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Housing is an emotive issue?

As we approach the moment when the Revised Local Plan Update consultation period closes Wokingham Borough Council are starting to sound worried. Their latest “News Release”, which precedes yet another leaflet to be distributed to every house in the Borough (at our expense I might add) includes this:

“Two other sites were considered for the garden village and while none was perfect, the advantages of the land south of the M4 – known as Hall Farm / Loddon Valley outweighed the drawbacks by the greatest amount” Really? So show us the calculations and let us, the people who gave you the power to make decisions on our behalf, verify that as actual fact rather than just your opinion, which is what it sounds like.

The first thing to note about the rising note of panic among the Wokingham Executive trying to push these houses on us is that work on the LPU has been going on since 2015, and that it ends in 2023. That’s seven years down and only one more to go. How have WBC failed to engage with us over the past seven years to the point that they are now literally pleading with us to get involved: “I repeat my plea for as many people as possible to respond to our consultation as it will help us to understand your concerns in greater detail.” says Councillor Wayne Smith.

It sounds obvious but can I suggest you try avoiding obfuscation in future? As noted by many on Social Media, filling in the online “consultation” could not have been made more difficult or obscure if you had tried to make it difficult to fill in. (Surely not?). Perhaps having your public meetings in the weeks before Christmas meant people were otherwise engaged? (Just a thought!). Anyway, good luck with your plea, as noted in the previous Blog Post even Wokingham District Conservative Association are now offering advice on how to respond:

I also note that an independent inspector must approve the LPU before it can be submitted to the Government and that there is to be some kind of pre submission consultation before it goes to them for their approval. But the same Media release has as its main headline: NEW HOMES MUST BE BUILT IN BOROUGH TO MEET GOVERNMENT REQUIREMENTS. So how likely are they to object to it? As long as the houses get built what do they care where they go?

Now take a look at this quote from the inbox:

I write again out of sheer frustration and not knowing where else to complain about the outrageous treatment of my mothers area, and now I know so much about it, the entirety of south Wokingham. I came across the November minutes of Hurst Parish council of which Councillor Smith is also the chair. Page 2/3 discussing a self build application for 30 something Houses he states ‘ in planning terms, every application is assessed on its own merits. However, I believe that if permission was granted it would set a precedent.” The chairman also goes on to encourage “ people power” to influence Planning officers and Inspectors. This man is chairman of WBC planning and enforcement. Is this proper? On page 4 he says he would rather be in receipt of no CIL (CIL is a levy that local authorities can choose to charge on new developments in their area) than have any housing development in Hurst.

How can he say this stuff and be in charge of planning? Why has no newspaper investigated this? Who can I report him to?

Far be it from me to comment on Councillors Wayne Smiths competence, or his unwillingness to accept any housing in Hurst, but I will note here that the Local Elections coming up in just four months’ time will give us voters an opportunity to express our feelings in a very practical way 😉 Cllr Wayne Smith, executive member for planning and enforcement, says in his bulletin: “We appreciate that some residents aren’t happy with what is being proposed but we face some very difficult choices and are doing our utmost to make the best of a situation which, frankly, we have very little control over... We know there’s no perfect solution but we have considered our options in great detail, taking advice from independent experts, and are confident that we can mitigate the downsides of building at Hall Farm / Loddon Valley while delivering many more benefits in the process”.

No, I’m sorry Wayne, but you cannot mitigate the downsides of permanent destruction of green fields at Hall Farm no matter how many, or how expensive, or even how independent your experts may be. Despite being a valued part of Arborfield history over many thousands of years, once this land is dug up and built on it is gone forever, and no amount of SANG, or CIL or weasel words promising “affordable housing for our grandchildren” can ever bring it back ☹

However, there are alternatives to building over 450 Hectares of green field at Hall Farm. There were in fact several alternative sites proposed alongside Grazeley and a detailed report written on them can be read here: but then you know that Wayne, because you have had the last four years to read and digest them.

They include Twyford/Ruscombe and Barkham Square. As ever it’s a long read but I give you this snippet from the Viability Review “The table indicates that at Twyford and Barkham Square all tests show a viable outcome. The level of CIL generated in each location covers the identified cost of the off-site infrastructure required to deliver the development” 😊

To quote from the 3,500 home proposal “ Development at Twyford and Ruscombe would ensure the very clear benefits and attractiveness of the location could be enjoyed by a greater number of people. In addition, the excellent regional transport links, reinforced by the advent of Crossrail, indicate that the village has potential for development which offers sustainable travel choices, especially for commuters”. This was written as part of the Wokingham Strategic Framework back in 2018!

Since then much has been made of the impact this housing development would have on nearby Green Belt land, particularly by Councillors Wayne Smith and John Halsall. But in this document it says this about impact on the Green Belt:

“The master plan includes the following features:

• A new defensible edge to the Green Belt is established by the construction of a new road at the eastern edge of the master plan area. In addition, new structural woodland is proposed to mirror the existing eastern edge of Twyford and reduce the visual impact of development when viewed from the adjoining open countryside.

• To the south of the railway the floodplain creates a natural defensible barrier to the Green Belt.”

Forgive me Wayne, but that already sounds better than Hall Farm where the urban sprawl from Shinfield and Winnersh threaten to make Greater Reading reach all the way to Wokingham itself. Well, now here we are in 2022 and the House of Lords has published this report:

It is a long report, but a key phrase to take away is: “Residential development on land around railway stations close to major cities would help meet housing demand. The Government should consider pilot schemes to facilitate this development. This would include releasing some Green Belt or agricultural land for development, any release of Green Belt land could be offset through land swaps. (Paragraph 158)”

Berkley Homes have this to say about their proposals to improve Transport infrastructure at Twyford: “Twyford will soon host the only Elizabeth Line station in Wokingham Borough. The Elizabeth Line will increase the capacity for rail travel, for the first time providing direct services to central London and beyond”.

They also have this to say on relieving traffic congestion: “The centre of Twyford currently suffers from traffic congestion and air pollution, which is eroding local character and could impact public health. Twyford Gardens can help to address this issue through the creation of a new road linking the A4 via Twyford Gardens to Stanlake Lane. This will provide an alternative route for traffic to avoid the centre of the village, helping to manage congestion.

Now a quick look back at the Arborfield Garrison SDL as commented on by a residents action group at the time:

Major areas of concern remain however, in particular that of transport. The SDL has no railway connections and has major issues over road access caused by bottlenecks on the A327 to the north in Arborfield Village, to the south in Eversley, to the east at Barkham bridge, and to the west to Swallowfield. This has led to Hampshire County Council starting legal proceedings against Wokingham Borough Council over the lack of a transport solution for the road through Eversley”

OK, so why is there such pressure to build at Hall Farm, quite apart from the ease and simplicity for WBC in only having to negotiate with one major landowner? (Who, incidentally is gagging for a quick sale! RU Green or RU Greedy Reading University?). This map (produced by WBC) may help to shed a little light:

Between the Atomic Weapons Establishment Exclusion Zone and the Green Belt Exclusion Zone there are the Flood Zones. Take away the bits already built on and you can see why there is not a lot of choice about where to build new houses in Wokingham. Yet the latest Media Release claims: “Only a small part of the borough lies in the Green Belt and none is in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty so it can’t claim there isn’t enough room”.

The unexpectedly enlarged Emergency Zone around the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Burghfield strikes me as being an “exceptional circumstance”! How many other Authorities can claim such a restriction on the space available for housing? So let’s look again at the Green Belt argument.

The Green Belt is a planning term for the belt of open space (not necessarily green) surrounding many of our cities and towns. The Green Belt is not a legal construct; it is entirely based on planning policy and policy documents. There are precedents where authorities have chosen to build on Green Belt land, like this recent example at Oxford:

Reasons given for this Green Belt development include: High cost of housing, Imperative to meet as much of Oxford’s housing need as possible, Oxford’s potential for growth, Lack of housing as a barrier to economic growth and Promotion of sustainable patterns of growth. Anyone spot any similarities to the Wokingham case?

The Government attaches great importance to Green Belts. The fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open; the essential characteristics of Green Belts are their openness and their permanence (Paragraph 133 NPPF). Paragraph 136 of the NPPF is clear that: "Green Belt boundaries should only be altered where exceptional circumstances are fully evidenced and justified, through the preparation or updating of plans."

Where the potential harm is “clearly outweighed by other considerations” this can justify development in the Green Belt (Para 144 NPPF) and represent “very special circumstances”.

A last word from Councillor Wayne Smith; “Given that these homes have to be built, I would invite anyone who opposes our suggested strategy to come up with a better alternative that complies with national planning law”

Dare I suggest I just did that?

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