Tag Archives: Berkshire

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!

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.

For the Winter Tyre Naysayers

20120205-105813 AM.jpgFor the winter tyre naysayers that say they don’t make a difference, this is a shot of the car park just before church this morning. For those who don’t know St James’ it sits on top of a hill, at probably the highest point in the village. The line up of cars are all 4◊4’s plus ours with winter tyres. Whereas in previous years our car wouldn’t be able to get the traction to get up to the top with the winter tyres it managed it with only a slight flicker from the traction control when it reached the top. Only one other two wheel drive made it, but that got stuck near the top and needed a push. The clearance teams had managed to clear the hill by the end of the service so I suspect the 11 o’clockers will have an easier run, especially as the snow is thawing a bit now.

In terms of how they drive on a clear road there is not much difference, however on snow and ice they feel a lot firmer, actually feeling a bit of resistance – I had to really push it to get the ABS to activate even on an uncleared road. You still need to take care, but the drive feels way more secure than the usual low profile summer tyres.

Discussing Church Attendance Statistics on BBC Berkshire

This morning at just after 7am, rather than eating my breakfast as I would normally be, I was instead on the phone talking to Andrew Peach on BBC Radio Berkshire in a phone in discussion about falling church attendance, triggered by the provisional 2010 attendance figures published last week. In terms of the Oxford Diocese they show a fall in various weekly attendance stats that in percentage terms is middle of the pack, but thanks to the large number of churches in the diocese sounds a lot more of a crisis if you quote the actual number, which BBC Berkshire did Рfrequently. However the stats also show that membership across the diocese has gone up, and a rise in church weddings, and similarly healthy figures for baptism.

The discussion was trailed as the main topic of discussion yesterday, so I actually e-mailed in talking about our church St James’ Finchampstead where attendance is doing anything but falling, and at lunchtime I had an e-mail from a BBC researcher wanting me to participate.

I’ve listened enough to the Peach show to realise how they work, generally the discussion is kicked off by a couple of people, usually with opposing opinions, and since I was asked to be one of the first it looked like I was being lined up as one of those people. I didn’t find out who the other person was until I heard them on the radio with everyone else, and it turned out to be a chap from Ascot, now member of the Reading branch of the Catholic Ordinariate¬†who was previously a member of the Church of England (I’m guessing at All Saints) who was quite clear that the reason numbers were falling was because the Church of England was going all liberal and ordaining women.

Now in my experience whilst the press and media absolutely love a good scrap between Anglicans over women priests, or women bishops, or even better a good gay story, and whilst there are parts of the church that regularly make a big noise over it, for the overwhelming majority of the average people in the pews it’s a non-issue. Since the Vicar of Dibley¬†most people outside the Church of England, and a good few inside it are surprised, even shocked that there are still churches in the Church of England that will not recognise an ordained woman as a valid priest. It really is not something that figures in their thinking. What people are interested in is whether the services are interesting or boring, whether their kids will be welcome, whether the sermons will be too long, whether the music is to their taste. For the vast majority of people the sex of the person up the front, or what they do in the bedroom doesn’t figure at all.

So, with him having said his piece, Andrew came to me, and basically asked for my comment, to which I gave much the same response as I’ve just explained above. Given that the Priest in Charge who started the growth at St James’ Finchampstead¬†was a woman, which I’d mentioned in the discussion with the researcher yesterday, I’m thinking they were hoping I’d angrily point out that a woman had turned our struggling church around, but I didn’t. My thought was very much that this shouldn’t be about the hot button issues, but should be much more about what we and other growing churches were doing. In my little slot I got in the point about services catering for a broad range of people, and Andrew moved on. What was particularly pleasing is that although there were one or two texts and tweets who provided some media pleasing bashing the other Christians with bible verses many of the people followed me talked about their thriving churches and didn’t rise to the bait. Interestingly they even tried to bait Bishop John with replaying the same interview an hour later, but he didn’t rise to it either. At one point they also had Sean Green¬†who is a pastor at Reading Family Church¬†who made a comment about falling numbers not being his experience with Church of England colleagues in the town, and how you can show a lot of things with statistics – very true given the line the programme was taking.

So the big question is why are some churches growing, and others shrinking? Given our experience at St James, it can’t be generalised into saying that the evangelical churches are growing and the liberal ones are shrinking, nor can it be categorised looking at worship styles or anything else. All across the spectrum of churches there are some that are growing and some that are shrinking. Fundamentally I think it comes down to which churches are connecting with their current and potential members and which ones aren’t. The strong welcoming communities are the ones that are growing, so in our case the people who come are perhaps looking for a more traditional type of service, something that is recognisably a traditional church. For our part we make sure we do traditional church well, and provide a broad range of different services, activities and event under that umbrella each of which brings in a different group of people. As to why other churches have falling numbers you can’t make sweeping generalisations, they have falling numbers for a variety of reasons, and to be honest those churches need to sit back, and look at themselves and the people they are called to serve to understand themselves what is going wrong and why.

You can hear the discussion and my contribution to it for the next few days on the BBC iPlayer¬†– anyone in the UK should be able to listen to the programme, those outside the UK I’m not so sure.

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¬įC) 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.