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A walk on the wild side.

Updated: Jul 16, 2022

The 7th July 2022, will no doubt be remembered more for Boris Johnson resigning as our Prime Minister than for anything else, but it was a significant date for SOLVE Hall Farm campaigners for another reason. It was the date of the first meeting between the University of Reading and SOLVE Hall Farm representatives to discuss our “Alternatives to housing” document since it was handed over back in April.

Present for SOLVE Hall Farm were myself, Colin Watts, Phiala Mehring, Jim Frewin and Gary Cowan.

Present for the University of Reading were Nigel Frankland, Daniel Hayman, Molli Cleaver and Edd Pickering.

First, it seems that the University are still engaged in talks with Wokingham Borough Council regarding the feasibility of houses being developed as part of the “Loddon Valley Garden Village”. Interestingly, the UoR revealed that only 3,000 houses could be built on land actually owned or managed by them. The other 1,500 houses (identified in the Revised Local Plan Update as necessary for the required infrastructure to be affordable) would need the cooperation and agreement of other land owners.

It seems they do have a realistic understanding of the gap between reputation and actual delivery regarding the amount of houses and the quality of some of those houses already built in the Arborfield and Shinfield area. It was pointed out to them that the current houses being built are often of a very poor standard and that much of the promised infrastructure has still not been delivered.

They were wary of “over promising”, but there were several parts of our document they would be interested in taking forward. Ideas that found favour included working with the community, the circular economy, heritage, health, re-wilding, flood management and greenways. Actual farming was seen to be difficult largely because of the difficulties in getting workers and making it pay.

Flood management in particular was seen to be a suitable use for some of the land and was providing very useful research opportunities as well. For example, Shinfield West was quoted as being a good example of how filtering particulates through the use of reed beds was improving the run off of dirty water into local waterways.

Additionally, a “flux tower” has been set up which allows the UoR to quantify exchanges of CO2, water and energy between the atmosphere and the plants and soil. These exchanges show how the ecosystem is working and measure carbon sequestration. Will this be turned off if the houses go ahead I wonder?

They are also of the opinion they are already on top of “rewilding”. There are plans for the setting up of an extended “eco-valley”, which could become the 2nd largest open green space after Windsor Great Park. In all, if it happens, over 500 acres of open parkland could be created. It was great to hear that beavers might be reintroduced to the Loddon, but frankly I have become somewhat cynical of words like "could" and "might be". I definitely prefer "will be".

There were other possibilities discussed, like “upskilling local youths” and “community partnership groups” but the big take away is that as far as the University are concerned the good bits can only happen if the houses also happen. Clearly for us this is a red line issue. Perhaps there is some part of "Say NO to 4,500 houses at Hall Farm, Arborfield" that remains ambiguous?

Following on from this meeting I discovered that surveyors are now operating in the fields adjacent to the B3030 Sindlesham Road and that discussions with a local landowner indicate that there may be plans to widen this road and possibly even to build a new roundabout. This is particularly concerning as the local Borough Councillor, and the local Parish Council are completely unaware of any such plans.

The University agreed that transport infrastructure is almost completely absent from the Hall Farm site, and that transport is a huge issue for developing any new major housing development. A group called Transport Action Network have recently produced a very informative guide aimed at Local Authorities for improving use of sustainable transport and reducing car dependency. The “Climate Emergency Plan for Transport” makes for interesting reading in full, but quoted below are just a few key points from it:

· New, and expanded, roads contribute to the problem by increasing the capacity of the network for more carbon-intensive journeys. Any benefit for the economy can be uncertain while the congestion reduction of such schemes is only short lived. It is necessary to stop using discredited data, forecasting and models to support road expansion and instead take a broader, integrated approach to the provision of infrastructure for all modes of transport.

· The location and design of many new housing developments is focused around the car, while neglecting other modes. These developments will be around for decades, so it is important that they support the transport needs of the future, not the past. Local authorities should review new housing developments using the Transport for New Homes checklist and remove/oppose developments that will worsen car dependence.

· Local authorities need to engage extensively with local people and stakeholders to identify the infrastructure that is needed to plan for sustainable transport alternatives to road building.

So what would a radical response to transport need in light of the Climate Emergency? There are some well-reasoned arguments here:

“Transport is now the UK’s biggest contributor to climate change. Whereas in 1990 it accounted for less than a fifth (19%) of UK greenhouse gas emissions, it now accounts for more than a third (34%), and transport carbon emissions are flat-lining or even rising”.

“The current DfT carbon strategy is focused on electrifying the vehicle fleet, while still allowing traffic volumes to grow, building roads and expanding airport capacity. But if only 50% of new car sales are electric by 2030 (which is the government’s current aim), car mileage will have to be cut by as much as 60% in order for emissions reductions to stay on track . And even if all new car sales are electric by 2030, it will still be necessary for car mileage to be at least 20% lower in 2030 than now (and possibly more than this), in order for our emissions to stay within a fair carbon budget.”

“Rapid action to reduce car use will only be fair and command public consent if it takes place in parallel with big changes to our transport system that give people decent, clean and affordable ways of travelling to work, education and services, by foot, bike or low-carbon public transport. So in order to be able to meet our obligation to act on climate change, we need to recognise a basic right for everyone to be able to live decently without having to own or drive a car.“

As someone who is trying to move from a car to a bike for at least some of my travel I can testify to the need for better provision of segregated cycle lanes. To be frank, sharing the roads with large lorries that hurtle past with inches to spare and often at very high speeds is unpleasant, if not risky.

Yes, there are lanes around here where the cars cannot go, and I love cycling along them, but these are the very lanes at Hall Farm that it is proposed to turn into yet more roads. In the process of converting these lanes to roads the hedgerows will need to be uprooted and the trees that line them will also need to be cut down. When we mentioned this to the University representatives they agreed this would be the case, but that the “most important” trees and hedgerows would be preserved!

Are they not ALL important? Is this proposed “eco valley” to be made up of disjointed and unconnected little remnants of our landscape and heritage? I have thought on our meeting with the University for a week now, and the more I think about it the more I think we are being “played”.

The University of Reading may well wish to pay lip service to “working with the community” and profess a commitment to “protecting the environment” but if this is to be seen as anything other than “greenwashing” they need to explain to us exactly how they propose to do this while covering the Loddon Valley at Hall Farm with roads and houses.

They have offered to take some of us on a walk to see some of this proposed new "eco valley". Watch this space for further details.

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