How much has the Wye Park saga cost Imperial College so far? It’s a question that even that whizz with figures, David Brooks Wilson, may struggle to answer. But you can be sure that it has run into several hundred thousand pounds and has perhaps even broken the million mark. Firms like Ernst & Young, Skidmore Owings and Merrill, Financial Dynamics, Gerald Eve, Waterman Group and Berwin Leighton Paisner don’t come cheap. Perhaps the spiralling cost of this farce is what prompted Sir Richard Sykes to remove his No. 2, Prof Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, as project manager.
However high the sum, the question that is being asked at the very highest levels of Kent County Council and Ashford Borough Council is, apparently: ‘Has Imperial spent so much already that it cannot justify pulling out of Wye to its governing council when its planning application for thousands of homes on the AONB is inevitably kicked out by a planning inspector?’
Extraordinary? Perhaps, but not according to a senior Kent figure who was central to the discussions with Imperial that led to the signings of both concordats last year. According to this source, KCC and Ashford were both so alarmed by Imperial’s threat to close Wye and pull out of Kent that a plan was hatched to draw the college into a process that would make it impossible to justify closure.
The idea, according to our source, was simple and was actually helped by Imperial’s cunning plan to get our elected leaders to sign two documents committing them to ‘realising their collective goal’. If true, and our source is as close to impeccable as you can get in this Through the Looking Glass saga, it would explain the dogged determination of Kent’s leaders and civil servants to commend ICL’s ideas in the face of public outrage, threats of legal action and complaints to the Standards Board of England. It explains why KCC has allowed Imperial to hijack its laudable efforts to set up an international non-food crops centre at Wye. It explains why they continue to have secret meetings with Sykes et al. In short, it explains what many thought was inexplicable.
This, apparently, is what happened:
- KCC was alarmed at Imperial reneging on its commitments in the Wye merger and became convinced that it was going to close the campus and sell it off to developers. There was an informal meeting with ICL in the summer of 2004 at which the college was encouraged to look into revitalising the site. Imperial responded by calling in Ernst & Young to perform a viability study on Wye which concluded that, short of massive redevelopment, the campus had no future. The E & Y report recommended selling the campus and using the money to set up a new centre overseas. A select few from KCC were shown this report and the implication was clear.
- To avoid it, officers and senior councillors told ICL that they would be willing to consider some form of redevelopment in Wye to finance a new centre of excellence. The non-food crops idea was first mooted by KCC. Imperial agreed and set up the Bearman Committee to look into the possibility.
- Ashford Borough Council was brought into the process and the first concordat was signed in April and May last year.
Councillors and officers were perfectly aware of what they were getting into. Our source said: ‘We could not let Imperial carry out its threat to pull out. The idea was simple: draw them into a process in which they would become financially committed to regenerate Wye College knowing full well that any decision on building on greenfield land would be called in by the Secretary of State and that permission is highly, highly unlikely. But by this point, Imperial would have started regenerating the campus and would have to proceed anyway and find the money from other sources.
‘I think you’ll find that the naiveity is not on the side that everybody assumes’.
One of the greatest enigmas about the Wye Park saga has been the support for Imperial’s plans by Pete Raine, KCC’s Strategic Planning Director and the officer responsible for regeneration. Mr Raine is a noted environmentalist not previously known for enthusiasm for building on Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. He recently told KCC’s Policy Overview Committee that Imperial’s plans would result in irreparable damage to the AONB and that it could be looking at building houses on more than 200 acres. The cries of horror could be heard from the other side of the Medway.
But, our source says, Mr Raine is not being a cheerleader for Imperial and is also playing a long game. ‘I think you’ll find that the real figure in Pete’s mind is not 200 acres, but just 20 acres’, he said.