You may remember last autumn that I had a letter published in the Wokingham Times complaining about the pretty tedious arguments that our Conservative local councillor in particular had been having with the opposition Liberal Democrats through the pages of the newspaper. As an aside, in terms of results, it quietened down for a bit, although there were still occasional letters. I had a personal letter from our local Liberal Democrat candidate, but not a peep out of our Conservative local councillor Gary Cowan, until of course election time came around this year and he turned up on the doorstep asking for our votes.
Anyway, recently the argument over housing numbers has flared up again. Initially it was started by a letter from Gary Cowan saying that the Conservatives didn’t support housing development, and blaming the Liberal Democrats, saying that they were backing development. This of course was swiftly followed by a response from the Liberal Democrats, then another from Cowan and so on. The Wokingham Liberal Democrats have produced a press release describing the trigger for this latest round of arguments – in the interest of fairness I’ve taken a look on the local Conservative site but there is nothing about this particular part of the issue. My spin on it is that neither party actually wants large scale development, the differences are actually over how to deal with the issue of the numbers being allocated to our area by central government. As far as I am concerned, both parties could be accused of – to some extent – misrepresenting the policies of the other.
The exchange has now degenerated into an argument over numbers of houses, with both sides claiming that they are against large scale housing development, and blaming the other for the numbers that are allocated, and also having decidedly tedious arguments over the exact figures. Bear in mind that although there is a difference in numbers, both parties would sign up for significant levels of housing development. In truth since the whole house building issue is being driven from central government (take a look at this section by the Campaign to Protect Rural England) it is a slightly irrelevant and pointless discussion as to my mind whoever was in charge, the building plans would be forced through. A local council really has little real power to stop something like this, it really comes down to a question of how you deal with it. Indeed, behind the posturing, elsewhere in the local paper last week it was reported that the Conservative administration had published a list of possible sites for housing – bear in mind that this is really a compilation of sites that have been suggested rather than a definite plan. Having said that, with some definite places and numbers, it has the potential to rattle a number a local communities.
The list perhaps gives a clue as to why Gary Cowan in particular is so keen to distract blame onto the Liberal Democrats, when you take a look at the list. His bio on the local Conservative site highlights that he is executive member for planning, however a look at the locations mentioned reveals quite what a large amount of the new housing allocation will fall on his area. Arborfield Garrison has, since rumours of it’s closure started has always been seen as a likely spot. Already two areas of former land have become the Penrose Park and Poppyfields developments, and the closure of the base will result in up to 2000 new houses being built. However in addition to that, there is another significant development of hundreds of houses listed as ‘Barker Close’, where Gary actually lives – a look at the map shows that the space for building there is all green-field development. The real driver from development is coming from the Labour government, but in this area it is a straight two horse race between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, so it is quite easy to speculate that a well organised campaign by the Liberal Democrats highlighting the inability of the sitting Conservative administration to stop the developments, could pay dividends – Cowan as the named person responsible for development being a prizes scalp. Repeatedly blaming the policies of the Liberal Democrats during the short period that they held minority control of the council, would seems to be the best tactic to try and hold on to power. Interestingly, many years ago another Conservative administration in my local council at the time lost a similar battle with the Liberal Democrats – who still control the local council today – over the routing of the M25, so the stakes can be high.
Anyway, taking a look at the rest of the list, other local sites on the list include the Hogwood Lane Industrial Estate which is brown field. Confusingly a significant development, again of several hundred houses at Church Farm, Finchampstead, currently an area of just over 100 acres of farm land between the housing in North Finchampstead, and the area around the church. However clarification of this in this weeks paper states that this is actually the field bought by a UK landbank to sell to individual developers – not suprisingly this has caused just as much concern as it was believed that the land was protected. Indeed the bulk of the list hits various places around this part of the district. Of course to see the argument for development around here, you only need look at where the bulk of new developments are occurring currently – although Finchampstead received a lot of housing the seventies and eighties, the latest round has been hitting other parts of the district.
But what are the other options? According to the Liberal Democrat press release they are arguing for a single large development, similar in concept to the Elvetham Heath development near Fleet. This is not a new idea, previously there have been large scale developments proposed at Grazely, Spencers Wood and Shinfield – read this English Heritage report for a mention of those – however despite the objections, large scale development has subsequently occurred in both Shinfield and Spencers Wood. The argument for that is that by designating one large development, the developers will be required to provide road upgrades, and sites for new schools and shops – smaller developments could well be built with nothing like that. However designating a single large site, could result in the whole scheme being rejected by an organised campaign – take the Dever Society campaign against the plans for a new town at Micheldever. Having said that, firstly it is difficult to see where there would be space for such a new town around here, and secondly with the Liberal Democrats in an increasingly weak position locally, the list of numerous small scale developments seems likely.
Ultimately, since the building is being driven from national government, and Wokingham sits at the heart of one of the areas with most demand, there seems little that can be done to stop the new building. However I’m sure we’ll still be having arguments in the local paper over who is to blame for a long time to come – which is a pity, as in reality discussion should be on where the new houses are going to be built, and which bits of green field are going to be bulldozed.