Imperial ‘were still trying to understand what they need’ and that SOM was trying to get information from Imperial so that it could set a framework in place. Throughout the evening, Mr Ringelstein and Ms Cox repeatedly stated that Imperial had not yet to provided SOM with any useful information on its intentions or aims in Wye. Both of them declined the opportunity to confirm that they enjoy a good relationship with their client.
Professor Sir Lezek Borysiewicz has repeatedly stated that the college is looking to raise about £300million towards the project by selling 300 acres of farmland for speculative housing development. However, Mr Ringelstein said that this was now being reassessed because ‘the amount of government funding that they get could offset the amount of housing’. And he repeated the mantra that seems to have taken hold at Imperial and KCC, that they had to make sure Wye was a better place to work than ‘Dubai or Shanghai’.
Much was made about the prospect of improving access to Wye but many of those present — particularly Richard Boden of Wyecycle, Eddie Bennett of the Wye Future Group and Diana Barsham from Wye Parish Council — said that one of the main attractions of Wye was its poor road access which make it unique for a village of its size in the South East.
Mr Richards spoke about the key attributes of the landscape which must be utilised to make the development blend in. He cited the ancient hedgerows, chequerboard field patterns, contours, areas of woodland and shelter belts, roads and parths and the local vernacular architecture.
With little discussion about the prospect of thousands of new houses, John Hodder, the parish council chairman, said: ‘What about the other houses. There is an awful spectre of housing. Your lovely masterplan could be blown out of the water by speculative housing.’
Andy Macfee, an architect and member of the village design group, said that none of SOM’s drawings were to scale and that there was a massive mismatch and that SOM must have done some preliminary financial assessments. He said that drawings had to be to scale to inform Imperial about what the site can take. But Mr Ringelstein denied that any assessments had been carried out and added that it was SOM’s job to bring a sense of realism to Imperial’s wilder dreams. ‘We have got to make them understand what the capacity of their landholding is,’ he agreed.
Nick Dunlop said that the village’s impression was that the plan was just a way for Imperial to make money by developing its landholding. ‘Is this relevant to you? Does it bother you at all?’ he asked. Mr Ringelstein said that his job was to minimise the impact of the development by making maximum use of the existing site. He did not say whether Imperial has informed SOM that it has signed an agreement to lease most of the exisiting campus to the University of Kent from next year.
Mr Dunlop said: ‘The only way that a major planning battle can be avoided is if you think more broadly than Imperial has.’ He suggested that the research centre could be built on the brownfield land identified in the 2000 Ashford Local Plan — which is mainly concentrated at the ADAS site in Olantigh Road — and that the science park could be sited just 15 minutes away at Eureka Park in Ashford where land is already earmarked for development and the infrastructure is already in place. ‘If they did that, they would not have a planning problem,’ he said and added: ‘If this is really of such national importance, then other ways could be found to raise the money.’
Mr Ringelstein promised a ‘more meaningful discussion’ at the next workshop on June 20 when, he said, SOM would endeavour to have some scale drawings of the development.