One thing at least is clear from the continuing farrago of Wye Park: the reputation of Ashford Borough Council as an independent arbiter in development matters is in tatters. The signing of the secret Concordat backing Imperial’s ambitions, the revelation here that the college was actively shaping the wording of the Local Development Framework before it had gone in front of councillors and Paul Clokie’s consistent haranguing of all opposition and blind support for Imperial have all destroyed any illusion that this local authority could make an impartial judgement on an application for a road sign from Imperial, let alone a £1.5 billion development.
The consequences of this are no longer simply a question for Wye but affect the borough as a whole. If a local authority is seen to be visibly biased in a project that could affect the lives of thousands of its residents — and it is hard to view Wye Park in any other light — local democracy ceases to exist. That is a plain fact and one which is surely recognised by all councillors — whatever their political persuasion — apart from the handful, perhaps just Cllr Clokie himself, who seem determined to back Imperial whatever the circumstances, however vague and contradictory the noises the college makes about its grandiose intentions.
It is time for Ashford to clear the air once and for all. For the sake of its own reputation, its officers, elected members and, most of all, its residents, it must open up to public scrutiny the process by which Wye Park came about. The council has the power to set up its own independent inquiry, undertaken by a lawyer, perhaps a QC, who will privately look at the facts of a controversial case and publicly report on whether he or she thinks they are in line with good local governance. If Ashford wishes to clear its name, this is a path it should embark upon now, appointing such an investigator say next month, able to report probably before Christmas.
No-one likes spending council tax money unnnecessarily. But the cost — perhaps £50k — is insignificant compared to the money the council has squandered in officer time on Wye Park and other white elephants such as the Discovery Centre already (not that Cllr Clokie will let anyone see the actual figures). The penalty for leaving such huge questions unanswered will, in the long run, be much higher. Without such an inquiry, Ashford risks spending years being tainted as a rotten borough, one which has done nothing to dispel the impression that one man, the council leader, can lean on borough employees to lend favour to an outside developer beyond the normal scope of practice in the planning process.
Without such an inquiry, Ashford will find its ability to function increasingly circumscribed by the mess in which the Concordat has landed it. Consider this: on June 15 this year, according to the ABC minutes, Cllr Clokie, the authority’s leader, vacated the chair of the council executive while it was discussing the south east plan, and advised his fellow councillors he would not be voting on the policy for development at Wye. Why? The council minutes fail to say, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Cllr Clokie’s signing of the Concordat and vocal support for it has already tainted his ability to be impartial on Wye Park, and, probably on legal advice, he has come to realise his interest in these matters is prejudicial.
So the leader of a local authority cannot take part in a discussion on what might be the biggest local development in decades because he is a biased supporter of it. Bear in mind, too, that while Cllr Clokie may excuse himself as leader, he can still exercise enormous influence on the majority body of Tory councillors beneath him. If these are the reasons why he has withdrawn from these decisions — and presumably will do so in future meetings — then a greater example of the anti-democratic consequences of Imperial College’s political influence is harder to see, though it may well lurk out there somewhere. We still do not know, for example, why Ashford’s officers were affording Imperial such privileged access to the LDF during its formative stages. Did someone — Cllr Clokie for example — ask them to do this? Or did they act of their own accord?
These matters are too important to be swept under the carpet any more. Anyone who wants to see democracy return to Ashford should surely support the case for a speedy inquiry formed by the council itself, with an independent chairman who will have access to all of the facts. The brief, we suggest, would be simple…
urgently to conduct an investigation into the propriety of the relationship between Ashford Borough Council, its Members and officers, and Imperial College London, and its actions in connection with development proposals for Imperial College’s estate at Wye.
It is in the interests of all — council, residents and, ultimately, Imperial itself, since its reputation now looks murkier than any UK university can surely wish — that this investigation begins as soon as possible. If you support this idea — or hate it — you can register your opinion in the new poll in the sidebar of the site. Only Ashford Council can clear its own name. Until it begins that process, with a frank and open submission of the facts to an independent arbiter, we can only assume that it remains silent and secretive because the truth is even worse than anything we have seen so far.