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.