Tag Archives: Housing

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.

Gambling on Arborfield

Today I received what will be the first I’m sure of many notices shoved through my door asking for my support at the upcoming election. Whilst there are many national issues to be dealt with in the general election, on a local scale there are big decisions to be made. And what a decision, there has never been so much need for a “none of the above” option.

I’m sure I don’t need to highlight the massive housing plans that are currently being touted by our council, with the sitting Conservative administration having voted to buldoze swathes of the land around Three Mile Cross and Shinfield, both north and south of Wokingham, and development primarily in outlying areas of Finchampstead and Barkham around Arborfield Garrison. What is interesting from the point of view of a resident of Arborfield such as myself is that the last time our elected representative, Gary Cowan stood for re-election three years ago, he did so promising to try to minimise the housing that would be built – now he is standing for re-election again with his name on the planning documents that bring over ten thousand homes across the district, and three thousand five hundred on his own doorstep – although his election materials repeatedly highlight that the majority of the houses are to be built in Finchampstead and Barkham, not Arborfield.

It doesn’t take much digging around to find the flaws in the current housing proposals. Going through all the glossy pictures and grand plans, and talk of build dates, you’d think that there was a definite departure date for REME and the Arborfield Garrison. If you thought that you’d be wrong.

REME have been “about to move” for years, and the move keeps being pushed back. The original defence training review was over a decade ago and it still hasn’t been implemented. There are local protests against the scale of the new training site in Wales, and recently the government yet again has pushed back a definite decision on the move, now waiting on making the controversial decision until the summer, after the General Election. With tightening defence budgets concern is continuing to be expressed about the £13 billion price tag for the project, with some politicians already highlighting the plan as an ideal candidate to be cut. David Cameron has spoken out about the uncertainty for the people of Wales, but has noticeably refused to commit a possible incoming Conservative administration to the move, instead mentioning just the kind of defence review that could cut an expensive plan such as this. With the need to save billions from national budgets, why waste so much money on a move like this?

Whilst all of this is going on, the Arborfield SDL is still being pushed as a brownfield development by our unitary authority. However in order to make a “viable community” many homes need to be built on greenfield sites – sites that would still be available if the Garrison moves or not. If the plan goes ahead and is adopted but the Garrison fails to move, without the brownfield areas the developers will only have the greenfield sites – the adopted plan is tantamount to outline planning permission. Even building on all the planned greenfield areas there will be so many fewer houses such that key trigger levels for the desperately needed infrastructure improvements such as additional schools, the district centre and a bypass for Arborfield will not be met – the whole reason for focusing on strategic development locations in the first place.

But then what of the extra houses that then could not be put on the site at Arborfield? The council is committed to build over twelve thousand over the next fifteen years, and as many people may know, the SDL’s do not meet the total housing allocation for Wokingham anyway. Several thousand are going to be in unspecified small scale developments scattered across the borough – if the Garrison fails to move that will be several thousand more that will end up as infill and backyard development, just the kind of thing that is regularly rejected when the residents of the area are consulted on what development they would like because it doesn’t give the significant funds needed for the infrastructure we as a borough desperately need.

What was needed from the council were clear and realistic plans as to where new development was able to go, what we’ve got is our unitary authority taking a massive gamble on Arborfield Garrison moving to Wales and the brownfield site being able to take the largest proportion of the new housing in the borough. If that doesn’t happen – and concerns were being expressed in the national press in 2008 that it wouldn’t – all we’ll get is more piecemeal development, more lack of investment in infrastructure and more unsustainable communities.

So where was the opposition on our council when this was going ahead, plans that are obviously gambling on the future of our communities across the whole borough by picking a site that is increasingly unlikely to be available? Were they calling the governing body to account for potentially dooming Wokingham Borough to many more backyard developments? No. It seems the Liberal Democrat group abstained en-masse from the key vote.

Never has there been so much need for a “none of the above” option.

Whilst I’m sure what I’ve written above will be seen as NIMBYism, it is worth saying that as any resident of the Garrison area, we moved here in the full knowledge that the future of the Garrison was uncertain, whatever was said at elections, a look at proposals going back years always finds Arborfield touted as a potential development site. However what we have always been promised is a sustainable community, one that can accommodate the extra people the redevelopment of the base will bring. Sadly with the ongoing unrealistic attitude to the floundering plans for the move from our council, and with the planned locations of two of the three schools and the district centre sitting squarely on the Army owned land, that in such a scenario would not be released, it seems we will instead be left with hundreds of extra houses and none of the infrastructure such a new development would need, and a consequential impact that will be felt across the whole of the rest of the borough.