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A Tale of Two Parish Councils

Pat Phillipps

United reponse?

In January 2022, Arborfield and Newland Parish Council and Shinfield Parish Council gave their consultation response to WBC’s Local Plan Update. It took the form of a long, closely argued document prepared by chartered town planners Bell Cornwell. In particular, it voiced serious misgivings about the Hall Farm/Loddon Valley proposal contained in the LPU.

The first objection to the proposal was that it goes beyond providing the housing required for the plan period. The councils argued that future housing requirement figures are unclear, and including Hall Farm at this stage could ‘prejudice the outcome of subsequent local plan reviews’. They also expressed concern that the large development area proposed would ‘entice developers to seek planning permission for the larger scheme of 4,500 homes’.

They were critical of the proposal on environmental grounds. There would be significant carbon emissions from site development, which would involve constructing an extensive road network of roads, new services and facilities, as well as the houses themselves. In addition, the councils considered, the proposed development could increase the likelihood of flooding in downstream locations, potentially putting lives at risk.

The document criticised various shortcomings of the plan that had not been picked up by

WBC’s planning department. They noted that loss of landscape gaps has previously been a reason for not bringing other promoted sites forward. The proposed Hall Farm/Loddon Valley

development would destroy the current landscape gap between Arborfield and Sindlesham. Since Sindlesham is a tier 3 settlement, it is not appropriate for expansion, according to WBC’s own Interim Sustainability Appraisal Report. The Hall Farm/Loddon Valley proposal would in fact expand the settlement.

The parish councils next pointed out that sharp sand and gravel reserves exist across the site. The Minerals and Waste Plan for the region safeguards sand and gravel, to ensure these minerals are not made unavailable by being built on. They observed that mineral extraction would be needed for the proposed development. Extraction and subsequent infilling on the site would cause a significant delay to development, meaning that the 2,200 houses might well not be delivered within the plan period.

Their final point was that the LPU fails to allow for the traffic impact of the Hall Farm proposal. In its November 2021 Strategic Sites Report, WBC published a Viability Assessment which does not cost for a new M4 Junction. The parish councils argued that this junction might well be required, to avoid severely impacting an already overloaded local road network.

All in all, the Bell Cornwell document was a robust and well-supported critique of the Hall

Farm/Loddon Valley housing proposal. Both parish councils should have been pleased with it, and keen to publicise it to their residents, especially given the thousands of pounds they spent on it. Or so you might think.

Not so united

Acting in tandem, the two parish councils made some shrewd points in their consultation document about the unsuitability of Hall Farm/London Valley as a development site. They acted very differently when it came to how they presented themselves to their residents, however.

Early in January 2022, Arborfield PC publicised a local initiative to stop the development, which urged residents to get their consultation responses in before the cut-off date. (Yes, it was our very own SOLVE campaign.) At the council’s January meeting, the Bell Cornwell report, circulated prior to the meeting, was discussed, and it was agreed a letter would be drafted to accompany the report including the council’s response. In an appendix to the minutes of the meeting, Arborfield Borough Cllr Gary Cowan’s detailed objections to Hall Farm were set out at length. The minutes of the February 2022 council meeting state that they had had a discussion with Reading University representatives about Hall Farm, and ‘agreed to disagree’. The following month, Arborfield PC again discussed how to challenge WBC on including Hall Farm in the LPU, specifically taking issue on the process they followed to select the site.

So Arborfield residents wanting to see how their parish council was working for them on the Hall Farm issue was left in no doubt where it stood. And those who hadn’t heard of the Hall Farm issue yet were brought up to date.

Then we come to Shinfield. Whether many residents there became aware of the stand taken in the Bell Cornwell letter is doubtful. The minutes of Shinfield Parish Council planning meetings in early 2022 record only that a consultation response by the two parish councils was being produced. Nothing is said as to the position it would take on Hall Farm/Loddon Valley. Shinfield PC newsletters from last year say little or nothing about the council’s view of the matter.

The Shinfield PC Chair reported to its December 2021 full council meeting that ‘work was taking place’ with Arborfield Parish Council on their approach to a proposed development at what he called ‘Halls’ Farm. He thought there was ‘a need to accept that there would be some development but to minimise it as much as possible’. This interesting concession nowhere appears in Arborfield PC’s statements on Hall Farm. He promised that ‘a submission would be presented to full council in due course’. Quite what he meant by a ‘submission’ was not stated. In any case, Shinfield PC’s full council minutes for the whole of the following year showed no discussion of the Hall Farm development proposal at all. In the SPC office it seems ‘due course’ hasn’t come round yet.

Then again, perhaps for their Parish Council the word ‘submission’ typically has the other meaning.

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