With every turn of this astonishing tale, you wonder if it could all get any worse. As the latest round of secret documents to be released, very reluctantly, by our local authorities demonstrate, the story of the failed Wye Park scheme represents a shocking indictment of the state of local government in the county of Kent.
And what does your local newspaper, the Kentish Express, think of these extraordinary revelations? Don’t waste your money buying a copy because we can tell you. They don’t merit a single word.
Why? Because this is a story the power brokers of Kent want to bury for good, and the KE is one of the many jaded baubles they own. They know there is only one word that fits the tawdry tale that has emerged these past nine months as Imperial’s grandiose scheme to turn the village of Wye into a small town has steadily crumbled to dust: corruption. This insane adventure, intended simply to raise £100 million in cash for Imperial while it simultaneously disengaged itself from the now-ruined Wye College it swallowed only six years ago, is the true face of 21st century sleaze. And if you want to do something about it, you’re going to have to start writing a letter or two yourself, since your local papers have been very firmly gagged on the subject.
Are we talking furtive handouts among friends? Not that we know of, but make no mistake. No furtive bungs are needed for a political process and those inside it to be deemed corrupt. Simply, in the words of one dictionary, ‘The practice of unlawful or improper use of influence, power, and other means.’
Could anything be more improper than this? That councillors and fee-grabbing members of public quangos should sit down outside the normal democratic process and quietly negotiate away the future of an entire community, supposedly protected by some of the strongest environmental legislation in the land? That they should, throughout 2004 and 2005, in circumstances of the utmost secrecy, draw up a scheme that speaks of hundreds of acres of housing on Wye’s protected Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, alongside offices and a business park. Then, when in their own minds the decision simply required rubber-stamping, release it to the public with false claim that ‘it was only a vision not a plan’ and that the residents of Kent were told of the idea as soon as it was humanly possible.
The scale of the lies inflicted on the public of Kent by those behind Wye Park beggars belief. Read the actual council documents for yourself here, files that have had to be painfully dragged out of the authorities using the Freedom of Information Act. Many more are still being kept secret, even though Wye Park is now officially dead.
What we do know tells a truly shocking narrative. Of how, in spite of all their protestations to the contrary, our public representatives were deeply engaged in the attempt to turn Wye into a new town all along. Of networks of allies working in private to prosecute the scheme outside the proper elected circles of committees and council members. Of local councillors keenly backing the Imperial case in private while, in public, telling their constituents an entirely different story.
And of how Imperial College itself, demanding the utmost secrecy of its council ‘partners’, regarded the discussions it was having as ‘negotiations’ over the future of Wye, a revealing form of language which demonstrates very clearly that the public protestations of Kent County Council and Ashford Borough Council — that they remained impartial arbiters of the coming planning application — were simply a ruse to fox the outside world.
In the end, the public weren’t fooled at all. Wye Park collapsed under the weight of its own deceit and the growing clamour of a public horrified both by its scale and the nakedly cynical and ruthless way it was being prosecuted.
But most of those who were engaged in this cycle of despicable behaviour remain in office, unrepentant, perhaps quietly negotiating one more development scheme for another part of our beleaguered county. They hope that Wye Park will simply fade into the memory, and that the residents who so nearly lost their village under a sea of concrete and years of development will be content to remain ‘magnanimous in victory’.
If you are feeling that way yourself may we respectfully ask you read for yourself the latest documents here that tell the shocking story of how Wye Park came about, and the terrible cost it would have inflicted on the village, with the quiet coercion of your public representatives.
A multitude of private connections link the people who tried to destroy Wye. Many belonged to little-known organisations such as the Kent Ambassadors, Locate in Kent and the quangos of SEERA and SEEDA. Most were part of the power network which felt it had the right to run Kent without reference to its residents until the important behind-the-scenes decisions had been made and all that was needed was a quick round of ‘consultation’.
But something else connected the public representatives too: every single one was in office as a representative of the Conservative Party, and as far as we can see intend to continue that way in spite of the revelations that have come to light in recent months.
We have no political allegiances and would have demanded a public inquiry into the Wye Park saga whatever the politics of those involved. The stench of corruption that Wye Park has left over Kent will not go away until the ghost of this appalling saga is exorcised by a full and independent investigation into how it came about. Even Ian Cooling, Wye’s borough councillor, backed a reference to the Local Government Ombudsman in September, not that he’s mentioned it since.
Yet the saga of Wye Park has severely damaged the democratic process in a hard-pressed county that sorely needs strong and impartial public representation. The principal council players, Paul Clokie, Paul Carter, Charles Findlay and Ian Cooling, are manifestly unfit for public office, given their clear connivance in Imperial’s plans when their duties demanded impartiality, scepticism and a care for the interests and concerns of their constituents. If they had any respect for the system they have so grossly abused their resignations and apologies would have been on the table months ago.
Please ask the Local Government Ombudsman to launch an investigation into the collaboration of KCC and ABC with Imperial College over Wye Park. You can find detailed instructions on how to go about this here. There is sufficient evidence of bias and covert, unacceptable practices by council representatives and officials on this web-site to merit such a probe, and Ian Cooling’s own statement as a local councillor that an investigation is warranted.
We’d also suggest you might want to consider writing and asking David Cameron whether this is the kind of conduct we should expect from his new Conservative Party. David Cameron hopes to portray himself as a new breed of 21st century Tory committed to open and fair government. If these are genuine ambitions, he cannot possibly condone the scurrilous behaviour of some of the leading members of his own party. He wishes to reassure the voters of a county which has overwhelmingly supported his party over the years, he surely realises he owes his electorate an inquiry into the conduct of his own party members here now.
The voters of Kent need to know what exactly they are buying into when the place their cross against the name of a Tory candidate. Openness, honesty and fair and decent representation? Or a ticket into the shadowy, secret circles of power where the plan to destroy Wye was hatched, nurtured and quietly prosecuted over a period of more than a year.
The men who brought us Wye Park hope to survive and scheme another day. For all our sakes, let’s make sure that doesn’t happen.