From today’s KE… some excellent investigative local journalism
The track record of some of the key figures behind the Wye Park scheme is beginning to look more shaky by the day. Thanks to some excellent reporting by Paul Francis in the Kentish Express, we now know that an earlier effort by this bunch of would-be property titans has ended up costing the public £10m, and failed miserably in its effort to bring new companies to the area.
The purchase of International House in the town centre was supposed to be a ‘significant step forward for the regeneration of Ashford’ according to SEEDA, the South East England Development Agency which bought the 11-storey block for £8.2 million in 2004. But Paul Francis has been using the Freedom of Information Act to find out what really went on in this deal, and discovered some interesting information that casts new light on the Wye project too.
Since taking over the building, SEEDA has spent a staggering £1.1 million refurbishing just three of its floors, more than £60,000 on marketing and promotion, £82,000 to estate agents, and £133,500 on improving the lifts. The money came from a fund designed to boost the economy of Ashford under John Prescott’s Sustainable Communities Plan. But only eight new companies have moved in since the takeover, and much of the building remains empty, which is scarcely surprising since its rival town centre office block, Charter House, is renting only 30 per cent of its available space.
Does this deter SEEDA? Of course not. It told the KE, ‘Having almost doubled the number of occupiers within the property within two years, one could take the view that this is not a disappointing result, taking into account that the office market is and has been depressed for a number of years.’
You wonder if a private commercial developer would be so blasé about blowing £10m so easily on something that is clearly destined to remain unprofitable for years. And what does that mean for the prospects of letting out all that ‘science park’ commercial space in Wye Park if it happens?
Funnily enough, these are the very people to ask. Among those associated with SEEDA are…
- One-time board member the interesting Mr David Brooks Wilson, former Eurotunnel property boss, now estates director of Imperial and chief developer of Wye Park
- Executive director Paul Hudson, from Maidstone, who will shortly become chief planner in what was John Prescott’s old department, the one which will probably sit in ultimate judgement on Wye Park
- Ashford council leader Paul Clokie, who chaired the Ashford Delivery Board which SEEDA used as the ‘umbrella’ to buy International House
And I guess if you really want to be a touch Da Vinciesque you’d have to remind everyone that Mr Hudson, before he joined SEEDA, was chief executive of Locate in Kent, which included among its board members Mr Brooks Wilson, naturally, and Kent County Council’s planning boss Pete Raine.
So they can all have a good chat among each other about how this one went so horribly wrong then. If any of them would care to tell us why all the vast, empty acres of commercial space planned for Wye Park will be different — unlike our other ‘science’ park at Eureka — we will happily carry their comments.