Whitehall says: we’re steering clear

As you read here yesterday, Imperial and its council supporters may have been boasting, prematurely, that they had some of the highest levels of government on their side. But now we can reveal that the Department for Communities & Local Government — formerly the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister — has decided to keep the Wye Park saga at a distanced arms length, citing this website as one reason to stay away.

In a fascinating exchange of e-mails provided to save-wye after a Freedom of Information request, DCLG officials talk frankly to one another about how glad they are to stay out of the entire project… and even pass on gossip about overhearing Kent County Council planning chief Pete Raine saying that Imperial was in a ‘kill or cure’ situation and had ‘a very good offer to set up the same facility’ in Shanghai.

We revealed in April that the former ODPM had rebuffed a letter from Cllrs Paul Clokie and Paul Carter — which we now know used some of the very words supplied by Imperial’s advisers — as an attempt to get ministers ‘onside’ with the project. Naturally, Imperial didn’t give up. They hired a lobbyist from the giant Bell Pottinger agency to try to persuade Whitehall to take an interest in the project after all.

The lobbying approach occurred after a debate in the House of Commons during which Derek Wyatt, the Sittingbourne MP with the tiny minority, spoke glowingly about the Wye Park project, hoping that it would replace the equally controversial Kent Science Park scheme in his own constituency (which would, coincidentally, possibly win him a few much-needed votes). Mr Wyatt, remember, though a Labour member, is the son-in-law of Kent’s Lord Lieutenant, Alan Willetts, a man well known to the players of Wye Park, and organiser of a famed lunch for them to discuss the issue.

The Bell Pottinger lobby lizard wrote to the then ODPM because the government’s representative, Jim Fitzpatrick, had the temerity not to mention Wye when he responded to Derek Wyatt. So, in the way that lobbyists do, this unidentified individual — let us call him Pugh C. L’Animus — penned a missive to a senior ODP official Henry Cleary, an extract of which is…

Pugh

You can read the e-mail in full below, but essentially the idea was to get someone talking up Imperial’s case inside the very department which would, if Wye Park passed through the planning processes of KCC and Ashford Council, ahem, be the ultimate judge of whether it could go ahead. But, no luck….

Mike Seager, from the Growth Areas Division of the New Housing and Communities Directorate, e-mailed his colleagues…

I did not know about the Jim Fitzpatrick response to the debate — I suspect there may have been a large GOSE/TG input as (I think) the Kent Science Park is in the TG area.

As you say, there appears to be a well-organised campaign getting underway against the Wye development, led by David Hewson (a Wye resident who is also an author of international repute) and the Kent on Sunday newspaper has, at least for the last few weeks been reporting on the anti-development campaign (I have copies of the articles if you want to see them). I am also dealing with a Freedom of Information request from Mr Hewson who has asked for copies of correspondence etc between Ministers and officials here and Imperial College, KCC and Ashford BC.

Given this, we ought to tread carefully and ensure that we don’t compromise Ministers’ positions on this, particularly as it looks likely that any planning application will be referred here for a final decision.

Thanks for the flattering reference, Mr Seager, but strictly speaking we’re not a campaign, just a service trying to supply news that most conventional media seem to ignore. Another department official, Henry Cleary, is equally wary. Referring to a story in the Daily Telegraph, he says, ‘Certainly Imp have got off on the back foot with this – eg the piece by Charles Clover in the press cuts earlier this week.’

But note also that phrase… ‘I suspect there may have been a large GOSE/TG input…’ The GOSE is the Government of the South East, a body closely involved with all those plans and organisations, such as the South East Regional Assembly, where so many of those behind Wye Park tend to congregate (TG, incidentally, stands for Thames Gateway).

This e-mail generated an interesting response from one of Mr Seager’s colleagues, Tony Howells. It looks as if it may have been written on a Blackberry so we’ll happily excuse the odd spelling. Mr Howells told Mr Seager…

Mike thanks, I forgot to mention at one of the thames gatway meetings I overhead a comment by Pete Rain KCC, the decision with the collage will come to a head in Mid July after which they have to make a decision to finance the feasability study into going ahead or not as the will cost around ¿ ¿3m (believed to be £3m) it will be kill or cure, and they have had a very good offer to set up the same facility in Schang Hi, without all the hassle.

So we will see what happens by the summer break or not………….!

This was dated June 26 this year. KCC’s Pete Raine seems remarkably well informed if this snatch of overheard conversation is correct.

Oddly enough, Bell Pottinger’s lobby lizard seems to have had higher hopes of building a relationship with ODPM than these e-mails show. While Mike Seager and colleagues were shrinking back from any involvement with the project, Pugh C. L’Animus was giving his Imperial college bosses glowing reports of how well things were going at a government level. Again, you can read his full report below (which includes the interesting comment that GOSE ‘were sceptical of the impact of negative coverage in the local press and of the effectiveness of the Save Wye Group. GOSE had received a Freedom of Information request from the Save Wye group but had not been concerned by it as they genuinely had no information to provide’. Nice to know our FoI requests to a government department are being shared with a property developer, isn’t it?)

But on ODPM Bell Pottinger said…

The overall message was that Imperial can be reassured that on the basis of the current proposals, the Growth Areas section of ODPM is broadly supportive in principle of Imperials development plans for Wye. On that basis, they feel that at this stage Imperial should be focusing their energies on the regional level stakeholders such as GOSE, SEEDA, SEERA, KCC, ABC and the regional representatives of the Environment Agency, English Nature etc.

Really? This is what Mike Seager, the manager of the Ashford Growth area for the government, said to colleagues on June 26…

Latest article in yesterday’s Kent on Sunday on the Wye College proposals attached. Bet you’re glad we’re keeping out of this one (for now at least!)! study into going ahead or not

Given the mess that has since leaked out from the secret files of Imperial, we’d put safe money on betting the mandarins of Whitehall are even gladder of that today.

Bell-Pottinger lobby report to Imperial College
Bell-Pottinger e-mail to ODPM
E-mail from Mike Seager
E-mail from Tony Howells

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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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