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History Repeating itself in Hall Farm?

In 2022 the Liberal Democrats promised in their election literature to remove Hall Farm from the Local Plan Update. Clive Jones and other candidates were happy to photographed holding SOLVE banners outside the University gates. To all appearances they have failed to sink the Hall Farm project. This has provoked some anger together with allegations of dishonesty and deception.

 

Wild promises are the prerogative of oppositions. As it happens I think that the promises made in 2022 were, in retrospect, not so much wild as naïve. I have yet to meet a LD who believes that Hall Farm is anything other than a bad idea.

 

It is widely assumed that a major development at Hall Farm is in the Local Plan Update. If this proves to be so, why did it prove impossible to remove it from the Local Plan? A number of reasons can be suggested. It was partly because Hall Farm was already in the Local Plan Update. There were dark mutterings after the 2022 election about confidential agreements made between the University and WBC under the outgoing regime which bound the new administration. It was partly because the University would not allow it to be removed as they want their money out of the Hall Farm estate, and partly because the government promise to carry overprovision under the current Local Plan into the new one was not ultimately honoured.

 

The fear that I have heard expressed (and I break no confidences here as none have been shared with me) is that if Hall Farm were to be removed and the housing quota parked somewhere else (Twyford is the favourite, and this makes much more sense than Hall Farm), the University will simply get Hall Farm reinstated at the enquiry in its fullest and most damaging form, and Wokingham will then have 3,000-4000 houses coming in the north of the Borough, and a further 3,000-4,000 in the south.

 

It is understood that the revised Local Plan Update is largely prepared and if the LD administration is returned to power, the draft will be published in June or July. Only then will we know for certain what it contains. We must also wait to see what mitigation has been put in place. But the general expectation is that the Local Plan Update in its draft form will include a development at Hall Farm.

 

If it proves to be the case, then it will have to be conceded that Liberal Democrats overpromised in 2022. Being the party in power and constrained by pre-determination, they have been unable to defend themselves as they might have wished. But their approach has been very different. The Halsall regime circulated a leaflet advocating Hall Farm. The LDs have not. The point here is that if the council wants to do something, it can talk about it all it wants. In those circumstances pre-determination can probably be proved by amenity groups, but it is up to them to do so. To talk about something you don’t want to do, and then not to do it leaves you open to a charge of predetermination from the developer, a very different matter. The LD administration’s conduct speaks for itself.

 

The Conservatives are circulating a flier in Shinfield ward with the banner headline ‘WE WILL OPPOSE ANY PLANNING PROPOSALS ON HALLS [sic] FARM’ [Their capitals, not mine]. (They are circulating a quite different flier in Spencers Wood and Swallowfield so this appears to be policy in one ward alone. They did this in 2022 too.)

            And it continues

 

Shinfield ‘urgently’ needs the protection of an updated Local Housing Plan [a what?] to provide protection from unacceptable planning applications such as Halls [sic again] Farm!

 

The current Liberal Democrat administration have ignored their 2022 campaign promise to remove Halls [again] Farm site from the Local Housing Plan [oh God] in favour of protecting the Twyford area.

 

Halls [encore une fois] Farm is within Arborfield Parish but closer to Shinfield Village. Up to 4,500 houses is [oh dear. are] being considered on this site within about a mile of all the housing already built in Shinfield itself.

 

This will put even further strain on our overstretched infrastructure in areas [sic] of school places, highway capacity, GP and health services, telecoms capacity along with drainage and water supply which will buckle under the strain of the extra demand.

 

It would be cruel to say that who ever wrote this was plainly educated under a Labour government, when standards were so much lower. And it would even crueller to point out that Hall Farm (as it is usually called) was a Conservative invention which we all though was designed to protect Hurst and Remenham which are near to, er, Twyford. I recall a prominent Conservative councillor saying so. In public. And the LD administration did not ‘ignore’ their campaign promise. They were unable to put it into effect.

 

Now other than the extreme vagueness and slipperyness of this, the question is whether the Conservatives are falling into the same trap as the Liberal Democrats two years ago by promising something they cannot deliver. They grumble about the LDs not getting on with the Local Plan Update and the dangers that this brings, but the delays are in part from the government’s indecision over the National Planning Framework and the hope that this would have brought some reduction in housing numbers. The LD strategy in this respect failed, but what is the Conservative strategy to oppose Hall Farm?

 

We do not know. The Shinfield Tories (not the Wokingham Tories – the difference is important) say that they will oppose any planning applications for Hall Farm. That bit is easy. They imply that they can do something that the LDs have failed to do. That is that they can magic away their own party’s proposal for Hall Farm. Could they share their strategy with us so we can judge its plausibility? We would want to know:

 

 - How the University will be persuaded from not developing Hall Farm and how it would be compensated for the considerable investment it has already made in the project

 - If there is no agreement with the University, how can the University be stopped from arguing that Hall Farm should be reinserted into the Local Plan at the public enquiry? Or bringing forward a planning application for the Hall Farm development after the Local Plan has been adopted?

 - Where the housing quota for the Borough will be located if not at Hall Farm?

 - How much delay will be incurred by rewriting the Local Plan to exclude Hall Farm and include new areas for development in its place?

 - What are the implications of a delay of 18 months or two years whilst the Local Plan Update is revised

 

And

 - How the Shinfield Conservatives are going to persuade the Conservative group on Wokingham Borough Council to adopt this is as group policy?

 

I end by reflecting that opposition is easy. Making promises is easy, even when they are vacuous and designed to mislead, but sometimes they come back and bite you. I would not wish that to happen to the Shinfield Conservatives.

 

I hope, but without hope, that one of them will come back and answer the six questions I pose above.

 

Richard Hoyle

24 March 2024

 

The author is a member of Shinfield Parish Council and a Liberal Democratic activist in Shinfield and Swallowfield but writes in an entirely personal capacity. He thinks that Hall Farm is an awful mistake.

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