What Imperial is really planning with BP

The full extent of the game that Imperial is playing with the people of Kent as it quietly downgrades its Wye Park ‘vision’ in favour of a scheme involving BP at the college’s London headquarters is revealed today. Despite continued attempts to rubbish save-wye’s original revelation that the college is secretly negotiating to host BP’s £257 million Energy Biosciences Institute in London — which you can read here — by claiming that there is not a formal bid, save-wye.org has learned that negotiations with the energy giant are at an advanced stage.

Indeed, at the same time as pulling most of its contractors off the Wye Park project, Imperial is so keen to host the world’s first dedicated biofuels institute that is believed that it wants to site the institute at the heart of its South Kensington headquarters.

Faculty

The latest developments will come as extremely bad news for the signatories to the original Wye Concordats, not least Cllr Paul Clokie, leader of Ashford Borough Council, who last week attempted to rubbish our original story by claiming that we had ‘put five and five together and come up with 30’. He also claimed to have spoken to Imperial about the story and reported that the college was ‘not bothered by it’. But given what we hear about a flurry of anxious phonecalls and meetings between representatives of the college and KCC and ABC officers concerned that vapid promises of 12,500 jobs were disappearing in a cloud of vegetable oil smoke, somebody is clearly very worried indeed.

Unfortunately for the blustering Cllr Clokie, Wye does not merit a single word in the negotiations between BP and the college, which has employed Foster and Partners — the firm of architects led by Lord Foster which designed such iconic constructions as 30 St Mary Axe (the London ‘gherkin’) and the Millau Viaduct in France — to design the Energy Biosciences Institute. Imperial has used Foster before — to design the Tanaka business school and the ‘impregnable’ administrative headquarters, the Faculty building, which is home to Sir Richard Sykes and Prof Sir Leszek Borysiewicz.

Tanaka

save-wye.org understands that the Imperial bid for the EBI is on the final shortlist with a decision due in September. BP has confirmed that the other two are a university in the UK and one in the US although it is thought that Imperial is the favourite given its links with two American institutions in work on biomass: Georgia Tech and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Given that research into biofuels was at the heart of Imperial’s plans for research at Wye, there is no prospect of attracting government or EU funding for the Kent project if BP awards its institute to a university in the UK which will, de facto, become the national centre for industry and academic research into biofuels.

At Tuesday’s meeting with members of the Wye Consultation Panel, Prof Sir Leszek was asked about the possibility of BP providing part of the funding for the Wye Park project. He cryptically said that this was not possible referring to ‘South Kensington infrastructure’ and that BP wanted to start its project in 2007, which is far too early for Wye Park.

The tendering process for the institute was announced by BP in June and Imperial was one of five UK institutions which expressed an interest. The announcement came two days after Imperial’s management board had granted the Wye Park project a further £100,000 to finish the masterplanning process but put the rest of the project on hold. All contractors except for masterplanners SOM were then pulled off the Wye scheme, meaning that there is no prospect of a planning application next year. save-wye.org understands that the management board took the view that although the Wye Park plan was not viable in the medium term, it would have been a waste of the money invested up to that point to have written off a plan that was almost three quarters complete. Members were told that the college might want ‘to dust down the Wye masterplan at some point in the future’.

It now seems that the first alarm bells for the Wye plan were being rung as long ago as April when planning consultants Gerald Eve warned the college that local opposition, a lack of capital, no recognition of the scheme’s national importance, dithering by Ashford Council’s planning department and a lack of decent road access were becoming serious obstacles. Imperial College had been banking on the core strategy of Ashford’s Local Development Framework being agreed before its June 12 management board meeting but the failure by Ashford to do this has made the project’s success too uncertain for the majority of those in charge of the college’s purse strings.

save-wye.org understands that the other partners in the Wye project — Kent County Council and Ashford council — are still not aware of the full mess that the plan is in and that Imperial is still attempting to mollify them with reassurances that our original story and its follow-ups in Kent on Sunday and the Kentish Express were baseless.

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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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