Could Ruth Kelly be the best friend Wye sorely needs?

Ruth Kelly

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?

Affordable1 ChampFront.JPG

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.

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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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21 Responses to Could Ruth Kelly be the best friend Wye sorely needs?

  1. J Osborne says:

    I get the impression that some at the heart of the WFG’s hierarchy do not share your view that guerilla type hit-and-run tactics that demoralise and disincentivise the enemy are a vital ingredient to see off this attack on our community.

  2. Jack Woodford says:

    Regarding the appearance of Ruth Kelly as the Minister in charge of the newly revamped Prescott Department,I would hardly put any faith in her ability to save Wye from wholesale develpoment…there probably has never been a Government that has promised so much, spoken so much, and achieved so little…except vacuous statements! re recent utterances by Tony Blair, which have nothing to do with reality, but everything to do with the current problem his government has to tackle, and then promptly forgotten! A community like Wye is everything that New Labour hates, in their vision of modern Britain, and Ruth Kelly as a senior member of it, will certainly do no favours for our Village.

  3. David Hewson says:

    Good points both. On the first I would have to say I don’t know what WFG’s position is because, while many individual members have told us how warmly they feel towards this site, we have still to receive much if anything in the way of formal contacts from the organisation itself on policy. So whether they agree or not, I don’t know. But WFG is a pressure group, surely; it has no mandate to represent the village, and certainly not one to negotiate on the area’s behalf. Only elected members can claim to do that, though the actions of Ashford Council and KCC have made that decidedly difficult. In these circumstances, I would have thought the nuisance factor would be important to WFG.

    As to the second, I really don’t believe Ruth Kelly hates places like Wye. I think she doesn’t think about them much at all, since Labour are scarcely going to win votes here. That said, I repeat: her comments on the BBC do NOT apply to our situation, and a spot of low cunning in pointing that out might not go amiss. Everyone from outside I talk to about Wye has the impression we are a bunch of Nimbies. Dispelling that mistaken notion seems, to me, important… particularly when it comes to Ruth Kelly.

  4. J Osborne says:

    What a pity that WFG have not fully briefed save-wye on its credo.

    It seems part of the group are attempting to replicate what the PC is or should be doing.

    Where there is a clearly identified commonality of purpose it makes good sense to combine both human and financial resources into making a united and stronger fighting force.

    It is, however, critical to maintain a strident and aggressive aspect to the activities for the reasons you set out. In the final analysis it is down this road that the battle will be won or lost.

    Perhaps it is not possible to combine a quasi-parish council role with that of an action group and another group be started independently to provide the guerilla type, hit-and-run, nuisance tactics?

  5. Diana Pound says:

    Whilst I fully understand the desire to protest and take strong action it is not always the best strategy. Sometimes staying outside the system and shouting at it works well – but this tends to be national campaigns not specific planning proposals.

    Even the major Environmental NGO’s now acknowledge that agitating for change is not the same as entering the discussion to have a real say in the outcome, and whilst they may not want you to know it, they are more busy these days getting round the table than scaling buildings with banners.

    A local group is either known as a protest group and dismissed by the planning process or it builds a credible well argued, well substantiated, robust and factual argument using all the planning policy and environmental laws to its advantage. It then takes these arguments all the way through the process to the public inquiry to give evidence in front of the Inspector who will make recommendations to the Secretary of State – who ever that is at the time.

    To build up this case, a group has to gather the information it needs. To do that it needs to be respected and seen to have credibility by the local planning authority, the statutory environmental authorities, NGO’s and expert advisers and funders. For example Planning Aid will not work with protest groups.

    I am not a member of WFG but I am advising them on planning, environmental, and participation matters. The group has also had advice from a senior planner, an Environmental Barrister, Planning Aid, the Environmental Law Foundation and Kent Green Party. All these source, including myself, have advised the group to build the most robust, credible and well-argued case they can and to take it all the way. Amongst other reasons this is because times are changing and the 2004 Act actively encourages active engagement as part of the shift to participatory democracy.

    If the group wins the argument ( along with the AONB, environmental authorities and others who will enter the fray) it will have played it the best way possible. If ICL get the go ahead, myself and my kids may well be the first to resort to lying in front of the bull dozer with our banners ….but until then I’m for using science, planning, and every other sound argument that can be marshalled!!

    (Oh and by the way Ruth Kelly will be advised not to give a view on the ICL proposal now because it may well go before her for determination in years to come).

  6. J Osborne says:

    I thank Diana Pound for her remarks although she did not address the Parish Council situation and the duplication of efforts within our small and limited resourced community.

    However, her reply only goes to confirm the desperate need for an organisation independent of the currently aimed WFG to bring real pressure to bear on the politicians at Borough, County and National level as well as Imperial and its cohorts.

    It is the politicians who in the ultimnate will decide our fate not a planning inspector.

    If Diana’s advice is accepted by WFG then frankly there is little point in maintaining anything other than a planning proceedure committee.

  7. Protect or Action? says:

    J.Osbourne – you seem to have hit the nail on the head. It is rumoured that there has been a lot of infighting at WFG. The other day one of the members said proudly, “we are a ‘Protest Group’. Most of us want to be an Action Group, but with the current structure that will never be achieved. In fact, the PC has had to take over most of what was to be done by WFG because most of the time we have our hands tied by some people we will not mention”

    Excellent news for Imperial College. WFG have not even registered on the IC radar, although it does seem that Save-Wye is having some impact – perhaps Save-Wye could tone down the site to be more inline with the WFG stance – i.e. Protest but not to much action, we don’t really want Imperial to think we oppose them.

  8. Develop Wye, why not? says:

    Ruth Kelly will of course look at the Wye development David. This is the biggest development in Kent since the Chunnel (according to David Raine) and I am sure that IC have their representatives visiting and taking tea with Ruth on a regular basis as they probably did with Prescott. So that is under control from Imperial College’s end thankfully.

    I must say though, although we look forward to Wye being developed in an orderly manner (hopefully this is something the PC will ensure) I do find it rather strange that the Conservatives in Kent are all fully supporting Imperial College and the Labour Party whilst running adverts about ‘ Vote Blue Go Green’ I mean if the WFG and local conservatives were doing anything more than protesting, they would have already had the new conservative leader do a walk around in Wye, he should be raising it with Blair at the ballot box and giving Ruth a very hot environmental seat to sit in.

    No, thankfully, with the full support of the conservative party backing up the Labour plans for Kent, a gentle WFG protest group who do not want to rock the boat, a PC with their eye on the ball, and Save-Wye about to tone down the rhetoric, Imperial College is safe, Wye will be developed with or without Village participation.

  9. Diana Pound says:

    It is for those in WFG to comment on what they are busy doing regarding lobbying politicians.

    But in my view ‘persuasively’ will work better than J.O’s ‘stridently and aggressively’ and ‘hit-and-run, nuisance tactics’. That just sounds like bullying to me and will not get any powerful politician worth their salt on side – it is more likely to provoke a resistant and negative attitude back again.

    J.O is of course right that ultimately it is politicians who will make the final decision – but who does J.O think advises them? Politicians are not experts in planning and environmental issues and in any case only get their say at the end of the planning process. Up to then it is mainly an army of officers in Planning Authorities, Agencies and Ministries who will advise on the issues, see if they are resolved satisfactorily, and test the application against planning and environmental policy and law. They will then recommend to the relevant politicians what the decision should be.

    Many of those officers will be in this for the long-haul. The politicians come and go as we so recently saw. (I had, in my own capacity, just contacted a relevant minister about ICL’s ideas and 3 days later he was moved in the reshuffle – so that was a waste of time).

    So with my approach, when the planning application gets before relevant politicians (and ultimately the then Secretary of State), I would rather they were open to the arguments made against the scale of the proposal, not closed and pissed off because of aggressive and hostile tactics. So yes, lobbying politicians and other key decision makers, is important, but best done persuasively not aggressively.

  10. David Hewson says:

    Just to be clear… I never have and never will advocate bullying, scaling buildings with banners or lying down in front of bulldozers. I simply believe that Imperial deserve a robust response which does not pull punches and points out the many, many obstacles they will face if they pursue this avenue. And one, above all, that keeps as many people informed as fully as possible about what is actually happening here.

    I remain genuinely shocked about the secrecy with which this whole thing was developed, a level of secrecy which, if I may blow our trumpet for a moment, probably would not have been pierced without this site. It was open to Messrs Sykes and co to come openly to the village and the local authorities and say, ‘We have a problem, help us fix it.’ They didn’t do this. They hijacked a decent and legitimate small scale plan and hoodwinked two naive councils into signing a covert agreement to turn it into a large and illegitimate one. In circumstances like these I doubt the efficacy of hoping that they will turn nice if we hug them correctly.

    Also I am concerned by the statement ‘we look forward to Wye being developed in an orderly manner’, which presupposes development when, in all truth, none of us has a clue about the detail of what is being proposed. It seems to me far too early to accept that prospect, and a bad footing for the community in its dealings with a rapacious bunch like the present Imperial leadership.

    It also concerns me that there seems to be a presupposition here too that the whole shebang will go to public inquiry, presumably demanding a huge local fund-raising campaign to engage even more expert opinion. Wouldn’t it be far better if there was an attempt to persuade the sane and rational people who sit on the governing council of Imperial, who must be watching this develop with horror, that it might be better to pull the plug on the grandiose part of the plans sooner, saving us all time and money, and sit down with the community to work out something on a sensible, smaller scale? I doubt Prof Sykes and crew would wish to hang around after such an outcome, but, well, there’s always a price to pay…

  11. Diana Pound says:

    I would really like to continue this debate however both I, and I know many in WFG and other organisation, are giving up considerable amounts of work, family, and recreation time to take the necessary action against sometimes near impossible timescales and deadlines.

    I know that action both within WFG, and other organisations, are taking place on many fronts including lobbying key people (elected and otherwise) in the hope that ICL will decide not to proceed. However they are also wisely preparing for the long haul in case ICL do go ahead with their ‘vision’. This includes seeking to influence the planning framework against which any application will be judged, and starting to prepare the environmental and planning case.

    If ICL ideas continue at the scale they have suggested, it will go to a public inquiry. If ICL don’t ask for it to be called in, at least one of the environmental agencies will. Both sides will argue that this is nationally significant and should not be determined at the local level.

    The level of action taking place may not be well communicated but then some people are suffering real stress at the amount they are having to juggle, and speaking for myselfl, if I have the choice of speaking or writing to a key person, gathering crucial data, getting my head around the new planning system post 2004, or encouraging folk in the community to understand how the system works and helping them arm themselves to use it, then I know where my priorities lie. And I am afraid it is not writing on save-wye – fun as it may be.

    If others would like to put either their money or time where their mouth is, they to could make a real difference to the outcome, but there are rules to this game and if you want to stand a chance of winning you need to know them and use them with great skill.

    And on that note I must sign off because I have just those sorts of actions to take , (as well as some punishing deadlines in my day job and some kids whose names I barely remember!!).

  12. Kerry Bethel says:

    I have followed this exchange as it has developed.

    WFG was sold originally as an Action Group to add vociferous opposition to these proposals.

    I made a contribution to start-up funds based on this understanding.

    It may be that the majority of WFG supporters now endorse the current softly-softly tactics?

    If WFG decide not adopt a double-edged sword policy, I will continue to support them but would welcome and give equal support to an independent ‘Protest Group’.

    Save-wye has made the most significant contribution by far to championing the cause of Wye’s future and you are only a couple of blokes working for free and in your spare time. Well done!

  13. Jo says:

    This reminds me of the Monty Python sketch about the People’s Front of Judea, the Judean People’s Front, the Judean Popular People’s Front…

    You’re all on the same side! The methods you each use will have to be the most appropriate for your medium. There’s a place for noisy, provocative or ‘aggressive’ action but, like it or not, it will be regarded as nimbyism by outsiders, so it can’t be the only approach.

    I have to agree with Diana here. Imperial have been smarming about for 2 years trying to get the regional planning frameworks & policies changed in their favour – WFG will have to do some smarming too, to influence decision makers in the other direction.

    I look forward to being able to help a bit more once I’ve moved to Wye (not long now)!

  14. J Osborne says:

    Diana,lying in front of bulldozers with your children would not only unlawful and very dangerous but too late!

    David Hewson makes hits the nail fairly and squarely on the head by saying intense pressure now might well stave off the prospect of interminable contested planning processes involving vast sums of fees for the myriad of professionals demanding their gold pieces.

  15. David Hewson says:

    I don’t think we need another organisation, which would confuse people mightily. And I do think the good cop/bad cop approach can work well. I just wish we all knew a little more of what the good cop was thinking some of the time.

  16. Kerry Bethel says:

    Agreed – but only if the WFG is prepared to publicly confirm that both good cop/bad cop tactics will be used?

    In response to Jo I agree that we are all on the same side but at present it seems that WFG is being directed down a one dimensional street only using, in Jo’s terminology the ‘smarming’ approach. What happens if this route in several years time finishes up as a dead end?

    To avoid being left high and dry without a paddle it essential that more than one tactic is used to increase the probability of success.

    The opposition and others will resort to accusations of nimbyism whatever comes forth from locals including the course of action strongly advocated by Diana Pound. WFG should not let that divert it from presenting a multi-faceted attack.

  17. Alan Paterson says:

    The present stance of Wye Future Group on militancy is that it should be left to others, as we are an organisation which chooses to oppose Imperial’s excessive demands ‘through the system’ – and seek funds from members of the public who support our cause. Whilst our constitution permits ‘any legal means’ we are resolved so far to proceed conventionally with actions not being pursued by the Parish Council.

    In other words using the law and planning procedures is our only way forward at this stage – and the only approach likely to appeal to those likely to donate the funds we need. Whilst guerrilla tactics may give satisfaction to those using them and may delay due process and outcomes, they are unlikely to achieve satisfactory long term results.

    By issuing a legal challenge to the validity of the Concordat(s) we believe we have made both ABC and KCC pause to reflect, and we have instructed Planning Consultants to prepare our case against Imperial’s anticipated submissions – an expensive excercise forcing us to raise substantial funds.

    Donations are coming in well, and we have various fund-raising activities planned.
    Our next venture is a 5 mile sponsored walk starting from 12.30 on Sunday 11th June, on the footpaths across the College estate from Wye Village Hall. Sponsorship forms are available at Wye News, Tickety Boo or from me on 01233-812740.

    For the photgraphers amongst us, take a camera and submit entries for the Wye Future Group 2007 Calendar competitiion.

    We are grateful to save-wye for letting us use this platform to promote the event – and we hope to see you all there!

    Alan Paterson

  18. David Hewson says:

    Sigh… can I just clarify again that by ‘guerilla’ tactics I did not mean anything illegal or outside the system, and I have never used the word ‘militancy’ and hopefully never would because I have no idea what it means. I am simply suggesting that it is worthwhile taking every opportunity possible to point out publicly the folly of what is going on.

    With all due respect Alan, I don’t believe that ‘the law and planning procedures ‘ are the only way forward at this stage. There is such a thing as general public opinion outside the circles of people who are closely involved in this issue.

    I do feel there’s a lot that can be done there, not least on WFG’s website. We appear to be the only people who link to it (I can’t find a link on wye.org) and the stat counter currently stands at 471 visitors in all, which is about what we get in a couple of days.

    Good luck with the walk – I would have happily made it a separate article with a big plug if someone had sent us all the details.

  19. J Osborne says:

    We are fighting a loosing battle here David.
    As long as those running the WFG equate proactive agressive campaigning with guerilla and militancy – somewhere between Pol Pot and Che Guevara – then WFG will regretably not grasp the reality that a combination of tactics is by far and away the best way forward.
    A broadening of the range of tactics might also broaden the membership base which started off with a promising flourish but has tailed off to under 70 or so members.
    It must not allow itself to be hijacked by a single tactic doctrine.

  20. Wye Action says:

    I have been advised to use the following email address for members interested in joining an ‘action group’
    action@wyeaction.com. If you have not received a private email and want to join, you can join now. It will be an anonymous organisation. Please use hotmail email to keep your identity secret. No real people allowed to be represented, no names – no questions, no questions – no lies, we will let you know when the Web Forum is launched in the meantime if you are interested in joining, send an email to action@wyeaction.com simply to register your email address, DO NOT TELL US WHO YOU ARE, w will only communicate with you via your hotmail email address. Go to http://www.hotmail.com to setup an anonymous email account

  21. David Hewson says:

    So… someone who won’t say who they are wants to hear from other people who won’t say who they are?!? Am I missing something here?

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