Remember that ’secret’ May 23 lunch?

Imperial College will not seek either government or European funding for its Wye Park ‘vision’ because it wants to retain complete control over the project if it goes ahead.

Sir Richard Sykes, Imperial’s rector, made the admission at the May 23 lunch held at County Hall, which was organised by KCC leader Paul Carter. The get-together replaced a lunch organised by the Lord Lieutenant, Alan Willett, which was cancelled after publicity on save-wye.org.

The lunch was attended by, among others, Sir Richard; his deputy Prof Sir Leszek Borysiewicz; Ashford council leader Paul Clokie; Wye borough councillor Ian Cooling; Wye county councillor Charles Findlay; CPRE Kent director Dr Hilary Newport; and former KCC leader Lord Bruce-Lockhart.

The admission that Imperial is not trying to get external funding for Wye Park confirms that it will seek to build hundreds, possibly thousands, of houses on the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in direct contravention of national planning policy. Perhaps surprisingly given the public pronouncements over Imperial’s proposals, there was broad agreement among the guests at the lunch — with one notable exception — that Imperial’s plans were to be welcomed including the enabling housing development on greenfield sites.

Sir Richard said that Imperial must retain control of the development. If the Government or the EU contributed significant amounts of money, he said, they would want significant control in return and may insist that the project is sited somewhere else entirely. The admission raises suspicions that Imperial is primarily interested in raising large sums of money from speculative housing development to replenish its depleted cash reserves after a string of expensive projects in London.

Sir Richard and Prof Sir Leszek were told by some of the guests that the overwhelming majority of people in Wye and surrounding villages are in favour of the scheme. They were also told that Wye Future Group is a vocal minority made up of ‘middle class nimbies’ who can safely be ignored, that save-wye.org is, in the main, riddled with inaccuracies and is run by ‘a couple of amateurs’ and that Wye Parish Council is ‘floundering around’ with no clear idea of what it is doing.

Imperial’s leaders were also told that the first ‘community workshop’ run by architects Skidmore, Owings and Merrill earlier in the same month had been dominated by the vocal ‘minority’. The views expressed there — that Wye’s relative isolation because of poor road links and the long waits at the level crossing were things worth preserving — were ‘nonsense’ and that sorting out transport had been a priority long before Imperial had persuaded KCC and Ashford to sign two ‘concordats’.

The only criticism levelled at Sir Richard and Prof Sir Leszek was that the college had been far too sparing with detailed information and was, as a result, fuelling rumour and cynicism. Most of the guests felt that the majority of people in Wye would come out in support of Imperial when it gives out more detailed information.

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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 Remember that ’secret’ May 23 lunch?

  1. Ian Cooling says:

    An interesting report Justin, but of a different lunch to the one I attended I fear. Either that or your source spoke very quietly with a very small number of people who in turn spoke very quietly. Taking your points in order:

    Funding
    This aspect of your report puzzled me the most. This evening, I asked David Brooks Wilson for his views on the statement that “Imperial College will not seek either government or European funding for its Wye Park ‘vision’ He denied your report categorically and emphatically “and you can quote me” he said. He went on to say that Imperial have already had exploratory discussions on funding with the likes of potential research partners, SEEDA, UK government, EU et al and will continue to do so.

    It is precisely because these other funding sources have been sounded out that I have regularly made my point to Imperial (as have others) that full funding from elsewhere is a perfectly feasible aim – not all in one dollop of course, but over time. Therefore there is no need even to consider enabling development on the greenfield sites. That option should therefore simply be taken straight out of the equation – and the sooner the better.

    Villagers’ views
    I heard no-one say that “overwhelming majority of people in Wye and surrounding villages are in favour of the scheme” – perhaps because there is no scheme. I did, however, report that one of the principal concerns in the village at the moment is that there should be no massive development on greenfield sites within the Imperial estate. But your source seems not to have been listening at that point.

    save-wye
    I also reported my view (not necessarily the village view) that the negativity and cynicism of more than a little of the content on this site is in no way typical of mainstream opinion in the community. That remains my view.

    I heard no-one describe you and David as a couple of amateurs and I would actually have challenged them had anyone done so. One of the factors that make this site a cut above many others is that it is run by two professional journalists. I have, for example, given you credit for the skilful way you have used the FOI legislation.

    We have our disagreements (and I guess we always will) but you provide a public forum where those disagreements can be aired so others can form their own judgements on the merits of the debate. That is a valuable service – long may it continue.

    Wye Future Group and Parish Council
    I don’t recall any discussion of these two organisations. Perhaps, again, that was a whispered conversation at the other end/side of the table.

    Roads
    Similarly, I also don’t remember any mention of the first village consultation other than my reporting the statement (already mentioned elsewhere on this site) that the view was expressed that ever more lengthy waits at the level crossing and ever more damage and decay to the lanes leading into and out of Wye are in some ill-defined way “very good things”. I went on to say that this is a minority view (which it undoubtedly is) and that it should not be regarded in any other light. You may recall others at the table nodding in agreement when I made precisely that point at the Withersdane meeting before I had to leave.

    Truly a most interestingly different take on the lunch.

  2. M Sorken says:

    This may seem negative and full of cynicism but I believe that Mr Cooling is being naive here, he sounds like a representative for Imperial, something he is not.

    It should take more than a free lunch to advocate turning our village into a sprawling ghetto.

  3. Justin Williams says:

    Thanks for your comments, Ian.
    I am completely happy with the veracity of the report which was sourced from two different guests at the lunch. I’m sure we wouldn’t have these disagreements if the democratic process was observed and all the negotiations between those elected by people in Wye to represent their interests and Imperial College were out in the open.

    I am glad you feel able to rely upon assurances from Mr Brooks Wilson and Imperial. Given the inconsistencies in their statements and position since January 9, I find this rather surprising. I’ve had a read-out on last night’s meeting and I’m very glad to hear that not only was save-wye mentioned repeatedly, but that David and I also received special mention by name by both you and Mr Brooks Wilson.

    For your information, I have been attempting to pin down this talk about Imperial seeking government funding through various Whitehall contacts for the last two months. So far, everyone has told me that no approach had been made. But perhaps my contacts in London are as poor as those in Kent.

  4. Ian Cooling says:

    Thanks Justin,

    Like you, I have been both angered and frustrated by Imperial’s inept communications and the inordinate time it has taken them to get their act together. However DBW was so emphatic and maintained his line so firmly under questioning from me and others that I did believe what he was saying.

    Not least because I do not think he would be foolish enough to have said what he said so firmly had he known it was untrue – and therefore at some point likely to be revealed as such.

    No special mention of the site by name that I can recall in any other than the context of that report. The meeting was a progress report and preliminary to the wider consultation meeting on Monday. Indeed, the answers to several questions from the table were carried over to Monday

    The finance point was on the agenda at the specific request of Damien Green supported by me. The request was made before your piece was published. For my part, it was a continuation of my line that there are other sources of funding out there. They should be fully explored and utilised by Imperial and the whole issue of enabling development on the greenfield sites in the AONB be dropped.

    Separately, I know the dangers of using a negative to prove a negative, but Imperial have run more than a few multi-million pound projects down the years. I truly do not believe that they would set off on this particular trail with all their funding eggs in a greenfield AONB basket and without at least tentative enquiries to other sources.

    Still on funding, I have been doing some telephoning of my own. I do not know if Imperial have been seeking UN funding, but I understand that it would actually be at least a possibility. The key is the fact that the proposed research (according to Imperial’s website) is on biomass as a whole, including but not confined to biofuel.

    That being so, more than a few of the downstream applications would be in the third world. Unravelling UN funding streams is an arcane art, but for what it’s worth, the view was that there is “almost certainly something in there”. I hope so – as that would move the funding exercise another step away from the green fields.

  5. Justin Williams says:

    Can we just squash this UN thing once and for all:

    1) The United Nations – Amir Dossal’s office at UNFIP in New York – is involved with the international non-food crops centre proposal drawn up by Countess Sondes and Lord Bruce-Lockhart.

    2) This is entirely separate to Imperial’s project. Imperial is involved in the UN project but only as a potential landlord. If you speak to those at the heart of this proposal, they are actually rather disappointed at the way that Imperial have taken it and spun it so that it appears to be part of their science park plan. The Sunday Times story run three weeks ago has subsequently been corrected.

    3) There is no UN money for the non-food crops centre. At the moment, it is to be funded entirely by KCC. There is some possibility of government finance and a bit of money from the World Bank but, again, this has nothing to do with Imperial’s commercial science park project.

    4) Four staff will man the centre if it opens, as planned, this autumn. In the longer term, Sandy hopes that it will grow to something much bigger – perhaps involving 100 people.

    If anybody is still confused about this, may I point you to our original piece on this here:
    http://save-wye.org/2006/05/08/the-un-non-food-crops-and-the-truth-about-imperials-plans-for-wye-being-of-international-importance/

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