The smoke has finally cleared after the battle of Wye Park but the fallout from Imperial’s shattered vision litters the field. It’s almost six months since Prof Sir Leszek Borysiewicz announced that the college was scrapping its plan to destroy a large part of Kent’s most beautiful environment and that it would not look for an alternative.
If anybody hasn’t yet noticed, Wye College is gone. Its departments are closed or moved to South Kensington, its professors redundant or relocated, its happy and noisy population of red-faced agriculture undergrads a distant memory. For the people of Wye, this is the real legacy of Project Alchemy: the wanton destruction of an ancient institution by a small group of academics and businessmen located in a steel and glass building 60 miles away.
But the Wye Park scandal has also hurt those most closely associated with it, too, and some of them very badly indeed. The time for recrimination is, we hope, past and we don’t take any pleasure in the effect this disaster has had on the careers of its promoters. Yet, just one year ago none of us — least of all David and me, back then still trying to find out how to be journalists again — could have forseen how things would turn out.
Neither could Sir Richard Sykes, the rector of Imperial College and ultimately the man responsible for the Wye Park fiasco. Back last spring — as his cohorts and local authority placemen worked furiously to promote Alchemy — it was his sudden decision to bid for BP’s Energy Biosciences Institute, coupled with a series of extraordinary leaks to this website, that were to ultimately bring the project down. An email from Sir Richard to Borys in April, leaked to save-wye in June but never published to protect a crucial source, showed the extraordinary volte face that was about to be performed. At the time, we didn’t understand it. But now it is clear what was happening. Sir Richard told Borys that the ‘scientific imperative’ had changed with the announcement of BP’s institute. That Wye could not be the centrepiece of any bid because BP would not countenance building in an area of outstanding natural beauty and that the timescale was too short. But that Wye Park should proceed on the basis that it might make space at South Kensington.
Sir Richard was hoping to raise the money to revamp the South Ken campus to accommodate BP’s institute by flogging off the fields of Wye to housing developers. Wye could not form part of the bid because the institute had to be up and running in 2007 and Alchemy would still only be at the planning stage had it gone ahead. The BP bid became the central focus at the college. The rector was very confident that Imperial — with its reputation and its pioneering work on sustainable energy — would win the institute ahead of competing universities in the UK and the US.
This dream, too, now lies in tatters. BP has awarded the institute to the University of California, Berkeley. The oil group apparently told Sir Richard that his scheme was ‘not economic’. The deal was sweetened because the Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, threw $70million of public money at Berkeley to secure the BP bid. But Berkeley also brought in the University of Illinois — with its expertise in crops — as a partner in the bid. Imperial once had expertise in crops — it was called Wye College — but, as we have seen, this legacy was destroyed to further Sir Richard’s wider ambitions.
Arnold Schwarzenegger announces that BP has given the Energy Biosciences Institute to the University of California, Berkeley
It may be stretching things a little to suggest that save-wye played any part in what was seemingly a geopolitical decision, but we wrote to BP last autumn urging it to fully investigate Imperial’s bid and its concurrent plan to concrete over Wye. We received prompt responses from two vice presidents at the company expressing concern that we thought the two schemes might be linked and explaining that BP had “fully investigated” the matter and sought explanations from Imperial which had assured it that its plans for Wye were not linked.
Now, with two grand projets dead and millions of pounds of public money wasted, the twilight of Sir Richard’s career as a captain of industry and academia is looking a little overcast. When he took over as rector, Imperial was debt free. Today, Sir Richard presides over an overdraft of £175million and growing and we hope that he can restore his battered reputation before he steps down later in the year.
Everybody’s bete noire during the battle for Wye, Charles Peter Everton Raine, Kent County Council’s director of environment and regeneration, has announced, at 55, he is leaving with nothing to go to. The environmentalist-turned-masterplanner is quitting unexpectedly amid rumours of disagreements between his department and the leader of the council, Paul Carter. Mr Raine, who no doubt will now concentrate on his career as an amateur thespian in his home village of Stowting, was, at one time, one of the rising stars of local government who was widely expected to make it right to the top and run an authority of his own. His sudden decision to quit has taken all of his colleagues by surprise. A former KCC cabinet member told us last week that there had been frequent disagreements with the council’s leader and that the decision to site a gritting lorry depot in an AONB and greenbelt at Wrotham had been ‘the last straw’ coming so soon after the debacle in Wye.
There’s little doubt that Mr Raine — who still attracts a large fan base among environmentalists — is leaving with the Wye fiasco staining his otherwise excellent record. But he appears to be unrepentant. This week he told the Kentish Express that Wye was one of his ‘biggest single regrets’ and continued to parrot the nonsense that there might have been an acceptable solution involving fewer houses.
We wish Mr Raine well in his retirement.
David Brooks Wilson
Sir Richard’s “fixer”, brought in as Imperial’s Director of Estates in April 2002 because of his Kent connections is currently working as a consultant from an office in College Hill, near London Bridge Station, having failed to secure another top post in the public sector. Mr Brooks Wilson, who has restarted his Noble Wilson property advisory company with his wife, Heather Noble, lost his job after the Wye Park scheme collapsed and left Imperial in December. An affable and gregarious man, he once promised to take all members of Wye Parish Council out to dinner ‘when it was all over’.
As far as we are aware, he has yet to deliver on that promise but he was spotted recently in the Brasserie de Boulingrin in Reims (a restaurant that promises a fantastic experience for gourmands) tucking in to brawn and other sweet bread delicacies.
He maintains his Kent Ambassador status and his still a trustee of the Brogdale Horticultural Trust.
We wish him well for the future.