Imperial never understood this… but it’s the countryside that matters. So why can’t a deal be cut that preserves Wye’s green heart, and allows some modest development in the village itself?
What a difference nine months make. At the turn of this year most of us in Wye assumed that Imperial and its council backers would get their way. The only question was how badly the reality would be and how quickly the bulldozers would turn up.
Today, the battle for Wye is scarcely over, but the massed ranks of the Sykes army are in disarray and retreat. The rank duplicity of their manipulation of the public planning process is now out in the open for all to see. Potential backers in national government are standing back and distancing themselves from the entire affair. And today Wye’s borough councillor, Ian Cooling, became the first local Tory politician to back publicly the growing calls for an independent inquiry into what has gone over Wye Park.
Councillor Cooling has been quiet in public for months, and certainly didn’t rush to make his opinion known. Had an opposition councillor such as Peter Davison made such a call, and talked of working with Wye Future Group, one suspects Ashford’s Paul Clokie would have been demanding his head with a complaint to the Standards Board.
But the climate is shifting, and not in the direction of those who have been working so long and so hard to bring massive development to Wye. Nine months ago the college thought it was on a roll, as its easy arrogance at the infamous January 9 meeting demonstrated. Today it’s clear that politicians, who always want to end up on the winning side, are starting to think the prize is not going to fall into Imperial’s dubious and discredited lap.
We now know that it will cost the college around £3 million to take Wye Park into the formal planning process. Does it really want to do this when a leading member of Ashford’s ruling group is backing calls for an investigation by the Ombudsman, when national concern about threats to protected countryside is growing by the week, and there’s mounting pressure for the ‘science park’ to be dropped from the local core strategy altogether? Is that good use of public money?
Of course not. But before any of us start to pop the corks there’s a sobering reality we have to face. Something has to happen over Imperial and Wye. The status quo is not an option. Imperial has already made plain it will not be using the village as an academic base in the future, and has passed over undergraduate teaching to the University of Kent. The dilapidated buildings which it owns need to be found new uses or turned over to different purposes. As the college has been told repeatedly, its opponents in Wye aren’t Nimbies. They’re people who would be keen to see a positive, thoughtful rejuvenation of the very areas Imperial has allowed to fall into neglect and decay.
That can, and doubtless will, at some stage happen, probably under different ownership I suspect. The bigger question is this: what about the protected green land of the AONB, most, if not all, of which is currently the Imperial College farm and its associated properties such as Coldharbour?
Let me try and roll a wild thought into the argument here: how about we look to a solution that does something incredibly radical? No, not build houses and offices on beautiful farmland, but use it instead for… agriculture, the very thing that made Wye what it was in the first place.
Consider this. The farm already has a selection of tenants and we know from documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act that two years ago, when local college professors were looking for a solution to its economic plight, they obtained an offer to rent the entire estate from the much-acclaimed Food Animal Initiative, which is backed by Tesco and Prince Charles.
We know also, from one of Justin Williams’ many stories based on leaked internal Imperial documents, that Imperial has been told privately that the 800-odd acres of the farm are worth £2.7 million as agricultural land. If an estate has potential customers willing to pay a commercial rate, and the same estate has a price tag that’s reasonable and based on market values, then we have the makings of what financial people call, I believe, a ‘deal’. The question — and it’s one I’m only qualified to ask, not answer — is this: would it be possible to raise the money, say with a bank or some ethical investment organisation, to buy the farmland off Imperial and then cover the costs through rental? There might have to be a little development of existing buildings such as Coldharbour to raise ready cash. But £2.7m is, at present values, something like the cost of five or six large detached country houses with land at present prices. It is not a fantastic amount to cover, and with a little financial acumen surely achievable on a viable basis.
Then what? How about making sure the entire farm estate is covenanted against future development, and perhaps placing it in trust for local ownership in perpetuity? How about trying to use it to develop agricultural techniques for the 21st century (which will surely need farming as long as people still want to eat)? The UK market for organic food grew last year by thirty per cent, for example, averaging an extra £7 million a week according to the Soil Association. Wye’s long association with agriculture, and the ready expertise of people such as Ripple Farm, make it an ideal base to generate skills in a sector with such huge growth potential. Imperial have spent the last few years telling us that agriculture is dead. No, it isn’t. It’s just changing, and Wye would be ready and willing to change with it. Who knows, perhaps new skills in the fields might also translate into new educational courses in a new Wye College too, one training young men and women for the new shape of farming in a new century?
When Imperial’s plans come to nothing it will be looking for a way out of the mess it has created for itself. It may believe, for one brief, insane second, that there is another property developer out there willing to take up the house-building battle it has lost. But I doubt it. Selling the farm to a new, bold, responsible community-based venture would generate money for the college, engender goodwill in a community that badly needs it, and just might give new impetus to bring back undergraduates to Wye.
What we need is a vision, a plan and some people who can sit down with Imperial and make them come to the table. Any takers out there?