Sadly there is no law against lying in press releases, unless you are a company telling porkies to your shareholders. Imperial College, Ashford Borough Council and Kent County Council are all publicly-funded bodies though, and you could argue we are their shareholders. And if that were the case we would surely be reaching for our lawyers right now, because the most visible part of the statement all three bodies issued when they announced their Concordat last December has turned out to be a blatant piece of fiction.
They told us in their press release at the time that the Concordat paved ‘the way for Wye to become home to a new £1 billion, world class science research and manufacturing facility.’ You will be amazed to learn — or possibly, not — that this is somewhat at variance with the actual facts.
If you want to know what Wye Park would really cost just look at these simple and easily-understood tables presented to Imperial’s own management board in June.
Here is the expenditure…
And here is the income Imperial hope to receive.
Just a couple of notes to those accounts though. First, the entry down as an expense called ‘endowment’ is, almost certainly, not an expense in the normal sense of the word. It’s the sum of money Imperial will be taking from the pot for its own purposes. Call it a management fee. Or profit. Or whatever you feel is suitable. Also note that we, as tax payers, will be chipping in £25 million towards the costs of destroying Wye too in the form of road building. Good deal, eh?
Why are these costs so out of kilter with those that Imperial has been quoting publicly? After all at one point some college people were even talking about £1.5 billion for the total cost of the project. One reason is that the first plan included BP’s biofuels institute, which is now not coming to Wye, although even with that it is difficult to see how a figure of £1 billion could be achieved. But a bigger reason for upping the numbers is this. They make Wye Park look special, hopefully special enough to generate the magical term ‘national interest’ which would be needed to justify building in the AONB.
If all Imperial is building is one more science park — like the failed Eureka one in Ashford and the controversial Kent Science Park near Sittingbourne — then it just seems to be one more property developer among many. Which, when you see these figures, is exactly what it looks like. The sums it is planning to spend are relatively modest, in fact just £175 million if you take out that £100 million sweetener of the ‘endowment’.
At these price levels the whole rationale for destroying Wye’s protected countryside — we need the money to build our massive science project — disappears. They should be doing what the rest of us would do in circumstances like these: going to the bank, a process that Imperial, under Richard Sykes, have become very familiar with.
Ashford’s MP Damian Green, in one of his rare public pronouncements on Wye Park, suggested that an approach for private funding, rather than building on the AONB, might be Imperial’s best solution. Unfortunately any private lender would probably look at the fact that the college was trousering £100 million of the loan immediately and taking it out of Wye and say no.
But these are interesting figures all the same. It will be intriguing to know what kind of sum Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz comes up with next when he’s asked how much Wye Park might cost.