It’s time for Imperial to do the decent thing

Church

The village spirit we will not lose. A view of Wye by Steve Bloom

The tanks are still on our lawn, their guns spiked, their turrets empty. The Sykes army has all but departed in silence, knowing the war is lost and wondering what to do next. Imperial College’s grandiose and extraordinary ambitions for the green fields of Wye now lie in tatters, waiting only for someone to come along and sweep away the torn remains of the so-called Concordats. And then?

If there is a shred of decency remaining in this aloof London university, a recognition somewhere that communities and indeed Imperial’s own employees in the village deserve, finally, consideration and respect then, surely, this: Imperial must face reality and start to tell us the truth.

In spite of the spin that has been reeled off to local authorities and gullible politicians, Imperial has been planning its exit from Wye for some time, since it long ago decided it would not provide what we wanted most of all: an active university college in the village. What we know now is that this departure will largely be on our terms, not its. Instead of leaving with £100 million in its pockets, it will scuttle back to London with its tail between its legs and whatever quick profits it can glean from selling off easily disposable assets. Today, for the first time, we can reveal this retreat has been under consideration from Imperial for some time.

The exit strategy, which was being discussed among the college’s coterie of would-be property developers as early as May, is this: recover the costs of a failed Project Alchemy/Wye Park by selling off certain assets, such as the main college itself, and ‘land bank’ the rest of the estate in the hope that at some point in the future, Ashford council might include it in the borough’s development area. With hindsight, that may look rather naive but then everything that Imperial has done to date has smacked of ineptitude and naivety: did it really think the local community would swallow its ideas if it promised to sort out the level crossing problem? And did anybody in David Brooks Wilson’s office seriously believe that simply not talking about the real motivation behind its plans — grabbing £100 million by flogging off land for 4,000 houses — would go unnoticed? Delegates to the next Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (Imperial’s masterplanners) workshop on October 16 will know that the college is still up to its old tricks with the invitations specifically ruling out any discussion of housing when we all now know exactly what it has been planning from the very start.

From the beginning of this farrago Imperial has been playing fast and loose with an institution with 900 years of history behind it. In May, Mr Brooks Wilson — who, in his own words, thought there was only a 50/50 chance of getting Wye Park through — had a discussion with Robin Worthington, Cadbury Schweppes property chief and a member of Imperial’s property advisory committee. There was clearly concern on the committee that Wye Park was a massive gamble given that nobody — no university, no house-builder, no landowner — had ever achieved what Imperial was setting out to do. After the conversation, Mr Worthington emailed Mr Brooks Wilson to suggest that perhaps it wasn’t such a gamble after all given that the college had got Wye at such a knockdown price in the first place and could recover its costs — which might rise to £4million if it went all the way to the High Court — by simply flogging off some of the silver:

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Mr Brooks Wilson agreed. If it did go ‘belly up’, he said, there were several surplus properties that could be sold. This ‘seriously reduces the downside risk’. In other words, it’s worth using public funds and public goodwill to attempt this gamble because the college could simply recover the costs — however large. Wye College, punted backwards and forwards over recent years, has become a chip in a giant game of roulette:

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As Imperial surely appreciates by now, the fight against Wye Park was based upon reality and genuine horror at the scale of their extraordinary proposals, not some Nimbyish desire to stop all new development at any cost. Time and time again, villagers have told the college that we would welcome modest, sustainable and mutually agreed renewal of the brownfield sites that have been allowed to go to rack and ruin under Imperial’s ownership. That position has not changed. But nor should anyone pretend that the last nine months have not happened.

There is a growing sense of shock now emerging well beyond Wye about the duplicity with which this huge and wealthy London university attempted to bring a swathe of commercial development to the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty under the guise of scientific research. Had it succeeded, some of the most beautiful countryside in Kent would have been lost forever. And Imperial itself would simply have pocketed the profits and left Wye to its own devices, retracing its steps to London to invest the fruits of its property development there.

This was scandalous behaviour on the part of a body financed by public funds. Those councillors, officials and local authorities who swallowed Imperial’s line may well have not heard the last of this saga. But nor have we. The biggest single land owner in Wye wants to get out of the village and make some money on the way. It will, one way or another do this. But it must surely appreciate that the success — and ultimately the profit — of its departure will depend on how much it can recover its shattered relationship with the community it has treated so badly for the last nine months.

If Imperial remains secretive, manipulative and duplicitous in its intention towards the village, we will respond in kind, in a way they should surely recognise by now. Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz may have thought he was addressing a bunch of bucolic idiots when he stood up at Withersdane on January 9, all that time ago. He surely knows differently today. If the college wants to embark on another round of confrontation with the village, we can promise that it will meet with a response that is more effective, more informed and even more determined than it has been on this occasion. We have no illusions now, and we will have the local development strategy on our side.

If, on the other hand, someone in Imperial’s headquarters sees sense and finally begins to engage with the village in conversations and negotiations that are genuine and meaningful, not the sham we have seen to date, then it will, in spite of past events, find a community willing to listen and attempt to reach a mutually beneficial solution. The ball is now in Imperial’s court, and we will be watching closely to see how it is played. In the first instance, the college can do itself and us a favour by making the following clear.

  • That it will not be proceeding with the masterplan to build the science park and housing
  • That it will not seek to develop any part of the estate except the existing dilapidated brown field areas
  • Its long-term intentions towards the farm, Withersdane and the college itself

We know from our own sources at the very highest echelons within Imperial that these are questions the college could answer easily over the next few days. We hope there is some voice of reason somewhere within the management of the college which realises that honesty and openness are the only way forward for it from now on.

We hope too that local politicians, many of whom have served their constituents appallingly over this saga, will support this call and demand immediate clarification from the college on these matters. Had they been more sceptical and responsible towards their duties of care, the Wye area would not have been plunged into the difficult and painful times it has experienced over the last nine months, for no other reason than Imperial College’s desire to make millions of pounds out of something it bought for a pittance. It may be late in the day but if Paul Clokie can apparently start to find an independent voice on this matter — for whatever reason — then surely there are others who can summon up the courage too.

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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 It’s time for Imperial to do the decent thing

  1. chris dawes says:

    Could the recent activities of both college and council have left them open to the possibility of some form of financial penalty or even prosecution in the future? The behaviour of Imperial’s ‘officers’ must in some way have contravened the very spirit, if not the actual letter of the college’s original foundation and charter, while Ashford council seems to prefer the Shirley Porter approach rather than any of that useles old local democracy rubbish. Come to think of it Tesco’s are probably lining up somewhere in the background .

  2. Ivan Warboys says:

    I have been watching and waiting for the Wye Campus vision web site to up date their latest news section. Other interested parties should take a look at their latest spin on 30 August ie a statement on the CPRE press release about the proposed housing developments in Wye. Could their spokesman be unaware of the housing planned as detailed in the last SOM workshop? How could he claim that their were no plans for thousands of houses when the details are public knowledge?

    Yes come clean Imperial and tell us this week what you intend to do now that the Local Development Framework Task Group will not now include a policy relating to Imperial College at Wye.

  3. David Hewson says:

    I have to be honest Ivan and say I think we’d quite forgotten Imperial’s strange little PR website existed. Thanks for the reminder and yes… it does all look quite extraordinary now in the light of what we know was really going on behind the scenes.

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