Tag Archives: Wokingham

Now We Wait

This morning on the way to work I did my civic duty and cast my vote in both the General Election, and also for our local councillor in Arborfield, as thanks to our unitary authority this is the one year in four when the people of Arborfield actually get to vote on local issues.

In Arborfield the vote is pretty well a straight rerun of the vote four years ago with the incumbent Tory, Gary Cowan, running against a Liberal Democrat, Steve Bacon, who was the local councillor beaten by Cowan thirteen years ago. As last time the only other candidate is from UKIP, Labour don’t even bother to field a candidate.

Sadly the campaign is also a rerun of the previous efforts with the sitting Tory producing leaflets spouting the most ludicrous claims about Liberal Democrat policy locally – this years gem being that the Liberal Democrats want to put 12,000 houses into the Garrison SDL. Bear in mind that taking the average household size of 2.36 that would be a population almost as big as Wokingham itself crammed into the Garrison SDL, at a density equivalent to some of our major inner city areas. The reality is that the Liberal Democrats have much the same policy towards Arborfield as the Tories – as one of the biggest potential brownfield areas in the borough it is a much more attractive location for houses than the other much more greenfield SDL’s, so even if a new government drops housing targets it’s more than likely that Arborfield would still be a prime site – and a careful reading of our Tories flyers show that he doesn’t say that housing won’t come to the Garrison site even if the numbers are scaled back across the borough. Sadly our one and only local councillor is also executive member for local and regional planning, so whilst his campaign leaflets bang on about him putting Arborfield first, second and third, he has a Wokingham wide view through his executive role, hence on occasions he can’t answer questions from his voters because they might compromise his executive position, and repeatedly he turns up in the press highlighting the next stage of the plan, only to object to the same plan in his role as local councillor.

Whilst there is a good deal of anger across the village, especially after the meeting earlier in the year where Gary refused to answer questions, Arborfield is one of the safer parts of one of the safest Tory councils in the country (Tories hold over 75% of the council, and even if they lost every ward today they would still be in control) I’m doubtful whether even that level of anger could swing the ward. Ironically though from e-mails I’ve swapped with our local councillor he seems a lot more pessimistic – indeed when his fifth flyer of the campaign popped through the door, following on from Redwood himself going door to door earlier in the week, he does seem increasingly desperate and unsure of his core vote. The count starts at 2pm tomorrow, so we’ll have to wait until then to find out if he was right.

By far the more interesting campaign though is for the constituency.

The Wokingham area was one of only thirty in the whole country that have been continuously represented by one party since the 1850’s. Our current MP is the well known John Redwood. Considering how safe the local council is people often assume that the constituency would be equally safe but it isn’t. The fact is that Redwood isn’t nearly as popular locally as he should be given the area, indeed his share has been steadily falling, and at the last election he could have been beaten had that Labour and Liberal Democrat vote combined. Into this mix comes Mark Ashwell, a local businessman standing as an independent. Traditionally independents don’t do well, but being well known locally, on the ground at least he seems to be making headway. Travelling around Wokingham you see vastly more Vote Ashwell boards than for any other party. He has also managed to grab a lot of good headlines in the local paper, and the various polls the local paper has run give him surprisingly high totals. Indeed the online bookmakers have cut his odds over the course of the campaign indicating that a good few people think he might win.

Considering the comparatively low majority that Redwood has, even a modest showing from Ashwell could cause a major upset, especially if a goodly number of disgruntled Labour voters swap to the Liberal Democrats. Whilst realistically the most likely outcome is still for Redwood to take the seat, albeit with a reduced majority, Ashwell has the possibility to either cause a major upset by taking enough of the Tory vote to let Prue Bray, the second placed Liberal Democrat candidate last time, and Liberal Democrat PPC this time in, or even more spectacularly by taking the seat himself.

There is the potential for things looking rather different tomorrow morning. Could Wokingham become a lone Liberal Democrat seat in Berkshire? Or might we be one of the few constituencies in the country to return a true independent? Now we wait to find out…

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.

Not Much Happening in Wokingham

There obviously isn’t that much happening in Wokingham at the moment – the big news, splashed on the front page of the Wokingham Times this week is that local links have emerged with potential US presidential candidate, Barack Obama, and he has even visited! Sounds really quite exciting until you realise that the ‘visit’ was when he enjoyed a night out in Wokingham and Bracknell a decade ago…

Best Place to Live?

The front page of the Wokingham Times this week proclaimed that Wokingham had been crowned the best place to live in the UK – a story that even made the national news – the source of the story being Halifax Estate Agents. Having said that, two pages on in the paper was an article under the headline “Cost, Weather and Crime cause Mass Exodus to Australiaâ€?:

The rising cost of living and bad weather has been blamed for a surge in the number of Wokingham residents moving abroad.

Needless to say, the irony of a ‘mass exodus’ to leave the apparently best place to live in the UK is not lost on some of comments on the Get Wokingham site!

One Way IDR Plan Scrapped

I may have baulked at the prospect of my local council spending my taxes on a probably fruitless attempt to stop it, but I’m certainly pleased to hear that Reading has scrapped the loony one way IDR plan. The idea was that turning the whole of the IDR into one giant roundabout would ease traffic congestion in the town, however taking our usage as an example, a trip to almost anywhere in town, like the sorting office, or the station would have resulted in us having to drive a complete circuit around the town centre to get there and back. Currently we only have to use a short stretch of the IDR for most journeys, so making the change would increase the amount of time we would have spent driving around Reading not reduced it. Unfortunately for Reading taxpayers though, their local council has now spent a truckload of money on a totally fruitless exercise – it’s back to the drawing board for how to solve Reading’s traffic problems.