Prescott’s concrete dream is now in doubt

Telegraph

The news just gets worse by the day for Imperial College and its tiny band of local authority lackeys. After the quiet meltdown of the Wye Park project now the very government policy behind Ashford Council and Kent County Council’s support for Imperial’s pipedream is in doubt. One of the government’s own advisers has said the Prescott plan to concrete the south east should be ditched for development along London and the Thames.

Sir Terry Farrell, the international architect who advises the Thames Gateway Development Corporation, says there is room for millions of homes in the area between the East End and Dartford, and has criticised specifically the Prescott plan for four growth area — Ashford, the Thames Gatway, the M11 corridor and Milton Keynes — as ‘woolly’. ‘I am very, very critical of those who say London is full up and we should build into Kent and up the M11. What are we doing moving up there when London needs regenerating? We have to make London work.’

What’s more he says he has told John Prescott’s replacement Yvette Cooper, now housing minister, and says she seemed ‘very interested’. Which is the very last thing Imperial College want to hear.

Imperial’s local authority cheerleaders, Ashford Council leader Paul Clokie in particular, have made of the fact that Imperial’s Wye Park project would bring jobs to the area. How many depends on who you to talk to and what day of the week it is. Last week Cllr Clokie was citing the highest figure 12,500, which has never been substantiated and, like most other items of ‘information’ about Wye Park appears to have been plucked out of the air. But Paul Clokie and the now silent Paul Carter, leader of KCC, feel they need to clutch at figures like these. As part of the Prescott master plan they have been told they must build 31,000 new homes and find 28,000 new jobs over the next couple of decades. How? By grasping at pipedreams such as Wye Park.

Of course an independent, informed and strong-willed council leader who wanted to represent the views of his or her electorate would have been perfectly entitled in these circumstances to have turned round to Prescott and said, ‘Don’t be so stupid.’ But independent, informed, strong-willed and representative councillors seem to be thin on the ground these days.

So Clokie, Carter et al seized on Wye Park as a way of meeting Prescott’s demands for regeneration, even though the only part of Wye, an affluent, middle class village with some of the highest property prices in the area, that shows any need for it is the college, which Imperial has run down through its own sloth and incompetence.

If Ruth Kelly does the decent thing and reverses the Prescott policy, the demand to meet those numbers disappears… and so does any shred of argument for vast commercial and house building outside Ashford. You can hear the shrieks from Clokie’s chamber now; the poor man won’t be allowed to play Lego with other people’s lives after all.

But government wheels turn slowly. It is possible Ruth Kelly will ruminate on this for a year or more and say no. Even that is bad news for Richard Sykes indeed. He is currently looking at flogging off the entire Imperial estate in Wye after the collapse of his white elephant. We understand valuers have been taking photographs of the buildings and land already.

Don’t for one moment fall for the argument you will hear — possibly even from local councillors who really ought to know better — that opposition to Wye Park has chased this poor university out of the village. Its retreat from Wye has been planned all along. From September next year all undergraduate teaching will have been handed over to the University of Kent and it seems virtually certain, without some u-turn, that not a single Imperial academic member of staff will remain in the village. All of this was put in place months ago, and would have happened even if, as our local authorities wish, Wye Park were now sailing through the planning process unimpeded.

Sykes and co are already selling damaged goods. It has failed to get a whiff of planning consent for any of its own greedy projects. No commercial builder is going to come in thinking he will stand a chance of doing better. The farmland will, surely, sell for standard farmland prices, if at all. There will be plots around the village that some property developer will snap up in the hope of being able to build homes. There may even be some rash soul who thinks the neglected brownfield sites might make light industrial use, though road access is likely to be a huge issue since the idea of building some new highway into Wye is now clearly knocked out into the long grass.

The bad news is that Imperial has fluffed the chance to renew its property with vision and a thought for the environment. Thanks to its own avarice and ineptness, its estate of beautiful historic buildings and gorgeous countryside is now blighted just as the rest of Wye has been these last nine months. And the thought that Ruth Kelly might reverse the Prescott dictum for massive expansion in Ashford will surely give any serious developer further pause for thought. Not only will they face a bunch of stroppy locals who have successfully fought off one development plan, but also the prospect of having the government pull the rug from under their feet too.

The mess caused by Imperial, ABC and KCC with its Concordat is surely turning out to be bigger, nastier and, well, messier than anyone surely thought possible a few months back. And the real tragedy? Had this arrogant, overbearing institution come to Wye in an honest, open fashion and explained its needs for modest, thoughtful expansion to secure its future in the village it would have received an intelligent and sympathetic welcome. Sadly, Imperial’s own arrogance, and the implicit and covert support it has received from members of the local authorities, dictated another outcome.

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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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