Tag Archives: Berkshire

Bulldozed

A few years ago a Victorian cottage a couple of miles away came onto the market for auction. It was a few miles away in Farley Hill on a quiet back lane, a short walk from the river. The site included a meadow and a small area of bluebell wood nearby. The cottage had a lovely typical cottage garden and a couple of outbuildings. Needless to say the predicted price was way out of our budget at £800,000 and from what I can gather from someone else who liked it and went to the auction it went for a lot more. You can see the house on Google Streetview at the corner of Sandpit Lane and Ford Lane, but since that will eventually update, I’ve grabbed a screenshot.

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Out for a walk today I walked down to Bramshill Ford and thought I’d come back up past the cottage and see what the new owners had done with it – sadly it was this…

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You can just about see the remains of the garden beyond the big hole and the digger. The outbuildings are gone too, replaced by new buildings built of breeze blocks. The meadow also has large piles of spoil in it and a large flat area that looks worryingly like it’s been levelled for another building.

Sad really, it wasn’t a listed building or anything, but it was a really pretty cottage that had stood on the site for decades now gone.

Interregnum

St James'At St James’ we’re now officially in what used to be called an interregnum, but is now somewhat more boringly, (although accurately if you know your Latin) called a vacancy. Although his final service was at the end of July, Rev’d Richard our Priest-in-Charge for the last six years didn’t officially stand down until now, and was nominally still in charge, but now we’re on our own for at least the next few months, probably a year.

The interregnum is always a bit of a difficult and uncertain time for those left behind, especially when a church has experienced a lot of growth under an incumbent just departed. There is always the concern that people were coming because of a personal connection – a connection that goes with the departure of a popular priest. To some extent we won’t know whether that is the case until we’ve looked at the attendance figures a few months down the line. Certainly there were a couple of people who rushed to get services done before Rev’d Richard left, and I have had conversations with other people who are more on the periphery of the congregation who are less inclined to come without Rev’d Richard there, but at the moment I’m fairly hopeful that as a result of having a large team leading services and our popular NSM Rev’d John still very much on the scene things should continue as before.

There is also a big fear of change amongst many, which often manifests itself as a desire to not change anything for however long the interregnum lasts. Obviously that isn’t going to happen for a number of reasons. Firstly going from having a full time incumbent to running a parish such as ours with no full time staff – the duties of the incumbent get split between our part time NSM and the Churchwardens mainly – it is inevitable that you can’t run things the same. It is also in my opinion unhealthy to try and resist change. Like any organisation a church is in a continual state of change different characters in different roles, even down to the people turning up to services affect how the organisation operates in a wide spectrum of ways. Rev’d John is a different person that Rev’d Richard, and whilst we’ll continue with the service pattern as before, he will obviously do things subtly differently. In actual fact it took all of a week after Rev’d Richard’s last service before I had a “I don’t like the way this place is going” conversation with somebody! The church community doesn’t just wrap itself up in bubble-wrap until the new Rector comes along, obviously you can’t decide to kick out the choir and the organ and bring in a band for all the services when an incumbent leaves, but equally you have to keep moving forward.

On a personal level, my Church workload, along with a number of other peoples workload goes up quite a lot during an interregnum. I have to say I’m really rather glad that I’m not one of the Churchwardens at this point, as they take a lot of the load on their shoulders. Being a Churchwarden and working full time is a lot of work in a normal year, but during a vacancy it would be nigh on impossible. In my current role as lay deputy chair of the PCC the main additional workload is being in the chair for PCC and Standing Committee meetings. It’s a bit dependant on the incumbent, but up to now although I’ve been lay  deputy chair of the PCC for a number of years, I’ve only ever actually chaired a meeting twice when Rev’d Richard was ill. Now I chair every single meeting until a new incumbent is in post.

There are also a number of extra meetings on the cards. One of the more complicated aspects of this interregnum is that the Diocese is taking the opportunity to do some pastoral reorganisation. Our neighbouring parish, St Mary and St John California is also in a vacancy following the retirement of their priest in charge in June. Their electoral roll is now such that in the current climate they would not get a full time incumbent, and ours is such that we are allowed to have two. Effectively what they are proposing to do is to merge the two parishes into one, and appoint two clergy to the parish. It is worth highlighting at this point that many years ago St Mary and St John started life as a daughter church of St James’ set up amongst the new housing that was being built to the north of the village. As that congregation grew ultimately it was separated and became a parish in it’s own right – not without some drama that I will not rake up here – and the church has been charting it’s own path for a number of years. However of late it has been between a resurgent St James’ and of late the brand new Finchampstead Baptist Church next door – the Baptists having seen increases of 40% in their congregations since opening the new building – St Mary and St John are facing some real challenges.

What is really important is that this mustn’t be some sort of ecclesiastical assimilation – some sort of take over. St Mary and St John are a very different congregation, and with very different goals and focus. For example St Mary and St John took the decision not to have a church building, and hold their services in the local school, whilst we at St James’ have just spent in excess of £0.5 million keeping our grade one listed building a safe and usable environment for our congregations.

Somehow the two PCC’s have to meld our very different vision and goals into a job spec and profile for whoever will come and be our new Rector and associate priest. There are big decisions about how closely the two congregations work together. It all begins with a joint PCC away day, but I’m sure it will be a long road ahead.

So here we stand at the beginning of the next stage of the journey. Various people keep hoping for a quick interregnum, but being realistic we’re looking at probably this time next year before we’ll be getting a new person in post. With working around school schedules for any priest with children, much as happened with Rev’d Richard, whilst we may appoint in the early part of 2011, if they are based outside the local area, they won’t be able to move before the summer. Hopefully then we will still be the vibrant and growing church we are now, ready to move on into the next era at St James’.

Shock! Are There Actually Some Wokingham Tories With Integrity?

During the run up to the recent local elections I swapped a number of e-mails with both Gary Cowan, the sitting Tory councillor, and Steve Bacon, the Liberal Democrat challenger and former local councillor for our ward who had also run against Gary in the 2006 election. It started because I sent both of them an e-mail asking that they could run a campaign with integrity, and not produce a repeat of the last campaign with blatant misrepresentation particularly over housing. Sadly although Steve Bacon gave me an assurance, Gary didn’t, and then proceeded to campaign on a totally mythical and ludicrous assertion that the Liberal Democrats were proposing to put 12,000 houses on the Garrison site (yes that would be houses at a density of central London for those with calculators), and that the Tories were the only option for protecting Arborfield.

In the run up to the election Gary, like most of the other Tory candidates and Wokingham Borough Council itself had been squarely blaming the Labour government for the current housing numbers. One of Gary’s election flyers said the following:

The extra homes in Wokingham’s Core Strategy are required by the Labour government’s national policy and regional housing targets. If a Conservative government is elected they will abolish the high housing targets forced on Wokingham, leaving Wokingham Borough Council free to amend its plans and scale down the targets. If re-elected, as the lead Councillor for planning I would then ensure that our local plan was revised to spare the greenfields of Arborfield.

As we know, a Tory led government was elected on May 6th, and they duly abolished housing targets, therefore it was a bit of a surprise to most people in Wokingham to find that despite pressure from our local MP, who of course had been around on the doorstep backing the cut housing numbers message, and highlighting the same thing in his blog after the election, and the well known opposition of the vast majority of local residents to large scale housing developments, the local council seemed to be suggesting that numbers wouldn’t be cut significantly as they had already adopted their core strategy. This is even more peculiar considering that they, like many other councils had received this letter in August 2009 highlighting that an incoming Tory government would abolish regional spatial strategies and urging councils not to adopt core strategies – Wokingham Borough adopted their strategy in January 2010, four months before the current Tory government was elected and abolished housing targets.

Were the local Tories telling any old lies on their election material to win votes and never had any intention to cut housing? Did they not expect a Tory win at the General Election? Or are they just total muppets with no clue what they were doing when they adopted the strategy? I really don’t know, suffice to say back in June it really did start to look like Wokingham was doomed to go under a swathe of concrete and large scale housing development. I may not agree with John Redwood (@johnredwood) on many things, indeed I’m probably diametrically opposite to his position on some things, but at least he’s being consistent on this – he was elected on abolishing housing targets, his party has done that, and it’s the local council that is dragging and threatening to U-turn.

Roll forward to this week, and the headline on the Wokingham Times is “War breaks out over Wokingham housing targets”. The article again highlights the calls from residents to cut the numbers, and the intransigence from council leader David Lee who is unwilling to commit to reduce the target. Paul Gallagher, chair of the Emmbrook Residents Association highlights one possible reason – the new government still requires houses, so has switched from the Labour stick to a Tory carrot – Grant Shapps (@grantshapps) saying a couple of weeks back that “those councils who go for growth by providing planning permission now will reap the rewards” – so Paul is quite clear that the council, who regularly moaned about lack of funding almost as often as they moaned about Labour housing targets, would carry on with the unpopular targets to fill their coffers.

However, all is not lost, as the headline implied, the governing group on the council is not united. A number of local councillors have come out and said that if it comes to a vote over retaining the existing numbers, or cutting them, they would go for a cut. However there are suggestions from some of the Tories that they are worried that it will never come to a vote – the ten person executive, only one of whom has come out to say they are opposed to retaining the current numbers (and you guessed it, it isn’t Gary Cowan, despite his promise to protect the green fields of Arborfield), would take the vote alone without consulting the other 33 Tory councillors.

So are there some Wokingham Tories with integrity? Lets be fair, if you’d been saying for years that the numbers were too high, and being imposed by the Labour government, anyone with integrity could not do anything else but vote to cut the numbers could they?

Should Community Right to Build be a Right to Refuse?

There has been a bit of debate in the media today over reaction by the Rural Coalition to the governments proposed Right to Build scheme. The scheme was announced by Grant Shapps (@grantshapps) back in July, and is claimed will put the power back into the hands of local communities to get the development they want – indeed the follow up press release today is under the heading “Power to Local People to Preserve Rural Life”. When you have a read of some of the reactions from villages across the country the headline policy seems popular with villagers, the problem being that when you look at the detail of the policy, it wouldn’t help many of the people in the article.

Cliff Jackson who lives in St Osyth in Essex is battling plans to build 164 houses in his village and makes the following comment:

“We live in a democracy and it is supposed to serve the majority. If we choose to live in a village, why should someone be able to march in a build a load of houses? If that was to happen we would all have to move because we wouldn’t want to live here any more.”

Whilst in Arborfield our battle is on a larger scale, fighting 3,500 houses rather than 164, his statement echoes the feelings of many in the village. There is a clear need for some housing, but as I’ve written before the scale of what is proposed in our village will transform the lives of the villagers, destroying a rural community. Whilst the local council frequently points to consultations across the borough supporting strategic development locations, what they fail to mention is that the choice has always been over how housing is to be delivered not the numbers, i.e. it’s presented as non-negotiable that we have to build 12,500 homes.

It is clear from many of the stories presented that they see preserving their rural life as being to stop unsuitable developments rather than propose new ones – the proposed legislation is very one sided and gives villagers the opportunity to “preserve their rural life” by building, but no opportunity to vote down unwanted and unsuitable developments. Of course it’s obvious why – if you asked pretty well anybody around here if they want 3,500 homes built on their doorstep, much of it on green fields, pretty well all of them would say no.

Standing Up for England's Counties

There is a bit of a double act going on between Grant Shapps (@grantshapps) and Eric Pickles (@ericpickles) on Twitter at times with one promoting the other. One such bit of promotion came last week when Grant Shapps tweeted the following:

Eric Pickles standing up for England’s counties and 1,000 years of English history – http://bit.ly/aD1Z0Z

The link points to the Telegraph letters page of August 11th which part way down features this letter from Eric Pickles:

SIR – I share the public’s concern (Letters, August 9) at the recommendation of the Postcode Address File Advisory Board to delete counties from the Royal Mail’s address database by 2016. It speaks volumes that unelected officials regard our counties – and over 1,000 years of English history – as a “vanity attachment”.

But the new Government is taking steps to defend our counties. We have scrapped Labour’s gerrymandering which sought to break up the counties of Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk for electoral advantage and we are dismantling the tiers of regional assemblies and development agencies.

It is a response to the recent news that the Royal Mail will no longer include counties in official addresses – and as you can see Eric Pickles uses it as an opportunity to pledge to protect English counties.

I have to say I greeted that with a good deal of amusement, the reason being that I live in what was once the county of Berkshire one of the oldest in the country, which exists now purely as a ceremonial county, and it’s not been Labour gerrymandering for electoral advantage that has reduced the county to a mark on the map, it was the Tory Local Government Act 1972 that transferred a chunk of the county including the former county town of Abingdon to Oxfordshire in 1974, and then the previous Tory administration gerrymandering for electoral advantage that abolished the whole county in 1998John Gummer chose to ignore the recommendations of the commission leaving Berkshire with six unitary authorities.

So what is the effect? For us in our little village at a simple level it means significantly less representation. We have a single local councillor, who we can only vote for once every four years, for the other three years our opinion counts for absolutely nothing. Under the old two tier system we had representation at both local and county level, and many more opportunities to vote.

Looking wider, we now have six authorities fighting with each other. We saw it with the endless debates over housing allocation where Wokingham District fought and lost the battle with the other authorities – each authority purely focused on their own people. Even government documents such as this concede that the six small unitary authorities don’t work in the best interests of the people, check out this paragraph on page 5:

The unitary structure of local government across Berkshire makes it difficult for other stakeholders to engage on issues that cut across boundaries. This is further complicated by the range of political views and agendas within and across the local authorities, and by the fact that changes across other public sector bodies do not align with the Local Authorities or each other (e.g. Police, Primary Care Trusts and Learning and Skills Council)

The size of the authorities causes problems too, I remember a number of discussions with local teachers of the problems, for example the peculiarities caused by Wokingham outsourcing much of their education to next door Surrey, or the fact that school repair projects that were approved by Berkshire were dropped by Wokingham who had more limited funds. We still have the effects now more than a decade later with many students being educated in schools in adjacent authorities rather than their own, purely because villages in the west of Wokingham are closer to schools in West Berkshire, students in parts of Reading are closer to schools in Wokingham.

That also highlights a missed opportunity – Reading still doesn’t have one authority overseeing a strategy for the whole town. A large chunk towards the south east of Greater Reading is in Wokingham, indeed most of the University of Reading is in Wokingham. Over in the west another chunk of the town is looked after by West Berkshire. In both cases there is no clear divide between the areas, but the historic borders were retained.

So will the Tories stand up for England’s counties? I don’t know, but as a resident of the former county of Berkshire their past record doesn’t bode well for the future.

Business as Usual?

On Thursday I wrote a post discussing my thoughts about the election. Now two days later we have had the results, and at a national level are still going through the machinations caused by the results.

I have heard it said often that whatever people tell pollsters, when they get into the polling booth they can do something totally different. The 1992 General Election is a good example of this effect where the polls were predicting a Labour victory, but the country returned the sitting, and apparently deeply unpopular Conservative government for another term. For decades the government of the UK has been flip-flopping from Labour to Conservative and back to Labour again, usually with a large pool of floating voters who are voting to get rid of something they don’t like, rather than voting for something they do.

This time around according to the polls Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats had made a big impression during the campaign, and according to the pollsters had historically high poll ratings, at times pushing Labour into third place. But on the day all these poll gains evaporated – across the country people were desperate to get rid of an unpopular government and saw voting for the Conservatives as a way to do it.

It was against this backdrop that we must look at the results for Wokingham. John Redwood our sitting Conservative MP was returned with a significant increase in majority. In the press this has been reported as a swing from the Liberal Democrats to the Conservatives, but when you look at the votes this is misleading. There was a significant increase in turnout over 2005 – in actual fact of the three main parties only Labour had less votes – the Liberal Democrat candidate received more votes. However most of the additional turnout went to the sitting Conservative candidate. Mark Ashwell the independent candidate polled a couple of thousand votes, noticeable, but not enough to really impact the vote.

Locally, there was a big jump in turnout – the last time this ward was elected it wasn’t on the day of a General Election. Occurring on the same day it is rare for people to vote differently in the two elections, so again the local councillor was returned with a sizeable majority. Indeed across the whole of the borough only one ward changed hands, passing from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats. In the run up to the vote I had been swapping e-mails with our local councillor who had been defeatist right from the off, saying that our Resident Action Group website was going to lose him the election, that he knew his time was up, and during the course of the campaign we had more than double the number of flyers through from him. In my e-mails I’d repeatedly said that I wouldn’t be surprised if he was still the village councillor on May 7th, and I’m not – this is a staunchly Conservative area, and whilst there is a good deal of anger amongst some of the residents it is a big step for many from being angry about what is going on to actively voting for someone else. The big disappointment is that his insecurity in his electorate led him to produce election literature with some truly ludicrous and unfounded claims that do nothing for the reputation of politicians. I have much more respect for someone who has run a clean and honest campaign and lost than someone who has run a dishonest campaign and won.

Reflecting on the local situation, we now have a very interesting situation developing nationally, as the two parties who on a local level here seem to truly loathe one another find themselves thrust together as the Cameron led Conservatives find themselves with no option but to ask the Clegg led Liberal Democrats to support them to allow them to form a government. Thanks to the British constitution the incumbent Prime Minister stays in the job if nobody gets an overall majority. The Conservatives need the Liberal Democrats. More ironically any decision to support them needs a positive vote from 75% of the parliamentary party and 75% of the Liberal Democrat Federal Executive, and if they can’t agree it needs a ballot of the members. Suddenly in order to have any chance of forming a government the Conservatives need the support of the self same people who in our area they have been making ludicrous accusations about just days before.

The situation is also causing people to reflect on the absurdity and perverse nature of our venerable first-past-the-post voting system. The whole system favours parties with dominant pockets of support, as a result of the system country wide it took the vote of 35,021 Conservative supporters to elect one MP, and 33,338 Labour supporters to elect one MP for them. However it took the vote of 119,397 to elect on Liberal Democrat MP – the final seats in the Commons fail to reflect the votes cast nationally. Other perverse results include the City of Oxford, which is split into two constituencies. Across the whole city 41,087 people voted Liberal Democrat, 33,633 voted Conservative and 27,937 voted Labour, however because of the distribution of the voters the city is now represented by one Conservative and one Labour MP. Similarly in Wokingham Borough across ward after ward the Liberal Democrats come a strong second, but they have vastly fewer seats on council because the same unfair voting system operates in local council elections.

However thanks to the failure of the Conservatives to win a majority they now need the help of the Liberal Democrats to govern, and whilst elements of the press seem to think that they should quietly trot along and just prop up a minority Conservative government who only gained the support of 36% of the electorate, there are other groups who see this as a golden opportunity to properly reform our voting system. Today a fair votes demonstration that was going on largely unnoticed in Trafalgar Square, decided to go and visit the building where Nick Clegg was discussing the offer made by the Conservatives to try and get Liberal Democrat support – an offer that doesn’t include the promise of a change in voting system, this was the result:

Could this be the dawn of a new age in terms of British democracy – or will it just go back to business as usual?