How your councils listened to their master’s voice

Keymessages

What Ernst & Young told your council representatives to ‘acquaint themselves with’ when the second Wye Concordat was signed. Did they stick to the script?

PuppetThe public are still being denied sight of the original documents for Wye Park codenamed Project Alchemy, papers that Kent County Council first said we might see, then withdrew on the orders of Imperial College.

But fragments of these highly secret reports do keep cropping up in places. Here mainly. So let’s take a look at some more, this time ones which reveal the full membership of the ‘Alchemy’ stakeholders’ working group and, amazingly, the script that Imperial College handed to our own public representatives to make sure that they stayed on message whenever they spoke to the outside world.

In case your head is spinning right now let us just spell out in plain language exactly what is going on here: these are the words that Imperial’s professional advisers are putting in the mouths of your public representatives, people who one day, as part of the supposedly democratic process, would have to pass or reject the college’s planning application as ‘impartial’ judges.

Read on to discover what great thespians our council folk make when someone writes the script for them.

MembershipProject Alchemy was the core group working on the plan to bring massive development to Wye. The majority of those involved were consultants from the international giant Ernst & Young. Next in number came Imperial, led by the ubiquitous David Brooks Wilson. Kent County Council had three members, with planning strategist Pete Raine at the helm, while Ashford Borough Council had three representatives, Paul Clokie — the only elected official taking part — with ABC chief executive David Hill and planning chief Richard Alderton.

Just before news of the Wye Concordat burst onto a shattered village last December — months after the original secret Concordat was signed — each of these people was provided with a list of ‘key messages’ to propagate on every possible occasion, ‘sharing with the media, contacts and general public’. This was, if you like, the cribsheet our public officials and representatives were supposed to follow whenever awkward questions about a project involving the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty arose — and given the controversial nature of the project, many must have been expected indeed.

These key messages cover four A4 sides, under twelve different headings, beginning with ‘What is it going to be?’ and ending with ‘Property and buildings’. Some of the entries will make you laugh or cry or both at the same time. You can enjoy them in full at the end of this article. Under ‘Local’ for example we read…

  • Re-birth or renaissance of Wye: this is just the beginning and there is much work to do
  • Preserving the character of the locality: respecting local sensitivities
  • Creating a “place” of which the community can be proud
  • Honest-to-goodness engagement with the community to deliver something unique
  • Continue the existing comfortable synergy within the village
  • This is rural sustainability or renaissance at its best

Given the paltry and uninformative ‘consultation process’ that has taken place — with a few meetings, one poor website and a handful of leaflets pushed through doors — one wonders where the ‘honest’ and ‘goodness’ went in all that. And how about this beauty under ‘social’? ‘Local engagement — aspiring to a new level of local engagement in the planning and design processes. Listening and understanding.’

It also contains some statements that appear to be plain untruths. Under ‘vision’, for example, stakeholders were urged to tell everyone that theirs was ‘also shared with GOSE, ODPM, SEEDA, LiK (Locate in Kent) etc’. While this may be true in the quangoes where many members of Project Alchemy also met, presumably while comparing expense claims, it certainly didn’t apply to the much more important Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (now the Department for Communities & Local Government). As we reported back in April, it was taken aback by the announcement and rebuffed an effort by Paul Clokie and KCC’s Paul Carter to get ministers onside the moment an approach was made.

Giltiasell

Cllrs Clokie and Paul Carter, outlined at the signing of the second, public Concordat. Around this time they were writing to government ministers using phrases straight out of the Imperial cribsheet

Did Richard Sykes’ tame puppies do his bidding once they were let off the leash with their four A4 sheets of paper? Very much so. Cast your eyes over these now-familiar phrases…. ‘world-class’, ‘sustainable regeneration’, ‘preserving the character of the locality’ ‘re-birth of Wye’ and you’d think Imperial’s scientists might just as easily run up a PR robot and wheel that out instead of the familiar cast list of council and college characters we are all beginning to know rather too well.

Let’s start with the headline claims made at the top of this article, in particular those that the project would create 12,500 jobs and cost £1 billion. We now know that these were plucked out of the air, on a planet many million miles away from ours. You would think a council representative might just have cottoned on to this at the time. That’s a lot of jobs and a lot of money. Where exactly might those figures come from? But never let the facts stand in the way of a good piece of PR.

Paul Clokie and KCC leader Paul Carter were at it as the ink was drying, writing to a host of government ministers playing up the 12,500 jobs figure and talking of planned growth that would be sustainable, Ashford’s ‘connectivity’ and, in one direct quote from the brief, promises to complement ‘the essential characteristics of the village and the local community’. They only diverge once, in a very interesting way. E&Y’s secret brief said Wye would be home to a new £1 billion ‘world-class science research and manufacturing facility’. But Cllrs Clokie and Carter changed this to ‘world-class science research and product development facility’.

Were our two leaders sanitising Imperial’s original brief because they knew the shocked residents of Wye would be even madder if they knew part of the plan involving manufacturing? It’s hard to read this any other way. Or to explain why at the January Wye public meeting, Imperial’s Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz and David Brooks Wilson, according to the college’s own minutes, ‘both said that there are no Imperial plans to create a manufacturing facility on the Wye site’ in direct contradiction to the script passed to stakeholders only four weeks before. Was this a case of the scriptwriter getting too close to the truth?

Paul Clokie, astonishingly enough, is still banging away to the original tune. Only last month he told the Kentish Express. ‘Households in Ashford will have 12,500 jobs and that is what people need to bear in mind.’ Except they won’t, and everybody except the leader of Ashford Borough Council seems to know it.

Picture 1There are some interesting conflicts too. Take this shot from a presentation given by KCC’s Pete Raine to councillors on April 21. It says that among the planning issues will be ‘viability as a world class research centre and a sound financial and technical proposition’.

In other words, one of the things KCC will want to know is that this scheme is a financial runner. But why is Pete Raine asking this question? He was a member of the Alchemy squad, and as such was tasked to share the following message with everyone, which appeared under the heading ‘Deliverability’.

Deliverability — with IC (Imperial College) and its intellectual and financial strength behind the project, deliverability is not an issue. The weight, importance and determination of IC will — with KCC and ABC — drive this project forward.

Six months later Wye Park’s masters put the entire project into ‘economy mode’ and were looking at a string of reports from their advisers saying the thing was unworkable. True, with hindsight, it all looks a bit dodgy now we can see for ourselves the farce into which Wye Park has descended. But therein lies the problem.

The normal functioning of local government in Kent is now impossible when it comes to anything to do with Wye and Imperial College. If local councillors and public officials allow developers to write their words for them, the entire planning process becomes tainted by partiality and, on the part of the thousands of innocent people affected by these plans, growing and understandable suspicion of the motives of those involved.

Imagine, for example, that it wasn’t a university wishing to build thousands of homes in Wye but a commercial property company. Imagine, too, that it transpired that two local authorities had entered into an agreement with this private concern to support such a vast housing development, written letters to government ministers and others arguing its case, taken part in lengthy and detailed discussions about the nature of the plan with the developer, and then allowed that same private company to influence their public pronouncements and even write the content of local authority strategy documents.

Would those who are mouthing Imperial’s words back to us now think that appropriate? And if not, why not? What exactly is the difference between that relationship and the one they have so gleefully entered into with Imperial College?

Perhaps they could tell us, once David Brooks Wilson has cleared their answer.

Ernst & Young Project Alchemy brief

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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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3 Responses to How your councils listened to their master’s voice

  1. Barry says:

    Just a reminder that if you want to see some familiar faces, Wye features on ‘The Perfect Village’ on the telly tonight. It’s on BBC4, so you’ll need to find someone with Sky.

  2. Cliff Whitbourn says:

    This is all too outrageous for words. Pray, when will someone in National Government stand up and do something about the behaviour of our Local Government officers and elected officials.

    The very thought of any borough official expecting me to believe, ever again, that they are telling the truth is laughable. They should all, with the exception of the odd questioning voice in the chamber, be ashamed of their despicable behaviour and hang their heads in shame.

  3. Kerry Bethel says:

    Cliff Whitbourn tells it like it should be told – unswerving and bang on target.

    At the outset of Imperialgate it appeared that Imperial’s tactics comprised equal measures of greed, city slicker low cunning, “crash-bang we’ll soon see off the local yokels” and unwarranted arrogance.

    With the many disclosures superbly ferreted out by save-wye it is quite clear that more sinister influences were and are at work – a concerted but crude and bumbling attempt to covertly manipulate the planning process to by-pass the due democratic process and exclude public involvement and consultation. Even Councillors were warned off asking questions and told to keep quiet.

    So many statements have been made by the various signatories to the Concordat that have been subsequently shown to be manifestly incorrect, that the credibility of ICL, ABC and KCC is non-existent. What a shocking and lamentable state of affairs!

    With continued exposure by s-w and increasing pressure from WPC, WFG and others, those involved in these rotten dealings, will get their comeuppance one way or another and sooner rather than later. If they are not severely penalised for their unprincipled acts then god help us – decent democratic governance is dead and we are done for!

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