You read here yesterday how Kent County Council knew, back in 2004, that Imperial College craved to reap £100 million from its land holdings in Wye, more than ten times the sum that the estate cost it in the first place. Anyone in the development business knows that this kind of money doesn’t come from tiny little closes of middle-class housing. You only get them from substantial developments spanning hundreds of acres.
Did KCC realise too?
Oh, yes. From the very beginning, and they refused to squeal not even when Imperial College was from the outset pushing a scheme which was even more grandiose than the one which led to Wye Park’s downfall. In 2004, when not a soul among the general public in the village knew something was amiss, KCC officers sat down and listened to Imperial detailing how it wanted to turn the historic village of Wye into a new town, and all because it wanted the money. Read this astonishing verbatim note to see what was going under your noses two years ago with the very idea of destroying Wye as we know it.
The author is Leigh Herington, a senior KCC planning figure who was to be a constant member of the council’s team handling Wye Park. KCC do not date this document but we believe it stems from a meeting of KCC officials with the rector of Imperial College, Richard Sykes, and his deputy, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, some time in late 2004 or early 2005, long before the public of Wye knew something was up and was told this was ‘only a vision not a plan’.
At this meeting Herington scribbled…
In other words, Imperial told KCC at this stage that it wanted to turn over almost its entire land holding in Wye to residential development, on a scale that would have involved up to ten thousand new homes. Why? Well one reason seems to have been the idea that Richard Sykes was calling in his favours as a previous chief executive of the drugs giant Glaxo. The new Wye could be a pharmaceuticals town, as Herington noted, with Pfizer and the company Sykes’ Glaxo became, Smith Kline Glaxo, as potential tenants.
None of this happened, of course, even with ‘Rector support’. It was all just part of the sell. Did KCC ask a few questions? Certainly. They wanted to know why Sykes couldn’t build his pipe-dream in Ebbsfleet or Ashford instead, where there was a wealth of empty office and commercial space begging for tenants. But no, said Imperial. Ebbsfleet, part of that nasty Thames corridor, failed on ‘lifestyle’ grounds. And they didn’t want to be in Ashford either because they wanted something of ‘Oxbridge quality’.
And then there was the clincher. Read it for yourself in Leigh Herington’s own hand writing, what would happen if Richard Sykes didn’t get his way…
That’s a big fat underline, isn’t it? Do you think KCC understand the meaning of the word ‘blackmail’?
The threat Imperial College delivered to KCC and, soon after, Ashford Borough Council, was simple: give us what we want or we will go. They did go, of course, handing over the few remaining academic course to the University of Kent, not long after the famous concordat was signed.
But KCC certainly knew what was on the cards with the kinds of sums and potential developments being quoted by Imperial in these meetings. As early as November 2004, Mike Bodkin, another KCC officer who would later work in Wye Park, noted….
In other words there was absolutely no way Imperial could meet its stated goals without going deep into Wye’s protected countryside. Nor did this change greatly over time. In March 2006, as the serious planning process got under way, Imperial updated its demands. Leigh Herington was scribbling down some new notes. They read..
So, after a bit of negotiation, we were now down to twenty acres for the college, twenty acres for a research unit, and between a hundred and four hundred acres of commercial housing. Plus the ‘endowment’ — a £100 million sweetener which the college would pick up as soon as the bulldozers moved in.
Your county council was under no illusions about what the Wye estate was worth, and the plain fact that there was only one way Imperial could release its ‘value’. Just to make sure of what it surely knew instinctively it commissioned the land agents Cluttons to come up with a valuation of the Wye estate in September 2004. Cluttons, living in the real world and utterly oblivious to the madness about to descend upon the village, seemed a little taken aback to be asked to value what had, only a few years before, been an independent university.
David Perry, the partner asked to wander round the Wye estate and put a price on it, commented, ‘Clearly one or two areas have the potential for residential development, but the value of the existing use is difficult to fathom…’
Cluttons wound up suggesting the historic Wye quadrangle might be used for sheltered accommodation ‘if internal partitions will allow it’. But Imperial’s greed could never be sated with a spot of housing for the elderly. Tune in tomorrow for the latest titbits from this amazing bunch of revelations dragged out of your county council through what we can only presume, at their end, to be very gritted teeth.