The secret staging posts on Imperial’s road to ruin

In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re temporarily back in business and feeling punchy. After many weeks of dithering, Kent County Council has finally responded to our plea to release all the documents on Wye Park, since there can, surely, be no excuse for hanging on to files that relate to a dead project.

They haven’t done that, naturally, and many of the key documents remain secret or, we suspect, are no longer ‘retained’ (aka ‘shredded’). But what they have provided is still concrete proof that the people of Kent have been cynically deceived, cheated and grossly ill-served by their public representatives for more than a year. The saga of Wye Park is a local government scandal of immense proportions and we aim to place the evidence for that claim firmly in the public domain over the next few days. Please bear with us as we go through the vast array of documents that have landed in our lap and which will result in a series of fresh articles over the next few days. After that save-wye will leave it you, the public, to decide what happens next.

But first let us bring you a taster. The astonishing story of how Kent County Council buckled in to Imperial’s demands and agreed two years ago to start work on what would turn into a road building project into Wye to furnish the college’s ambitions, all at public expense, and all secretly pursued up to the very point at which the project collapsed in disarray.

Cast your minds back to last March when Justin Williams ran a story here about how KCC had quietly slipped into its planning process the idea of a new link to Wye from Junction 10 of the M20, without a word from the village’s county councillor Charles Findlay. There was a concerted attempt in some quarters at the time to paint save-wye as utterly unreliable, based on nothing but rumour and gossip. Ian Cooling, our borough councillor, was accordingly swiftly on the site to comment on this story, saying it was nothing more than a budgetary exercise, and defending his fellow Conservative councillor thus…

Shouting names at Charles Findlay, however therapeutic, is therefore a pointless and probably self-defeating exercise. I have known Charles for many years. I and others who know him (possibly better than the name-callers?) have a great deal of respect for him as a skilful, behind-the-scenes operator, with excellent political antennae.
We also recognise him, with some relief, as the sort of politician who does not feel the need spend his time pontificating away on soap-boxes (there’s quite enough of that from Cooling!). Make no mistake, we shall need Charles’ knowledge and experience of the KCC players and procedures to pilot us effectively through those shoals as we engage on the roads issue.

Whatever piloting Charles Findlay did remains unknown to his constituents, though it certainly doesn’t appear to have been on the behalf of Wye. But Ian Cooling wasn’t the only one in awe of the reticent Findlay’s talents. On November 20, 2005, KCC’s leader, Paul Carter, was writing a letter of fulsome praise to Sir Richard Sykes, Imperial’s rector, gushing, ‘I am very excited about the prospects that the project offers for Imperial, Wye and Kent, and am extremely supportive of the concept.’ To that end, Carter wished to introduce Sykes to some useful KCC people, Findlay among them, commenting…

Charles would be extremely (sic) useful ally. He is well connected locally and is a Company Director with a range of experience in both farming and the delivery of large-scale community projects.

Findlay also happens to be a member of KCC’s Highways Advisory Board which is tasked to ‘take decisions that affect the county’s roads and transport links.’ An important man, because, in spite of Ian Cooling’s protests, this new road was far from a simple budgetary exercise. It had become a prerequisite of Wye Park on the part of Imperial College. It wasn’t just a vast housing development we escaped by the skin of its teeth, and our local representatives surely knew this.

The idea was put into play as early as November 2004, not long after Imperial had announced the effective closure of the remains of the old Wye College which it had assiduously run down over the previous four years. On the 22nd of that month Sarah Ward, chairman of the Kent Rural Taskforce, penned a note marked ‘strictly confidential’ for officers within KCC. Sarah who? Mrs Sarah Ward is an ex-Wye student, a farmer, former countryside commissioner, and a member of the Kent Downs AONB Joint Advisory Committee. Oh, and she also happens to be a Deputy Lieutenant of the county and, like David Brooks Wilson, Sandy Bruce-Lockhart and grand old man of the Kent Messenger group, Edwin Boorman, among others, a ‘Kent Ambassador’ (please look at the foot of the article for a full list of these interesting people). This well-connected woman, perhaps, who knows, after a chat with her fellow ambassador Brooks Wilson, told KCC…

Imperial College are prepared to co-operate with Kent and Ashford local authorities on the future of Wye. They do not intend to withdraw from the campus and plans for its future use are still very fluid.

Withdrawing from the campus was exactly what Imperial intended, of course, and within a year it would be negotiating to hand on its last remaining academic courses in the village to the University of Kent. The pending ‘co-operation’ came at a price, Ward warned.

They would like to establish a science park based at Wye if an improved transport infrastructure could be provided, making access from Ashford… and the M20 more convenient.

Funnily, housing developments need good road access too. But no-one seems much to have noticed that, Sarah Ward simply observing…

They envisage that money would be raised from the sale of a small area of land for residential development.

Duly tipped off by a member of the county’s elite, KCC didn’t hang about trying to meet Imperial’s demands. On February 9, 2005, Mike Pitt, the chief executive, reported on a meeting between then leader Sandy Bruce-Lockhart and three key figures from Ashford Borough Council, leader Paul Clokie, chief executive David Hill and planning chief Richard Alderton. He said…

One query raised is the possibility of building a road improvement direct to Wye, using existing carriageways. Could you please get a rough and ready estimate of how much this would cost, creating a reasonable standard single two lane road.

Two weeks later, Mike Bodkin, one of the officers heavily involved in working on the Imperial scheme, e-mailed Mike Pitt, the council chief executive, to say the work was in place, though he warned, ‘Without being able to disclose the nature of development or likely trip generation this will of course be a stab in the dark.’

But Imperial didn’t want old roads upgraded. It wanted a new one, at the public expense. And it was willing to exert all its considerable pressure to get it. By 2006 it had taken on board a heavyweight traffic and transport consultancy, Steer Davies Gleave, and its brief was made brutally clear when it sat down with KCC in May this year: ‘The meeting was requested by SDG to consider the processes by which a new access road might be provided to development by Imperial College. Mr Tillman (SDG, and by implication the college’s representative at this meeting) suggested that ICL did not anticipate funding such a road.’

Did KCC tell Imperial that the only way it could get the road needed for its massive development was to pay for at least part of the thing itself, standard practice in most commercial developments? Not at all. In an extraordinary undated handwritten note which you will find available in full, along with all the other documents mentioned here, at the foot of this article, a KCC official produced a written estimate of £20.5 million for the total cost of building nearly six kilometres of new road into Wye, gobbling up thirty acres of land under compulsory purchase, and linking into the new 10a junction then heading straight from the garden centre on the A20 towards Wye across green fields.

Where would it have gone from there? Either directly across the open landscape of Hinxhill and past Brook, running along the foot of the Downs, or south to follow the line of the Stour river. An internal report in June this year noted…

Northern approach could be cheaper avoiding separate bridges over railway and river, but southern access seems better environmentally.

The price was also going up too, to between £25m and £30m on a very rough estimate, and this same note added, ‘Process — fraught.’

This didn’t stop Imperial making blatant representations to get ‘improved access to Junction 10a’ into the draft South East Plan, or KCC raising the idea with the Highways Agency, though internally it believed that central government was unlikely to approve a new road running directly through Hinxhill and past Brook.

There is a postscript to this story that may tell you something about the character of some of the people involved in this saga. Two weeks after Wye Park collapsed, Paul Clokie, leader of Ashford Borough Council, found himself at a meeting of the South East Regional Assembly (SEERA) planning committee. Its policy of support for both the college scheme — now dead, though SEERA seemed not to know — was waved through with a simple ‘Looks all right to me’ from Councillor Clokie. And so was a scheme of support for the new road into Wye concocted by your public officials to meet the demands of a college that has abandoned the village and merely wished to cash in its assets.

Meanwhile the South East Plan (the Regional Spatial Strategy) is soon to undergo its Examination in Public. WFG has asked for reference to the Wye Campus to be removed since Imperial College has dropped its proposals. SEERA has now removed reference to Wye Campus and to the road link from the Implementation Plan, and will be requesting the panel of examiners to remove mention of Wye Campus from the RSS itself. We are waiting to hear whether the panel has the authority to remove mention of Wye from the RSS once it has received SEERA’s request or whether it has to wait until after the relevant session of the Examination in Public has taken place in February 2007.

The road will never, in all probability, be built, at least in our lifetimes. But no thanks to any sense of duty and care on the part of our elected representatives.

Documents

Memo from Sarah Ward

Paul Carter on Charles Findlay

Handwritten notes on building a new road into Wye

SDG meeting May 06

KCC road meeting June 06

Note to Highways Agency

Imperial comments on the draft South East Plan

A full list of ‘Kent Ambassadors’

Advertisements

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.
This entry was posted in News. Bookmark the permalink.