Revealed: How Imperial wrote the LDF… in April

Representatives from Wye and Boughton Aluph and Eastwell Parish Councils and Wye Future Group will this morning have their first opportunity to influence the core strategy of the Local Development Framework and its specific mention of Imperial College’s now defunct ‘vision’ for its campus in the village when they meet Ashford council’s head of planning, Richard Alderton.

It seems a shame, therefore, to have to reveal that Imperial was secretly involved in drawing up the document, rewrote it on more than one occasion and that some of the amendments incorporated in the current draft are direct from the pen of the college’s planning consultants. Shockingly, save-wye.org can reveal that the final draft was settled between Imperial College and Ashford’s planners at least a month before any councillor was allowed to look at it. A series of highly-damaging leaks reveal the level of co-operation between Ashford’s civil servants and a developer looking to concrete over hundreds of acres of the South East’s most protected countryside.

The core strategy — first posted on this website by borough councillor Ian Cooling on May 14 (which you can read here) — will form the basis on which any plan by Imperial is considered when it is adopted as part of the LDF next year. At the time, Cllr Cooling was challenged on save-wye.org by villagers concerned that the wording of the core strategy had been suppplied by Imperial College. He denied it, saying that ‘it was written by ABC officers as just one part of the long-running LDF process and signed off as a draft by ABC members. Imperial (and other stakeholders) will now have a copy.’

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Leaked: the draft core strategy sent to Ashford Borough Council by
planning consultants Gerald Eve with their ‘corrections’

But save-wye.org can now reveal that at a series of secret meetings between Mr Alderton, development control manager Lois Jarrett (of oil depot fame, read that story here), representatives of Imperial College planning consultants Gerald Eve and masterplanners SOM, the core strategy was drafted and rewritten several times before a single line was read by the council committee set up to write the document: the LDF task group.

In one of the documents — ‘first working draft text for Wye (12.04.06)’ — given to Mr Alderton by Gerald Eve at a meeting on April 20 and now leaked to save-wye.org, the consultants’ marks are clear:

  • In one of the paragraphs on what the developer would need to show for Ashford to grant the project planning permission, Ashford’s draft said that it would need to demonstrate that ‘there is a proven national interest’. Gerald Eve wanted this changed to ‘public interest’. The draft was changed accordingly.
  • A paragraph on how the ‘local community has a key role to play in the evolution of proposals for the village’ was changed to include ‘the Imperial College proposals and in considering their implications for the village’ after red marks by the consultants.
  • Gerald Eve wanted a reference to there being ‘no significant impact in terms of over-supply of employment and housing land in the borough’ removed. It said that Imperial should ‘not be part of the “general employment/housing supply”‘. However, this amendment has not been accepted in the latest draft.
  • The original draft included a paragraph that emphasised that, if Imperial’s plan was to be passed by the planners, ‘the balance of all material considerations’ had to be ‘in favour of granting planning permission’. Gerald Eve demanded that this be removed but it remains in the latest draft.

Documents seen by save-wye.org show that the relationship between Mr Alderton’s department and Imperial College deteriorated as June 12 approached. This was the date that Imperial had set Ashford as a deadline to have its core strategy complete so that it could show its management board that the local plan had been ‘stitched up’.

As save-wye.org revealed three weeks ago (read that story here), the management board effectively killed the Wye project at that meeting by putting it into cold storage. All Imperial’s contractors — except masterplanners SOM and PR company Tamesis — have now been removed from Wye Park. The failure by Ashford to get the core strategy beyond a draft before June 12 provoked fury within Imperial and led to a heated meeting between Mr Alderton and the then Imperial director of estates, David Brooks Wilson, at the end of the month. We understand that the failure of the Wye Park plan is being blamed on Ashford council ‘equivocation’.

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At an April meeting between Mr Alderton, Gerald Eve and SOM, when it was becoming obvious that Ashford was struggling to meet the June 12 deadline, planning consultant Hugh Bullock said that Imperial was very concerned that it could put the project in jeopardy.

Mr Alderton agreed to consider whether the core strategy wording could be approved by an informal advisory group of councillors before then. save-wye.org has subsequently learned that at a recent meeting of the LDF task group, an attempt was made to slip the Wye wording through without debate by councillors by not including it as a numbered agenda item. The attempt failed and the group has been promised a debate on the Wye wording following today’s meeting between Mr Alderton and the parish council and WFG.

A handwritten note of the April meeting reveals the extraordinary level of co-operation between Mr Alderton’s department and Imperial’s contractors. Among other things it shows:

  • That Ashford council was very worried that legal action by Wye Future Group could scupper the project later on.
  • That Mr Alderton wanted to be provided with details of residents of Wye invited to the first of SOM’s community workshops in May.
  • That Ashford council wanted the community ‘to be seen to be involved at an early stage’.

The revelation that Imperial was closely involved in writing the LDF core strategy long before councillors or the wider community was involved will cause shockwaves around the council and could lead to the LDF public consultation slipping further if the council’s opposition groups demand further debate.

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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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