Not dead yet… but it’s struggling

As save-wye has reported over the past few month, doubts about Wye Park have been growing inside Imperial. In June the project was placed on ‘economy’ mode, with most contractors taken off the job to save money. But the college’s grandiose scheme is not yet dead, though it faces some serious obstacles and deadlines. These were already becoming clear on June 12 as the presentation to the management board makes plain.

So what are the pitfalls that Imperial itself belief could bring down its plan to turn Wye into a small town and make vast sums of money for the institution’s coffers?

Internal factors apart, and they could prove fatal in themselves, Imperial believes the risks break down into these categories:

  • The failure of the ‘national interest’ case
  • Lack of approval for the Ashford Local Development Framework which would mean Wye Park would not be included (interestingly Imperial does not even appear to contemplate the possibility that the scheme might be excluded from the LDF altogether, although Ashford Borough Council still insist its inclusion is by no means guaranteed — believe who you will)
  • Early/late call-in for a public inquiry which would affect the timing of the development
  • A judicial review which would also demand that the college establish a national interest case
  • Environmental issues — though the June meeting was told no critical environmental problems had been found to date
  • The stability of the political environment
  • Local opposition (defined as ‘rural trust, residents’)
  • National opposition (defined as AONB and the Council for the Protection of Rural England)
  • The sheer scale of the risk finance required without any guarantee of success. The report says the project has so far cost Imperial £750,000 plus VAT, will set the college back more than £100,000 more up to next November, and would cost between £2.5m and £3.5m to bring to a planning application in the first quarter of 2007 — a deadline that now seems impossible to meet. The report also suggests it would cost the college a further £1m to £1.5m in additional costs were there to be a judicial review or public inquiry

As you can read elsewhere, the ‘national interest case’ largely rests upon BP coming to Wye with its new biofuels centre, and that now seems to be an idea that is dead in the water. There is scepticism within the college and outside that it will be able to make any argument for the destruction of AONB land on national interest grounds simply to build yet another science park in Kent.

The LDF is in the hands of ABC, which could, in theory, decide not to include Wye Park in the development framework some time over the next eight weeks. Exclusion from the LDF would not rule out a later planning application from Imperial, but would tie its hands considerably. Even if the grandiose Wye Park project folds, a mention in the LDF would also make it easier for Imperial to sell its land on to other developers. But without a mention it may find its property valuations will remain at the levels they would be without the prospect of huge development — in other words that farmland simply fetches farmland prices.

It is interesting that the college places such stress on the possibility of a judicial review. This is by no means a foregone conclusion in such cases. The rider on the environmental issues — no problems ‘to date’ — is important too, since the environmental consultants used for the master plan, Watermans, are understood to have run through the entire allotted budget on one species alone — newts. There would have to be further serious and expensive studies of other threatened flora and fauna before any serious plan could go ahead.

It is also a measure of the college’s concern that it should cite the ‘stability of the political environment’ as one of the risks it faces. Is this a reference to the increasing isolation of Paul Clokie on Ashford Council? Or the growing silence at the political level within Kent County Council about the project? We simply don’t know, though it is clear that Imperial are far from certain their early backers will stick with them all the way if the going starts to even rougher than it is today.

clokie
Ashford’s Paul Clokie: widely expected to stand down next year

Local opposition is something Imperial surely knows by now. We understand the college believed it would get a relatively quiet ride from protesters and would be able to paint those who did object to the plans as ‘nimbies’. The emergence of a vocal, informed and persistent opposition, now visibly representing the majority view of the village, has taken Imperial aback, and its efforts at ‘local consultation’ have principally been seen as lip-service to the process.

But national opposition is something the scheme has yet to face to any great degree. Its inclusion on this list indicates that Imperial understand that once a formal threat to the AONB is announced Wye Park will cease to be a parochial story in east Kent and will bring into play national organisations determined to defend the status of the AONB against development that could be seen as a benchmark for similar projects elsewhere. The college gravely underestimated local protest; it may well have done so at the national level too. Our own sources suggest there will be massive protests from well-known bodies should the college go ahead with its attempt to build on some of the most protected countryside in the land.

What can the people of the Wye area learn from this private list of risks assembled by Imperial’s development team? That Wye Park is in deep trouble, faces many problems, and could easily stumble in the months ahead. But nothing is certain until someone pulls the plug on the plan to build in the AONB. That could happen as early as the next Management Board meeting on September 30th. Or we could be looking at another year of uncertainty before either abandonment, a planning application, or a sell-off of the Imperial portfolio to other developers.

That will take Imperial beyond the date of next year’s local government elections… and the risk that it will be dealing with a council that, unlike the present, seeks to represent, not ignore, the voices of its electorate. There is a growing expectation that the 70-year-old Paul Clokie, Imperial’s greatest local cheerleader, will no longer be the leader of the council by then… and may even have departed before the voters of Ashford get a chance to pass judgement on his time at the helm.

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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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