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Imperial College's wilful dilapidation of Wye Agricultural College

res | 09.09.2007 09:08 | Education | Social Struggles

The Wye Community Farm tender for the tenancy of the Wye College Farm has been rejected by land agents acting on behalf of Imperial college. it is another further kick-in-the-teeth for local residents of the village of Wye and former Alumni of Wye College...

After 100 years of international importance for agriculture, all academic and research activity on the Wye College Farm has come to an end. The owners of the farm, Imperial College London (ICL), offered the farm for rent on a 10 year farm business tenancy. In anticipation of this opportunity, a steering group comprising local residents, farmers and Wye alumni spent the last year putting together a community bid for the tenancy, in the form of Wye Community Land Trust, to which 1200 people pledged to buy shares.

Unfortunately, the Wye Community Farm Limited tender for the tenancy of the Wye College Farm has been unsuccessful. See:

Several people have expressed the opinion over the last few months that Imperial College London care nothing for either the history of Wye College or the here and now of Wye village, and that they would treat the Wye Community Farm proposal with at best ambivalence, at worst disdain. Perhaps we must now reluctantly acknowledge that these people were right.

It is a matter of record that over the last 12 months we have written regularly to ICL to keep them informed of our proposals, and have sought on every occasion to build up a constructive relationship and demonstrate the mutual benefits to be had from the Wye Community Farm initiative. We would have always accepted the failure of a tender bid under a competitive process as a fact of life, but to be told that the landlord didn't even have sight of the business plan, even though they knew that a massive amount of work had been put in by a great many people over a number of months, is not something which can be accepted so lightly.

In the coming weeks, months and years, you will hear ICL make grand statements about their commitment to addressing the key challenges of the day; climate change, sustainable food production and distribution, and so on. They will also, no doubt, pledge their commitment to working constructively with the local community in Wye. These pronouncements will always ring hollow to anyone who understands just how much could have been achieved should the WCF vision for the Wye College Farm have become reality.

Wye, Imperial & a future for Wye Agricultural College

In October last year (2006), a quiet village in Kent was in jubilant rejoice at stopping a massive housing development in what is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. At the heart of the saga was a £1billion plan by Imperial College to build a Biofuel Research Unit and a processsing plant for biodiesel in collaboration with BP on part of Wye Agricultural College's 850 acre agricultural estate. The project involved a private agreement between Imperial and local councillors hatching a secret plot to get planning approval for around 4000 houses, a development deemed
necessary to underwrite the cost what was referred to as a "Science Park".
Unfortunately for Imperial, BP withdrew Wye from their short-list of potential venues for their new science facility, opting for Berkely University in California. The alternative of a research project in London was put in place, still to be underwritten by the housing development. However, the leaking of a private agreement between Imperial, Ashford Borough Council and Kent County Council revealed a breathtaking level of arrogance in manipulating the democratic process, leading to the housing scheme being abandoned, just 283 days after they first announced it. As David Hewson says in the forward in his book 'Saved': "the failure of
Imperial College and its allies represents, in the short-term atleast, one of the biggest environmental campaign successes of recent decades."

However, there is a tragedy underlying the triumph in stopping the monstrous Wye Park development, namely the end of Wye Agricultural College. For good or bad, Wye College was very much at the forefront of the 20th century agricultural revolution and the huge rise in production seen across Western Europe after the war. Throughout the 20th century, the mainstay of research at Wye was plant propagation and the development of new crop varieties, bred for higher yields or incorporating other characteristics such as disease resistance. Wye's international reputation remained for the next 100 years, as linkages with international
agriculture colleges and research projects across the world particularly in Africa, proliferated from the 1950s onwards. Despite the mainstay of work remaining in large-scale industrial agriculture, as is the common nature of Western Europe, environment management and sustainable agriculture were increasingly taking up more importance in the college's research and academic work, with new groundbreaking Masters courses in Sustainable Agriculture and the undergraduate 'Agriculture & the Environment' degree (predating Curry's review on farming by about 10 years). Wye was linked with more than 70 institutions around the world at
one time, in countries such as Mexico, Malaysia, Pakistan, Tanzania and
Zimbabwe. Projects at Wye included work on biological pest control where Wye was at the forefront of research, improved genotypes in breeding of pigs and sheep and utilising whole crop cereals in dairying as a means of reducing need for inorganic fertiliser. Research work done at Wye was regularly name-checked on 'Farmers Today' over the years.

Wye's Royal charter was unprecedentedly and mysteriously removed in 2000.

Whilst the closure of a number of agricultural colleges across the country
has reflected the contraction in the industry, the extent of research at Wye and the College's international reputation and links overseas did put it in a position of preeminence amongst it's academic peers around the world. In this period of reflection upon the challenges facing western civilisation with the spectre of peak-oil on the horizon, one could have argued the logical conclusion to Wye College's legacy of progressive academic international inter-disciplinary research,
ironically, was a major research project into biofuels, with 850 acres of land to utilise. However, crops grown for biofuel overseas are resulting in massive environmental disaster. It was perhaps fitting that an academic institution with the name "Imperial" should have been involved in a project largely colonial in remit and execution.

Wye-College - hung out to dry

Instead, in the war of contrasting views of what agriculture and land-based livelihoods mean to western society in the 21st century, the reductionist logic of the market, the academic snobbery of a long-established scientific university dissociated from a more holistic world view that was manifest at Wye, and the Imperial weight of a multinational-sponsored research facility and ideological posturing to achieve this end have put paid to this legacy, reasoning that a college
with falling revenue streams is not worthy of resources being chucked at it. Yet, more constructive managing of the academic portfolio might have seen a different story (as it has been, business studies is the only subject now on offer, transferred to Kent University), so that Wye's legacy could really have been successfully built upon; instead this expression 'built upon' was interpreted in a fashion akin to the wisdom and logic of ex-deputy PM John Prescott - namely to adhere to house building targets of 28,900 by 2031 in the Ashford area set by the South East England Regional Assembly (SEERA).

What remains is the wilful dilapidation of a college facility, a travesty considering Imperial College spent £1 million of public money on consultants, architects and lawyers to push forward their ill-advised plan to turn Wye from a village into a town. For a central government that wishes us to take it seriously in it's commitment to sustainability in a time of rising global temperatures, such a careless waste of
resources and squandering of a innovative academic institution does not
favourably cast light on the voracity of it's intentions.

(Source: "Wye College and it's World, a centenary history, by Stewart

Now the good news...

There are many positives to take from the past few months. The tremendous
support for the Wye Community Farm proposal - from people in and around
Wye, throughout the UK and world-wide - has shown that there is a real and
growing awareness of the need to reconnect with where our food comes from
and how it is produced.

The directors and steering group of WCF Limited do not intend to waste the
work done, contacts made and lessons learned. Rather, they are actively
looking for other opportunities to put in place the initiatives originally envisaged for the Wye College Farm. Indeed, an exciting opportunity has already presented itself and is in the early stages of being pursued.

In the next few days the Wye Community Land Trust will be writing to the 1,200+ people who have pledged their support for the WCF initiative, providing the update as set out above. We will also be posting further information on the website, including the accounts for the project.