And now an Ashford pipedream hits the rocks

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It’s supposed to be the boom town of the south east, but some more feisty reporting from Paul Francis of the Kentish Express today exposes the reality behind the hype. The flagship multi-million pound Discovery Centre that was to embody the spirit of Ashford reborn is in deep trouble and could be scrapped altogether.

Problem? The futuristic ‘landmark’ library and community services centre originally budgeted at £13m would probably set the public coffers back an awful lot more, and has run into what look like terminal difficulties with potential developers. Instead… we might just get a new library.

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Your chances of seeing this futuristic beast in downtown Ashford now appear to be zero

The fate of this unfortunate building may have important lessons for Wye Park. It was meant to be a partnership between Ashford Borough Council and Kent County Council, backed by government funding, and designed to take advantage of Ashford’s reputation as one of the south east’s fastest growing towns. But it looks like the hot air is evaporating quickly when the bills start to add up… and they are a lot less than the £1 billion or more Imperial are dreaming of for Wye.

The Discovery Centre, with its gleaming steel frontage, above, is now officially in a state of limbo, with no real designs, and no plan to produce them. KCC and Ashford seem uncertain who exactly is to blame for this. KCC Councillor Mike Hill told the KE, ‘We have not done any further work. We are still in discussions with Ashford council and it is actively pursuing the commercial possibilities on Elwick Road and, until that has been resolved, we are keeping our options open.’

David Hill, Ashford’s chief executive, adds, ‘This is all very much a matter for Kent County Council but we share its view that the cost of delivery of such a “standalone” building as originally conceived is likely to prove prohibitive.’

Ashford’s Mr Hill says the success of the Ashford Gateway building in Park Mall as a town centre ‘shop front point of access’ for public and voluntary sectors ‘alters the picture somewhat’. In other words, no-one needs this gleaming steel elephant, though given that the Park Mall office didn’t exactly creep up on the local council without their knowing one wonders why no-one spotted this years ago.

Wye watchers should, perhaps, draw two conclusions from the Discovery Centre saga. The first is that Ashford is not the boom town some would have you believe. And the second is that it can be very hard for large public authorities to get even relatively small projects like this off the ground.

This story also makes interesting reading alongside the tale of the Imperial joint venture to build a new hospital in Paddington, which collapsed costing the tax-payer £15 million and led to a critical report from the National Audit Office. How much are these failed council daydreams costing ratepayers? Will the auditors tell us one day do you think?

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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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One Response to And now an Ashford pipedream hits the rocks

  1. Wye Action says:

    Excellent Article. Precisely the point. There is absolutely no way in the planning process that we can see how, through whatever it is Imperial College and Sir Richard Sykes want to do with the Wye College real estate assets, we can ensure that they actually deliver on their promises.

    With Sir L Boris having left the fray and Sir Richard Sykes retiring in 2008 we will be left with D. Brooks Wilson who sounds like he is a land developer. Will he remain to ensure full and complete implementation or will he move on as soon as planning approval is granted.

    So Boris has his legacy almost in tact having moved off before the really hard battle starts, by the time it comes round to actually have the first bit on concrete poured over our Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the other main actors may also have gone leaving the developers to have their way and Imperial Board to wipe their hands of the whole affair.

    Who will ensure that the plans are fully implemented when we know that the KCC and ABC have failed in Ashford (lots of other buildings are also empty) and Imperial failed with their London project, so none of them have what it takes and rightly so, they are supposed to be government and tertiary establishments not builders and real estate brokers.

    Interesting how Hill is passing the buck back to KCC on this one. Let’s face it this is a nasty situation the Imperial Board finds itself in. Perhaps they would be wise to quit whilst they still have a chance of keeping their tertiary status as a world leading body and not wait until the mud from the foundations of thousands of houses built at their insistence against extremely strong opposition from the local residents and environmentalists on land designated for protection from developers in an area of outstanding natural beauty sticks to them like super glue and emits the electronic waves of destroyers of the environment for many years to come at a time when their is a huge and rapid growth in support for the environment and an explosion in technology that will enable this disaster to fester on forever.

    In fact it could be said that the Imperial Board are starting to look negligent in their continued support for this project and they should take a long hard look at how they are positioning Imperial College for the future.

    Instead of being able to take on the Harvard’s of this world they may find that the completion of this project sees them slip in the world rankings – this is a very high risk strategy, is the Imperial Board really going to go on with this with the risks of damage so high?

    You can bet your bottom dollar that those of us that oppose this destruction of the AONB will continue to implicate Imperial College in the ensuing destruction of the AONB, Village of Wye and the surrounding Villages throughout the planning and development period which could go on for 10 maybe 15 years.

    Does the Imperial Board really want to take this through the European Courts with all the bad anti-environmental publicity it will attract to Imperial College? Because that is where it is going to end up without a shadow of doubt.

    No, on the surface it seems that Imperial College simply want to asset strip Wye College which may well be what they intended from the start. Their record in Wye seems to indicate that they had no intention of doing anything with Wye College from the start as can be seen from the derelict or near derelict buildings, terminated courses, redundancies and falling student numbers.

    Of course, if Imperial College are happy to contract with a group of charities to donate the entire proceeds from the sale of the land to charity if they do not fully complete their stated aims in the area, then we may start to believe that they do actually intend to do something here other than asset strip. Their record ofon delivery of enev the smallest items like ‘information’ to the Parish has been so poor to date, it is no wonder they failed in their London Development.

    Imperial College are an excellent British Tertiary establishment and someone on the Board should have the foresight and courage to stop this madness now.

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