Gordon Brown’s riddle: does he want Wye or not?

In the absence of hard facts, rumours flourish, and they have been positively abuzz since Gordon Brown announced in the last Budget plans for a £1 billion public/private partnership to build a ‘National Institute for Energy Technologies’.

The bill matches the figure most often quoted for the cost of Wye Park. The research is in the same area Imperial have been hyping like crazy. And the Treasury have hinted strongly that Imperial is among the front runners to get the prize of building a new boffin bank to invent some way of fuelling the world without ruining the place at the same time.

So is Wye really on the cards for this idea? An e-mail from within the Treasury has to make you wonder…

It came from a Treasury official in reply to an inquiry from a local resident asking for more details of what was being planned, and where it was to be located. Here you will find the response in full…

The new National Institute will be a 50:50 public-private partnership. The Energy Research Partnership has committed to raising substantial sums of private investment, sufficient for the Institute to have a critical mass, and BP, EDF Energy, E.On and Shell have already announced their intention to be involved. The intention is that private sector investment would be matched (up to a pre-determined limit) by public science and technology investment, building on the Research Councils’ growing energy programmes- a model that has proved to be extremely effective with other large-scale research and development projects. The intention is to establish a virtual institute with a ‘design life’ of a finite period, probably a decade, with clear objectives specified over that time, and a strong public-private governance structure. Funding would be allocated competitively, using existing facilities where possible, but also building strong national and international linkages.

This is, of course, the kind of bureacratic response that puts the gnome in gnomic. If any of you would care to take a shot at interpreting it, please do so, either in a comment or in our new forum. But let us take a few stabs…

  1. The author very deliberately stepped back from saying where the new institute would be located.
  2. When people talk about something being ‘virtual’ they normally mean it isn’t real in the conventional sense. A ‘virtual company’ for example is a make-believe one composed of several companies working together as if as one. This presumably ties in with the part about ‘using existing facilities where possible’. Doesn’t much sound like they want to build anything, does it?
  3. The sentence — The intention is to establish a virtual institute with a ‘design life’ of a finite period, probably a decade, with clear objectives specified over that time, and a strong public-private governance structure — may indicate that, in the end, this is meant to be a fully private body. Though it’s hard to tell… But if that is the case one wonders if the hard numbers of building something in Wye would pass muster in the private sector. Imperial like it because they would be wallowing in new money. But the buyers would have to put up with inadequate infrastructure and the costs of new build on environmentally sensitive, costly land… when there is brownfield down the road just pleading to be developed a few miles away.

What this does not sound like — in any sense — is a green light for building vast acres of new research centres in protected countryside. But if you read things differently, please let us know.

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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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5 Responses to Gordon Brown’s riddle: does he want Wye or not?

  1. Jo says:

    “Using existing facilities where possible” could also mean “using existing streams of public funding”, i.e. no new government money.

    And building ‘strong national linkages’ could mean building a shiny new HQ.

    The hope that if Imperial got enough grant from various national & international agencies then they wouldn’t need to sell so much (or any) land for development was always a bit faint. The government tends to prefer match-funding: if you get extra grant from someone else, then you don’t need as much from us… They expect the private half of a public-private venture to put a considerable amount of capital into the project so that risk is shared.

  2. Shell & BP - a more positive approach says:

    Given the huge opposition surrounding a development on AONB land, it would not surprise me if those big names like Shell & BP would not want to add their names to the list of names associated with Imperial College in this matter.

    Especially when there is so much space available for large developements available all over the U.K. where there are more facilities, established infrastructure and more acceess to Tertairy Skills and where there will be no need to draw attention to themselves negatively by destroying Natural English Heritage for the sake of it and against such huge opposition from the local community.

    With all those big names involved, Imperial could be more positive and more environmentally friendly by simply donating the 980 acres of AONB land they were given to the National Trust for the establishment of natural forests, lakes and leisure facilities and then to co-operate with the big energy companies in a more positive manner by locating the development where it will not cause such destruction. The energy companies could together subsidize a development like this with a small fraction of their development & research budgets and Imperial can get on with what they do best.

  3. David Hewson says:

    I quite like the area as it is actually – without forests, lakes and leisure facilities. The Food Animal Initiative would happily rent it all for farming, which is what it’s ideal for, and there are plenty of rights of way for people who do want to use it.

  4. Andy says:

    My belief, from reading the budget report back in March, is that the National Institute for Energy Technologies was not connected to any specific proposal (such as Wye Park) when it was conceived, which may still be the case. However, if Wye Park were to be given the go-ahead, I imagine it would be seeking a prominent role within the ‘virtual institute’ that the Treasury refers to.

    I’m taking solace in the Institute having been introduced in Section 7 of the budget report, entitled “Protecting the Environment”. Hopefully the Government would appreciate the irony of pouring tarmac over the AONB to “protect the environment”.

    Incidentally, the Institute appears to have been set up in connection with the Energy Research Partnership, whose members include Pam Alexander, the Chief Executive of SEEDA.

    As a final point, I note that other sections of the budget report made extensive reference to promoting scientific and academic research in collaboration with industry, which might have an even greater impact on the course of the Wye Park proposal : (3.74) “The Government is also seeking views on how the UK can best support higher-risk, high-impact research in novel fields of scientific enquiry; how national and regional policies can work together more effectively to increase innovation and business-university collaboration in the regions.”

  5. Save Wye says:

    aprapos nothing – this article was dated Dec 1998, about Clinton and the Wye Agreement it has lingered on ……..for nearly 10 years now

    http://www.jewishsf.com/content/2-0-/module/displaystory/story_id/10176/edition_id/194/format/html/displaystory.html

    Something for the Imperial Management to bear in mind re long term legacies

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