Project Alchemy … the legacy

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.

Richard Sykes
richard_sykes.jpgNeither 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.

ebi_arnold.jpg

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.

Pete Raine
raine.jpgEverybody’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
dbw.jpgSir 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.

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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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8 Responses to Project Alchemy … the legacy

  1. David Hewson says:

    What an extraordinary catalogue of cockups and disasters this has been. I’d just add a couple of things to Justin’s concise analysis of the fallout of this dreadful mess. The amount of money Arnie has put in to sweeten the deal is relatively modest given the scale of the project – £35 million. Imperial could have argued the case for such government backing in the UK. Why didn’t it? Because that would have removed the necessity to build houses on the green AONB fields of Wye – with the £100 million profit bonus that was to bring.

    It’s also clear that BP were looking for bidders who had real agricultural experience too – Urbana-Champaign are well known in this area and I have actually met people from this university in Wye while they were visiting on an academic exchange some time ago. The trouble is… the Sykes regime destroyed the fine agricultural college it inherited, so it had nothing to offer.

    As to Pete Raine… I am astonished to see that he continues to rewrite history by bemoaning the ‘loss of jobs’. No doubt a large number of east European brickies and plasterers have lost out now that our green fields won’t be turned over to Tescoland. But 12,500 jobs out of a science and research park? They were never a serious option. Perhaps the next time a journalist from the Kentish Express does an interview like this he might ask Pete Raine a simple question. Where were they supposed to come from?

    Narnia probably. This was about money from the start, and it’s a matter of eternal shame that some of our elected and employed public representatives either never understood that plain fact or, for whatever reason, chose to gloss over it.

  2. jack woodford says:

    Just one more footnote to this sorry fiasco, which at this time last year was gearing up to be the biggest development for Wye and and Ashford since the coming of the Railways…students from the College (from overseas for the most part), are now asking Wye Parish Council for monies (Wye Rate Payers Money) to help them celebrate Guy Fawkes Night …ie build a Huge Bonfire up on the Crown. to celebrate what? I’am sure most of them are completely unfamilar with the reasons behind the Plot! I could understand if it was a ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ ie.to the grandiose plans, of Sykes, Brook-Wilson, Raines et al, but in the circumstances, the request I think will have to be declined!

  3. David Hewson says:

    Well bonfire night’s a long way off but I always thought that wonderful event on the Crown was a great gift to the village from the old college. If it takes a little local help to keep it going I’d welcome that – particularly if it’s from overseas students wanting to be a part of the community. There’s a lot of rebuilding to be done after this little adventure on the part of a few people in London.

  4. Kerry Bethel says:

    Justin, despite the horrendous impact that Mr Raines’s ambition to transform the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty surrounding us into a vast industrial park and housing development would have had on Wye, you charitably have wished him well in his sudden and somewhat surprising retirement.

    Let us not forget that without the tireless efforts of David, yourself, WPC, WFG and others, his so-called delusion masterplaning would have ruined our village forever and thrown the lives of its residents into a black hole of unhappiness and despair.

    Perhaps we may be consoled by acknowledging that he will have to come to terms with his own conscience and that might be a struggle.

  5. Temporarily ‘exiled’ to France, it has been a little frustrating to watch the battle for Wye from a distance!

    It never ceases to amaze me just how low humanity will stoop in order to make money – often under the guise of helping someone else!

    ABC should be ashamed of themselves. It would seem that they were quite prepared to violate their own principles regarding Green Belt and things that are close to normal people’s heart – green and pleasant lands! KCC don’t come out of it clean either. They were quite prepared (and did) to violate a public domain Order and put under wraps, information that should have been freely available to the public – by law! Hang your head in shame ABC and KCC and remember that YOU serve OUR interests, not just your own!

    Add to this, Mr Prescott’s build! Build! Build! mentality and you are left with a distinct feeling that there are folk out there who think that Kent is a soft touch. A playground from which to make money, at ANY cost!

    Thank you ‘Save Wye’ for your excellent job in proving to them that we are not a pushover or a soft touch. Any other potential landgrabbers might seriously count the cost in advance before emabarking on another such foolhardy scheme.

  6. Sylwester Chyb says:

    While I regret that Sykes and Co for whatever reason finished off Wye College let us be realistic and not compare Wye to University of Illinois at Urbana. BP made the right decision and I am glad they stayed away from controversy.

    Best wishes,
    Sylwek Chyb

  7. Pete Gillin says:

    While the success of the Wye campaign is very heartening, we in Wrotham are currently fighting 3 major developments all within the Kent Downs AONB. I represent Keep Boroughs Green, a community organisation and we are currently opposing an application by H+H Celcon to build an aircrete block factory on 24 acres of land within a disused quarry. The current consent is a five year program of planting and restoration to create habitat for a nature reserve for the community.

    We have now shepherded this one to a public inquiry but are up against the combined might of a multinational and KCC who prefer the concrete option.

    We are also fighting KCC directly on their plans to sell off their existing Kent Highways Gritting Depot in an industrial area of Aylesford, because it’s so much nicer and more to the point cheaper, to trash Kent’s beautiful countryside. They are both applicant and the determining planning authority, which gives them something of an advantage and it’s strange how all planning guidance gets turned on its head when KCC wants to.

    The common factor in Wye and Wrotham’s battles is local authorities, which seek to use the planning system to generate funding for their own use. Once upon a time we could rely on elected tiers of local government to hold the thin blue line against hoards of marauding developers seeking a fast buck. Far more dangerous is the gamekeeper turned poacher because they hold all the cards.

    I often hear local politicians bemoaning the encroachment of unelected bodies like SEERA and GOSE who are taking powers away from Local Governance. The reality of the situation is that the public are forced to rely on these organisations to protect them from unscrupulous elected members who see our AONB’s and Green Belt as a cash cow there to be milked when, through poor management, they have lost control of their budgets. And yes I am thinking of Kent Highways Services at this point!

    Well done Wye, but our fight goes on.

  8. Thomas Keith Horner says:

    My wife and I have just finished reading the book, having purchased it during our recent short visit to Wye. We now spend much of our time in Spain but retain our family home in Scotton Street. The proposed site for bio-fuel production would have been adjacent to our house. We have much to feel grateful to everyone who undertook the challenge.
    For a short time I was a parish councillor and Vice Chairman having lived in Wye for more than 30 years and bringing up our sons in the wonderful environment of Wye.
    To read the book and to, now, understand the tremendous work that was undertaken by everyone has been a reminder that we needed to extend our own thanks to Justin and to David. It is not easy to combine the job of earning a living, and the encroachment on family life, with such dedication to the cause. This was a public service that should be recognised alongside those who do serve the public in other ways.
    It is heartening to know that such battles can be won. There may be others in the offing. Developers are always looking for opportunity as they seek to exploit perceived weakness in the system and in individuals. They will now offer to assist Imperial in reducing their debt.
    May we also thank everyone else who opposed this plan, either as individuals or as members of a group? Well done. (We have slept easier as a result!). Pat and Keith Horner

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