It has cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, blighted Wye and its surrounding area and led to a run down of the college’s operations in Kent, but Imperial’s plan for a research institute, science park and thousands of houses is virtually dead, save-wye.org can reveal. A combination of cost overruns, poor planning and the announcement by BP of a £275million biofuels research programme in conjunction with a major UK or US university has all but killed Imperial’s Wye Park vision. Work on the project — apart from the masterplanning by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill — has stopped.
The news will both delight and worry those in the village who fought the college’s plan to build the research centre, science park and thousands of homes on the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty but wanted to see the campus regenerated. The end of the Wye Park plan raises the possibility that Imperial will now attempt to break up its Wye campus and sell parcels off to developers.
Officially, the Wye project is still active but save-wye.org understands that the college’s management board put the scheme into cold storage at its June 16 meeting. The board agreed to grant Wye Park an extra £100,000 to finish the masterplanning process but a source within the board has told us that it is ‘extremely unlikely’ any further money will be given to the project when it next meets in September, effectively ending a process launched at the end of 2004 with the first tentative discussions between Imperial College and Kent County Council.
The crisis has been sparked by two separate events:
The project has run out of money. We understand from two of the main contractors that they have been pulled off the scheme and that all work on site has stopped. Only SOM is still actively engaged on Wye Park. Waterman Group has been told to stop its habitat surveys — necessary before a planning application can be made — meaning that the deadline for a planning application of spring 2008 has been thrown out of the window and no new date has been fixed.
In June, BP announced that it was going to spend $500million setting up a biofuels institute attached to a UK or US university. A source within BP has told save-wye.org that Imperial is one of several British institutions bidding for the centre and that Wye does not figure as part of the Imperial bid. Furthermore, we understand from Whitehall sources — and as was revealed by Sir Richard Sykes, the college’s rector, at the infamous May 23 ‘working lunch’ — that Imperial has not had any discussions about government funding for Wye Park. Therefore, the BP project leaves Imperial with a dilemma: if it wins, the institute would be based in London and the raison d’etre for Wye Park vanishes. If it loses and the project goes to another university, the college would struggle to attract industry or government finance for a second British biofuels institute at Wye.
The demise of the project will come as a bitter disappointment to the other parties to the concordat — Ashford Borough Council and Kent County Council — who were promised up to 12,500 jobs across East Kent in return for permission to build thousands of houses. Where it leaves those who have invested so much public credibility in a project which would have set a precedent for destruction of protected countryside, remains to be seen.
The news was greeted with delight by Ben Moorhead, chairman of the Wye Future Group, who said it was ‘fantastic’ that Imperial had scrapped its original plan. Mr Moorhead added: ‘I had a feeling that this was not going to happen.’
save-wye.org also understands from tenants at Wye College that some have been told that leases can be renewed to the winter of 2010. Under the Wye Park plan, leases were all to end by October 2008 and no renewals offered but the new position appears to be further confirmation that the scheme is in deep trouble.
Delegates at last month’s workshop with SOM were left with the impression that the project was drifting and no dates were given for further workshops. It is unclear whether these will now continue to allow SOM to complete the masterplan only for it to be mothballed the moment it is published.