Information about the spiralling construction costs has been in the public domain from the beginning of this year and it’s inconceivable that leading politicians would not have been briefed about the growing costs of this prestigious infrastructure project before that data became publicly available. But, as far I can establish, not a single UKIP, Tory or Labour politician has made a public utterance about this important matter. Even our 8 Kent County Council (KCC) councillors, who are elected members of the council which is building the station have been tight-lipped about Parkway.
It’s not as though Parkway is a small insignificant issue which politicians could be forgiven for forgetting about. This is a major public transport infrastructure project for the Thanet area which some people have argued (wrongly I believe) will be beneficial for the economic fortunes of this part of Kent. This is a project which was also subject to a high profile public consultation exercise just over a year ago. A second round of public consultation which was supposed to have taken place this spring, has been postponed until the autumn.
Apart from the silence of Thanet’s political establishment and the postponement of the public consultation on the station plans, I’ve also discovered that there have been precious few meetings at which the huge Parkway cost increases have been discussed by our politicians. I’ve checked reports and minutes of all the relevant Kent County Council committees which have taken place during the period in which the cost escalation came to light and can find no references to any discussion or reports about Parkway. I have checked all the relevant TDC meetings over the same period and once again Parkway has not been discussed. Even Thanet Council’s Joint Transportation Committee (JTC) which includes KCC and TDC councillors and which was set up for the purpose of discussing and monitoring public transport plans and projects in the district, has not considered Parkway once at any of its meetings over the past 8 months, even though it’s likely to become one of the largest infrastructure projects in Thanet.
The only organisations to have discussed the escalating Parkway construction costs are the Kent and Medway Economic Partnership (KMEP) and the South East England Local Enterprise Partnership (SEELEP). Enterprise partnerships were set up in 2011 to replace the old Regional Development Agencies, such as the South East England Development Agency (SEEDA) which were abolished by the Coalition Government. They are responsible for developing economic plans and strategies for the areas they cover and also distribute £millions in regional growth and EU grants.
These organisations are extremely secretive. Their meetings are held behind closed doors with no public right of access. They are not subject to Freedom of Information rules, even though they are paid for by taxpayers money and administered and supported by council employees. Their governing bodies are dominated by the private sector with business bosses, many from property development and related industries, making up 50% of their board members (the rest from the public sector including councillors) . Its unclear what criteria are used to appoint the business bosses to the boards and systems to register the interests of board members seems to be rudimentary or non-existent.
I am very concerned about the probity of Enterprise Partnerships. To put business leaders, especially those with property development related interests or connections, in charge of preparing regional economic plans, allocating £millions in grant funding, and having access to commercially sensitive local authority information, is certain to lead to massive conflicts of interests, and to increase the risk of out and out corruption. And I’m not the only person to be worried about this. Last year the Government’s National Audit Office (NAO) produced a report which saidLocal Enterprise Partnerships are another area of potential risk (of corruption and conflicts of interest). There has been some media attention questioning the impartiality of funding decisions given the risk that some members have business interests and could benefit personally, for example in planning applications.
The other thing which concerns me is that organisations like the LEPs are able to use their enormous financial leverage to bully and browbeat elected politicians into doing their bidding even though local people might be opposed to the LEPs plans. This is exactly what, I believe, has happened in the case of Parkway Station. KMEP and SEELEP set their minds on having a Parkway station in Thanet several years ago. But not, as they originally had us believe, to service the former airport, but for the purpose of opening up huge swathes of rural Thanet around the Cliffsend, Westwood and Manston area to the property development industry which is so strongly represented on the KMEP and SEELEP boards. A better, more lucrative, investment opportunity for property developers would be hard to find anywhere else in Kent
Hundreds of acres of prime agricultural land ideal for house building, situated close to a new station on a high speed rail line which will soon have sub-1 hour journeys to London. The profits from a development project on this scale could be staggering.
I believe that Thanet’s political establishment have allowed themselves to be bribed and bullied by KMEP and SEELEP (and Kent County Council) into to accepting this plan with the promise of massive increases in council tax revenues from the thousands of new homes which are almost certain to be built around the Cliffsend and the Westwood area should planning permission for Parkway Station be granted. Take Thanet Labour Party – a one time-staunch opponent of Parkway Station. In less than a year of taking control of TDC its leader, Clive Hart, was supporting Parkway ( I will be writing more about this shortly) . Look at UKIP and the Tories - just last year they stood for elections on a programme of opposing Labour’s proposals to build 12,000 new houses in Thanet, yet their councillors have failed to oppose one of the main driving forces behind such overdevelopment – Parkway Station.
The enormous power which KCC, KMEP and SEELEP wields over Thanet Council and it so-called politicians also explains why UKIP, Labour and the Tories have remained silent about Parkway Station and the massive cost increase. Why they have not held meetings to talk about this important issue and why they are content to let meetings in Purfleet and Maidstone decide what happens to our countryside and green fields. For fear of upsetting their masters at KCC, KMEP and SEELEP they have stifled democratic debate in order to prevent the already strong opposition to Parkway becoming stronger.
I have said it before and will say it again - the building of Parkway station is totally unnecessary. It will add to, not reduce, journey time to London. The capacity of our existing stations to cope with more passengers can easily be met by developing and improving safe cycling and walking routes, by introducing better bus services and expanding existing car parking facilities. There is already sufficient land available, especially brown field land at the former airport site and elsewhere, to build the extra housing required to meet Thanet’s future needs. The concreting over of hundreds, if not thousands, of acres of our precious green fields around Cliffsend and Westwood to build Parkway and all the houses which will inevitably go with it is totally unnecessary and will cause massive environmental damage to Thanet.
Finally what about democracy and the wishes of local people? Almost every one of the hundreds of comments submitted to the first Parkway Station public consultation last year was opposed to it. Yet our politicians – Labour, UKIP and Tory have totally failed to stand up for their constituents. They have shamefully refused to speak out about the project when it’s clear it faces huge cost increases. They have failed to hold meetings to discuss the spiralling costs of the project and to decide whether it is actually needed. They also seem to be content to allow non-elected business leaders, some of who may possibly have significant conflicts of interest, to make decisions about the future of Thanet at meetings held in Purfleet and Maidstone. And even before those meetings have been held the Thanet Gazette is reporting that KCC and TDC have decided (presumably with the approval of Chris Wells and Paul Carter) to push ahead with developing an unnecessary, expensive and massively polluting Parkway irrespective of what might think. This is not local democracy it’s a dictatorship which will only be ended by election of independent politicians who are prepared to fight against the establishment and the constraints of the corrupt, old fashioned party political system, which lies to and deceives the people.