Tag Archives: Wokingham Borough Council

Isn’t Local Politics Unfair

So the people have spoken.

Well a small minority of the people have spoken, the vast majority considered it wasn’t worth the bother and didn’t show up. In Wokingham where the vast majority of campaigning was focused on Winnersh, where the candidates for the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives canvassed every house, elsewhere you’d be forgiven for thinking there wasn’t an election going on as in many wards people didn’t even get a leaflet from many of the candidates – indeed one of the Green party candidates seemed quite proud on Facebook to have polled almost 300 votes off no campaigning at all…

The upshot of the whole process was a grand total of two seats changing hands. Winnersh, which was the most marginal seat on the council switched from Conservative to Liberal Democrat, and over in Charvil a Parish Councillor running as an independent managed to unseat the sitting Conservative councillor. This result produced a response about how unfair the result was from the leader of the council. Bear in mind that the ruling Conservative group still holds forty-three of the fifty-four seats on the council so can still do pretty well anything they want, and much as with the library privatisation and bin scheme can introduce things without any consultation. To be honest if you’re talking about unfair getting nearly 90% of the seats off just above 50% of the vote is much more unfair but since he’s the party getting 90% of the seats he’s not complaining. As far as I’m concerned he’s got off lightly, it’s only the general apathy of the electorate who are fed up with all politicians that means that he didn’t lose more. Talking with my aunt this week, a veteran of many election campaigns over the years she said the only way to take a seat from the ruling party is by simple hard work, and that involves a lot of door knocking, not sitting back and being proud of 300 votes off no campaigning!

Don’t Be Fooled

As we approach the local elections on Thursday, and with the Tories rocked by a succession of scandals and crises since the Budget, the local Tory candidates can increasingly see the writing on the wall.

It’s even worse if you happen to be standing in an area with local issues – around Wokingham it’s the ongoing disastrous introduction of an unpopular new rubbish collection scheme coupled with other issues around housing development, the privatisation of the library service, removal of public toilets, school provision amongst other things.

As a result there seems to be an increasing attempt by Tory candidates to disassociate themselves with their own party, taking the local battle that’s been attracting most attention, the very marginal ward of Winnersh, the initial leaflet from Tory candidate Mark Ashwell is quite clearly Tory.

But on this page are pictures of the latest ‘leaflet’, an apparent copy of a handwritten letter. It does mention he’s the Conservative candidate in the second paragraph, but the required declaration on the bottom of the second page lists only his agents name, and the address of the local Conservatives, without actually highlighting that this is the Conservative HQ. There is no Conservative branding at all.

So what is going on? This is not the only place it is happening, elsewhere local Tory candidates are starting to see the Tory brand as toxic.

But as you come to the booth on Thursday to cast your vote what do you do? Don’t be fooled, whatever the leaflets say, if you vote for a Tory you get a Tory, if you vote for a Liberal Democrat you get a Liberal Democrat, if you vote for a Labour candidate that’s what you get too. If you want somebody independent who will stand up for wherever you live then you need an independent – but there are precious few of those around. Also don’t forget that around here you’ve got the Green Party and UKIP vying for your vote as well, in fact they’re running in more seats than Labour this time around.

Certainly with the unpopularity of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats nationally and the memory of Labour still pretty fresh (and not really a big force around here) the election in Wokingham is going to be interesting. The rubbish issue really has got an awful lot of people annoyed, especially when, like most things around here it was brought in with the minimum of consultation and many people were totally unaware of it until blue bags started dropping through their door. Could it be the issue that results in a dent in the local Tory parties absolute power and domination of the Borough? But if people are also wary of the Liberal Democrats over national issues, and have doubts over Labour, could we be seeing some UKIP and Green councillors by the end of the week?

Is Wokingham Really the Worst Funded Local Authority in the Country?

It may have escaped your attention, but it’s election time. Across large parts of the country people will be delighted to have Eastenders and Coronation Street interrupted by a knock at the door, a local politician of one colour or another who you won’t have seen since the last election tell you a whole load of reasons why you should vote for them in a couple of weeks.

Around these parts one of the favourite claims of Wokingham Borough Councillors from the ruling Conservative group is that Wokingham is the poorest funded council in the country. Indeed the claim has been made so frequently that it’s made the BBC news site.

It has to be said that when I tell people outside the borough what is said reactions range from regarding it as a ridiculous statement, to people on the receiving end of very real cuts to council services regarding it as a pretty crass and insensitive statement for leaders of the council in one of the richest and least deprived areas of the country to be moaning about money. Much the same reaction as to a banker moaning that his bonus isn’t big enough, or a millionaire moaning about the size of his tax bill. But the question is, is it actually true?

To answer the question we have to look at how local government is funded. Broadly speaking a local council gets money from two sources, the first is the money it raises through the council tax. This is collected in a banded scheme whereby each property in the country is allocated to a band between A and H, based on the capital value of the property in 1991, and the tax bill graded up or down so higher band properties pay more. There is a Wikipedia article that explains how the system works. The second source is from central government and consists of business rates and a block grant, the level of which is set by central government as explained in this plain English guide. Interestingly the example authority used by the document is Wokingham, and the document makes clear that needy areas such as Hackney deliberately get more funding via the grant than well off areas such as Wokingham.

So if you look purely the government grant component of the council finances, Wokingham does get the smallest grant, however as the governments own document explains Wokingham as one of the least deprived areas in the country, and with a well off population and high value housing has more resources of it’s own.

Tories would be the first to highlight benefit scroungers claiming money when they aren’t entitled, and yet our local Tories regularly bleat about poorly funded Wokingham. Whilst all local authorities are seeing real cuts in funding, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation lays out the effect of cuts on Wokingham in table 2 – a tiny cut in spending power compared to places like Liverpool and Manchester.

New Year Walk

After the pretty dreadful weather yesterday, and given the equally dreadful forecast for tomorrow, the weather today was definitely something to take advantage of. Whilst it was a bit chilly (about 6°C) in our part of the UK we have clear blue skies and bright sunshine.

The route I took was one of my usual walks out from the Garrison and then around between Farley Hill and Arborfield – it’s quite a well known circuit although most people tend to start and finish in Arborfield village itself so I have on occasion got strange looks when I pass people twice on the circuit and on one occasion last month a rambler actually asked why I was doing the walk twice when I passed them on both sides of the loop.

The loop is also a good one for any geocachers around as directly alongside the circuit there are currently seven caches, with two or three more a short diversion away. I’ve scored all of the caches bar one, which involves climbing a tree! Although it’s not on this circuit there is a particularly good multi-cache based around the footpaths beneath Farley Castle which is worth doing whilst you’re here.

It’s also a good opportunity to enjoy the countryside around here as if the large scale housing development comes to the Garrison site one of the proposals to ease traffic is to build a bypass around Arborfield on this side of the village. There have been a number of routes proposed, the shortest and cheapest option, which it seems is still too expensive for the Defence Estates led consortium who have this ludicrous idea that tweaking the design of the roundabout will alleviate the potential problems, is to build tight around the village – the footpath follows almost exactly the route that bypass would take down the back of Chamberlain Gardens and Melrose Gardens, and on down the side of the football pitch. The route that would probably be more acceptable to most of the villagers in Arborfield although probably not acceptable for those over towards Farley Hill comes off the existing A327 a lot further away from Arborfield Cross and goes across open farmland pretty well splitting this circuit in two. To be honest neither would be really popular, but in terms of scale the proposed Arborfield Garrison SDL would replace the Garrison buildings you can see along Biggs Lane and adjacent to Langley Common Road with houses, and also totally fill the fields to the right of the A327 in the lower part of this picture, plus go beyond what you can see. That perhaps gives some idea of the scale of what is proposed.

Anyway, the circuit is just over 10km from here, although obviously there is some extra walking getting there and back, so it’s a bit less if you park up in Arborfield or Farley Hill to give it a try.

Why We’re Not Moving to Milford Grange

Front ViewLooking at the previous post you’ll see that we were getting generally excited about moving into a new house early next year. Unfortunately as a number of people now know, that is now not going to happen as we’ve withdrawn our offer, and to some extent think we’ve had a lucky escape…

So what went wrong? After all the whole point of buying new is that it is a lot less hassle than all this messing about with chains. Certainly in many ways it is easier, but as we discovered it pays to have a good lawyer behind you!

Having bought new before we were already aware of some of the tricks and wheezes pulled by new house builders. They are apparently not as bad as they used to be, but certainly we had a contract where we paid if we defaulted or were late on the day of completion, and we also paid if they defaulted or were late on the day of completion. The original contract also stated that we could not refuse to complete if they hadn’t completed the parking, garage or garden fencing, nor could we refuse to complete if they hadn’t obtained buildings certification that the house had been properly completed. After objecting, both of those clauses were removed.

Where it all came unstuck was over the thorny issue of parking. Now parking problems on new estates are not exactly uncommon. Government policy for a long while was to try and encourage people to use cars less by providing less parking on estates. What is happening now though is that management firms on the estates are taking to clamping to enforce parking allocations so making sure you have the right number of spaces is important.

We’d opted for a house with a garage and parking space, however when the contract came through, that’s not what we were getting. What was on the conveyancing paperwork was only a garage, the space directly in front of our garage door was designated as a shared parking space for use by residents or visitors on a first come first served basis. Our solicitor asked for clarification and the developer confirmed that anybody could park in the space directly in front of our garage. This was ridiculous so we queried, and the developer came back stating that we could have exclusive use of the space in front of our garage, but subject to the management company being able to reallocate the space as required. Again, not good enough, so their final offer was to have the space permanently allocated, but again, not actually our parking space.

At this point I was getting decidedly annoyed, so I looked up the planning details of the site. To the right you can see the sales plan of the development. A particular point to note is that aside from the spaces in front of the housing association properties in the top right corner, every space is allocated to a property, and in particular there are no visitors spaces at all. Also remember here that in Wokingham Borough the parking rules are that two bedroom and three bedroom semi-detached properties have 1.5 spaces each, i.e. some have one space some have two. On this site they all have two spaces. Visitors spaces should be provided on a ratio of one space for every four properties. The planning application for this development stated that it would provide eleven visitors parking spaces, even when challenged, Bewley Homes came back and said there were none. (It is worth noting at this stage that their statement that there were none didn’t really ring true given that they’d previously told us that the space in front of our garage was shared for visitor use). Looking in more detail at the plans, at no time did they actually define the parking allocations, all of the plans indicate the location of the spaces, and in most cases have no indication of allocation, except ironically for the four spaces in front of the garages that we queried in the first place.

At this point I asked a couple of friends who knew about planning issues what the situation was when the written statement and plans did not agree, they all said that they should agree and implied that planning shouldn’t have been granted if they didn’t. I then spent half an hour on the phone with the local planning office, who looked at the plans, the sales particulars and the planning application and agreed it looked wrong, but obviously wouldn’t commit to investigate unless I lodged a formal complaint.

Given the plans it could be said that the plans fitted with the statement on what the spaces were, but equally what Bewley Homes were now selling also agreed with the plans. We then challenged Bewley on the statement but they deftly didn’t clarify the status of the statement and instead just sent another copy of the landscape plan with no space allocations and asked if I could point out where they were violating planning. Of course they are building exactly what the plans say, the query is more subtle than that. The Bewley position quite clearly is that the plans without space allocations were approved, and therefore they can sell all the houses as they wish. From the point of view of a potential buyer that is fine for those properties with drives, but for the eighteen properties on the estate that like ours were being sold apparently with space for two cars, if at some point in the future someone triggered an investigation by the planning department, and that found that Bewley should have provided eleven designated visitors spaces and didn’t, they could very well find that they only had one space not two. If the estate were also to introduce clampers to enforce parking we’d be left with a car and nowhere to park it, not a prospect I relished.

As such I couldn’t really consider the house until the parking was clarified, Bewley are resolutely sticking to their guns that it is approved, Wokingham Borough Council planning department seemed decidedly less sure, so given all of that we withdrew the offer, and asked for a full refund of all monies we’d paid out given that there were queries over planning. Needless to say Bewley came back via their solicitors saying that they would only refund £500, half of the reservation fee deducting a £500 administration fee, and not refunding for any of the extras we’d specified. After comments on their supposedly exemplary customer service via the solicitors they have subsequently moved on that finally refunding £1459 which is refunds for all the extras that have yet to be delivered last week, so whoever eventually buys plot 31 will find quite a few extra electric sockets, and CAT5e cabling around the house courtesy of us – hope they like our choice of tiles and kitchen too.

So is buying a new build a recipe for a hassle free move? Not a bit of it. I haven’t even mentioned the hassles with our current house thanks to an idiot surveyor from Romans Estate Agents amongst a number of “problems” he highlighted with our house were that we had a water butt that would overflow – had he actually looked at it rather than surveying from the back window he would have spotted the drainpipe going down into a drain, problems with the cladding on the water tank in the loft – heating engineer charged us £40 to tighten a few screws, and damp problem at the front of the house – a specialist damp surveyor charged us £220 for a full survey to confirm nothing was wrong. The Bewley house certainly looked to be well built, certainly better than our current Wimpey house was on completion, although without having had a proper snagging survey I couldn’t say for sure, but as our solicitor pointed out the legal side is an absolute minefield so it’s worth getting an experienced property lawyer on your side.

As a friend of ours who lives in the Garrison and is aware of the current legal wrangles over the proposed development here said on hearing about our problems, she really doesn’t trust anybody involved in building houses any more, as they all seem to be trying to pull fiddles or play the system to their advantage. I think I’d probably agree.

Lying to Get Elected

One of the big political stories of the past couple of weeks has been the spectacular fall from grace of Phil Woolas who became the first Member of Parliament in almost a century to be booted out of office, having been found guilty of knowingly misleading voters over his main opponent, i.e. he lied on an election leaflet. Typically other MP’s are worried saying that the ruling will affect ‘robust debate’.

The timing of the ruling was personally somewhat ironic, as it almost exactly coincided with the arrival of the official transcript of a question I asked at a recent Wokingham Borough Council Executive meeting. There was a newspaper report of the meeting published in which I get a mention – pretty good considering that there were forty-three questions in total asked on that night – however the report does simplify my point quite a lot.

If we roll back the clock to before the election, the first point of note is late summer 2009 when the then shadow minister Caroline Spelman wrote to all local councils highlighting that if a Conservative government were returned in the upcoming election they would quickly and radically change the policy on housing. The letter suggested that councils should not adopt any core strategy until after the election, and also referred councillors to the newly published policy documents on Returning Power to Local Communities and Building Homes and Communities. What is striking reading those documents is that they are very much about building more homes – the radical shift is from the Labour stick, to a Conservative carrot, so councils who build more get more money.

Looking at how this was greeted locally, Wokingham Borough Council adopted their Core Strategy as planned in January 2010, and the new policy was uniformly presented as being the ability to cut housing numbers. This ability to cut housing numbers was presented verbally, most notably by David Lee at a local residents meeting, and can also be found in this election leaflet from our local councillor and then Executive Member for Planning, Gary Cowan.

After the election there was an almost instantaneous U-turn, with everybody now saying that the policy would result in Wokingham Borough having to build more houses, therefore the Core Strategy was the only thing keeping us safe.

This led to my question:

The leader of Wokingham Borough Council has said on several occasions, including at a Public meeting of the Arborfield Garrison Residents Action Group in April 2010, that if a new Conservative government were elected they would abolish the previous government’s top down housing targets, and that he expected WBC to significantly lower the housing numbers planned for Wokingham borough. Furthermore, in answer to a question from the floor about how he would deliver this expectation in the face of potential appeals from developers, he said that WBC would engage Queens Counsel to defend their position.

The position was further stated in election literature from the former Executive Member for Planning which said ‘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’, and echoed by the Conservative MP for Wokingham, John Redwood in the local press and online who has stated that with the abolition of top down targets WBC should revise the figure.

Now that the recommendation quoted in Item 68 is that ‘WBC is to continue with the housing numbers included in the Core Strategy’, would the leader of the council detail the reason(s) for his complete U-turn?

To some extent I knew what the answer to the question was going to be, hence why I took along a copy of the offending election leaflet – the point where I held it up produced a laugh from the assembled locals, and the apology from David Lee – what I objected to was the implication that they had been taken by surprise by the policy, when in all honesty I don’t think Wokingham Borough Council would have merrily carried on without reading their own parties policy on housing! The purpose in asking the question is to air the point in a public forum, and get it written into the official record.

Looking back at what actually happened it seems to me that having read the policy documents, the local councillors realised that the new policy wasn’t going to help on numbers, which explains why they pressed on and adopted the unpopular core strategy. Realising that going into an election campaign admitting that they had no intention of cutting housing numbers would be tantamount to electoral suicide given local feeling, they carried on with the charade by promising to cut housing numbers whenever the opportunity arose, and then once elected maintained that the policy implementation had taken them by surprise.

Interestingly I had a private e-mail argument with Gary Cowan in the run up to the election over some of his promises where I said I didn’t believe him, and he got really quite defensive, but the policy documents were widely available online and pretty clear in their tone. As I said I cannot believe that local Tories with housing being such a hot topic locally would not have read their own policy, and the fact that they didn’t take the opt out on the unpopular core strategy seems to confirm this. It really just confirms the common conception that politicians will say anything, even lying totally to get themselves elected.

Is This Really a Top Priority?

As a country we are currently facing billions of pounds worth of cuts, cuts in local services and funding, and as part of that thousands of redundancies for staff across the country including one hundred locally, and what does Eric Pickles (@ericpickles) choose to launch a crusade on? Not the damaging effects of widespread cuts to communities across the country, no, he launches a crusade over unnecessary roadsigns, railings and advertising hoardings.

Now admittedly there are quite a few examples, Flickr have a group with a few gems, indeed the BBC has today highlighted a few including one just down the road from us where Wokingham Borough Council Highways department have, rather than replace an out of date sign, just stuck a new, bigger sign in front of the old one. Messy, but I guess it saved a bob or two, and the council is of course under pressure due to the swinging cuts coming down from central government.

There are numerous, serious problems facing this country – should unnecessary road signs really be a top priority for the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government?