Updated: Dec 21, 2021
The following letter was sent to Michael Gove, The Secretary of State, Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on 6th December 2021.
Dear Mr Gove
SELECT COMMITTEE EVIDENCE 8 NOVEMBER 2021 – INCONSISTENCY WITH WOKINGHAM BC STRATEGIC PLAN UPDATE
I am writing to highlight the inconsistency between your oral evidence to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on Monday 8 November and the approach being adopted by Wokingham BC in respect of its Strategic Plan Update. Specifically, the WBC proposals include a new Strategic Development Location in a currently greenfield site, where up to 4,500 houses will be built. The Hall Farm/Loddon Valley SDL includes heritage assets and locally valued natural assets as identified in the Neighbourhood Plan. The Council’s rationale is that this is the best option in order to meet the government’s target for house building in the area, having had its plans thwarted by the Ministry of Defence to create an SDL near Aldermarston.
I set out below the inconsistency between your evidence and events on the ground in Wokingham. An inconsistency that is particularly depressing given that we have a Conservative government and a Conservative led Wokingham BC.
Extracts from the notes of the 8 November 2021 Committee meeting
My questions to the Secretary of State
MG - “My colleague Chris Pincher has made it clear that in developing a plan a local authority can say, “Right, this is the number to which we have been working. However, in this community, in this area, you have to take account of the fact that we have AONBs here, SSSIs here, green belt there and so on. It would be unrealistic to expect us, consistently with all those factors, to meet the figure that has been produced.” In making a calculation about housing need overall, I want to look at how the numbers are generated in the first place. Some of the assumptions are probably out of date. Exactly as you say, some of the ways in which those numbers are deployed by the planning inspector can be more sophisticated. I do not want to over-promise at this stage, because I recognise that there is a complex interrelationship between them all.”
WBC states that the government has set a target of 768 dwellings per year to be built and has produced a plan accordingly. Your evidence suggest that local authorities have flexibility as regards the housing numbers in the plans they produce. IS WBC CORRECT TO SAY THAT IT IS FORCED TO CREATE A PLAN WHICH YIELDS AT LEAST 768 DWELLINGS PER YEAR? WHY NOT GIVE WBC AND OTHER LOCAL AUTHORITIES MORE TIME TO CREATE A PLAN, PENDING YOUR REVIEW OF HOW THE HOUSING NUMBERS ARE CALCULATED? It is a waste of everyone’s time and money if it turns out that the new Hall Farm/Loddon Valley SDL is not needed, because the housing target for WBC is reduced.
MG - “If you redress the 80:20 rule and you make sure that there are real reasons why economic regeneration is occurring across the rest of the country, you relieve some of the pressure on areas that have felt particularly under pressure in terms of housing numbers.” MG - “It was described by the Prime Minister in his speech on levelling up as the Matthew effect: to them that hath shall be given. If you already have high demand for land and high prices for the homes that are built on that land, and if you follow exactly the two principles that you have outlined, you create an incentive to build in areas that are already hot in market terms. That reinforces a geographic trend in our society that we want to rebalance.”
As you yourself note, forcing areas like Wokingham to build more and more houses is inconsistent with the levelling up agenda. WHY NOT ALLOW COUNCIL’S LIKE WBC TO PAUSE THEIR PLAN UPDATES, RATHER THAN WASTE MILLIONS OF POUNDS IN WHAT MAY BE UNNECESSARY WORK? This would also remove the emotional stress of people in the areas impacted by the proposed housing plans
MG - “We want a planning system where people can feel confident that beauty is taken seriously, that the environment is benefiting, that the money will be there to support their infrastructure, and that ultimately the community has a role in determining what is right. What we want to do, and I think what everyone really wants to do, is make sure that in every part of the country there are up-to-date, thoughtful, sensitive plans that have the maximum amount of community buy-in.”
The 2019 Arborfield & Barkham Neighbourhood Plan was the subject of a public referendum in February 2020. Residents approved the plan with 94% support. The WBC Plan Update is completely contradictory to the Neighbourhood Plan, which the council can seemingly ignore. It is also worth noting that the Executive of WBC adopted the Neighborhood Plan as recently as April 2020. WHAT WILL YOUR DEPARTMENT DO ABOUT THE INCONSISTENTCY BETWEEN YOUR ASPIRATIONS FOR THE PLANNING SYSTEM AND THE ACTIONS OF WBC TO IGNORE THE STATED VIEWS OF RESIDENTS AS EXPRESSED IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD PLAN?
MG - “By unlocking land, I am very keen, working with Homes England and local government, to get a brownfield-first policy that really works and to provide people with the sort of housing that is welcomed and needed in particular areas. It goes back to the points I made, following on from Mary and Florence’s questions, that there are going to be a variety of types of home that will be attractive and, I hope, affordable in urban settings that we need to concentrate on. There are other things we can do to help local government and local communities to welcome the right sort of development in their area”
You say that you want a brownfield first policy. WBC states that it does not have sufficient brownfield sites. Therefore it is building on the countryside. IS WBC WRONG TO SAY IT HAS INSUFFICIENT BROWNFIELD SITES OR IS THE GOVERNMENT HOUSING TARGET FOR WBC WRONG, BECAUSE IT IS FORCING HOUSING ONTO GREENFIELD SITES?
Although you may view this is a local issue I am writing to you because WBC is clearly stating that it has no alternative but to build on greenfield sites and in particular create a new SDL because of the government’s housing target.. John Halsall and his fellow conservative councillors are clearly placing the blame on the government and even have the cheek to say that if Wokingham residents object to the proposed new SDL, we have to come up with an alternative! Following the Chesham and Amersham by election it is clear that the covering of the countryside with houses and the merging of communities is a big issue for voters. Voters do not wish to hear Conservative Councillors and MPs playing the blame game and avoiding responsibility. This is not a game for the communities of Arborfield, Sindlesham, Arborfield Green and Shinfield. I look forward to your receiving your response to the specific questions I have raised above.
Cc The Rt Hon Clive Betts MP, The Rt Hon Christopher Pincher MP, The Rt Hon Sir John Redwood MP, Councillor John Halsall, Councillor Wayne Smith, Councillor Gary Cowan.
This Letter was written and submitted by Colin Watts, an Arborfield Resident, on 6th December 2021. He is still waiting for an answer.