Demonise Ruth Kelly at your peril: she will still make the big decision
Wars — and make no mistake, the battle for Wye is a war of a kind — can be fought in several ways. Sometimes big, equally matched armies line up on the battlefield and slug it out face to face. On other occasions, one sizeable foe is attacked by a smaller enemy using guerilla tactics; hit-and-run attacks designed to demoralise, annoy and, in the end, persuade the larger party that the game isn’t worth the effort.
Imperial would love Wye to fight the first kind of battle, because with its seemingly bottomless pockets for property development — though not education — and its weight in governmental circles it will surely walk right over us, painting every protest as one more distant, outraged Nimby trying to avoid the 21st century. The village and its supporters, on the other hand, must surely know that the ways of the guerilla are the only ones to follow, because being small and nimble, vigilant and persistent, is surely the key to wearing down a foe who is already starting to look tired and grouchy and out of its depth.
And here is your guerilla thought for the day: is it possible that Ruth Kelly, the former education secretary who has just taken over responsibility for local government from the shamed John Prescott, might turn out to be the best friend Wye ever had?
Affordable housing in Manchester and Hampshire; not what Imperial have in mind
That is not an opinion you will find shared much around the village at the moment. Kelly is, ultimately, the government honcho who will probably come to decide whether Wye Park gets the go-ahead one day. When she took over the job just a week or so ago she gave an interview to the BBC which set teeth on edge in rural communities up and down the land, and as reported here, prompted Paul Carter, the leader of Kent County Council, to give an astonishing interview to Kent on Sunday in which he, a builder by trade whose signature is on the Wye Concordat, posed as the friend of the countryside.
Kelly told the BBC she was on a mission to build more affordable housing, and as part of that determined to ‘root out’ Nimbys who wanted to block it. It later transpired that this was probably more a case of politicking than policy. The first planning decision issued in her name as the new Communities and Local Government Secretary was one blocking just such an affordable housing development, and one praised by Prince Charles, in High Bickington, Devon. It also transpired Kelly had opposed the building of hundreds of homes in her own well-heeled Bolton West constituency and, after winning the battle against one plan, had declared, ‘We must savour this sweet victory over developers’.
In case you hadn’t noticed, politicians sometimes say one thing and do another. So what did Ruth Kelly actually say on the BBC? This…
We need to put a greater emphasis on increasing housing supply in future. That may mean, for example, changing the planning regulations to make sure that more housing comes forward.
It also means changing the social culture in this country where too often the case has been that people have been protective of their own space and not wanted to see more affordable housing being built. That is something we really have to root out. There is a need for more affordable homes to be built and that is going to be a personal priority for me.
Now whatever you think of those opinions, they have very little to do with Wye Park. Imperial aren’t talking about affordable housing, not at the prices it wants for its land. The supply of homes in Ashford is already worked out for the future: another 31,000 are on the way jut a few miles down the road, in one of the biggest building programmes in Britain. Nor is Wye ‘protective of its own space’. As many of the village have made clear time and time again, we would welcome sensible, controlled development of the existing rundown Imperial buildings to renew the academic presence in the area. We’re for regeneration, and we’d put up with the bulldozers for a while, provided they are doing something worthwhile.
In short — and perhaps this ought to be spelled out in a very large sign somewhere because the message still hasn’t got home to many outsiders — we are, by no definition whatsoever, Nimbys. None of Mrs Kelly’s strictures apply to the village at all.
In fact, I would say there was a very good argument to be made within her department for the idea that Wye gives her an excellent opportunity to lay down how far the government will go in its search for new homes. Is the previously-hallowed ground of the AONB now up for the grabs for anyone who wants it? Nothing she has said so far suggests that. So why not use Imperial’s ill thought out scheme to set out the limits of her vision, leaving her to take on the real Nimbys elsewhere if she sees fit?
The temptation when politicians come out with general statements like this is to sit back, shout slogans at them, then go home and try to convince yourself you’ve done the best you can. But guerillas need to be smarter than that. Ruth Kelly is an experienced politician who knows that driving a builder’s stake into the heart of the Wye AONB will open up a Pandora’s Box of national protest from all manner of environmental, rural and planning organisations who fear this will be the thin end of the wedge.
In the great swing of things, Wye Park is, surely, just one more blip on her department’s horizon. We should be making it easier for her to say no, and take a fair chunk of the glory for doing so, not assuming she is on the side on the bad guys from the very start.