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How now, Uni-cow?

While we await the much-anticipated Local Plan for Wokingham it feels like a good time to consider some of the wider issues around land management, beyond the seemingly endless pressure to build houses on every square inch of Wokingham that is not protected by Green Belt status.


Uppermost in many minds these days is the “Climate Crisis”. Witness the message sent out by WBC recently encouraging us all to consider the carbon footprint of our food. The central message being:

“We can all do our bit to help climate change and lower our carbon footprint by being mindful about food miles and looking for more sustainable options, where possible.”


Absolutely spot on, I could not agree more. My problem with this coming from Wokingham Borough Council is the way that local landowners are being encouraged to give up farming to become property developers. So much so that I will be putting this to WBC at their next Council meeting as a public question. In short: “Have the Council also considered encouraging local farmers to grow local food on local farmland, to then be sold to local residents?


When SOLVE Hall Farm representatives met University of Reading Vice Chancellor Robert Van De Noort back in 2022 to discuss our alternative ideas for Hall Farm, regenerative farming was central to our vision. I was frankly shocked to be told that Reading University was losing money on its research and needed to sell Hall Farm to cover the costs! How can a university leading the world on Climate Change and sustainability not find anything valuable to research at a time of impending existential climate crisis and secure external funding to do so ? Well, here is a debate they might consider getting involved in:


A review article published in the International Journal of Biodiversity highlighted that land left free from grazing had more biodiversity. “Published comparisons of grazed and un-grazed lands in the western US have found that rested sites have larger and more dense grasses, fewer weedy forbs and shrubs, higher biodiversity, higher productivity, less bare ground, and better water infiltration than nearby grazed sites”.


In Scotland, where agriculture policy is devolved, the government’s Vision for Agriculture aims for the country to become a “global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture”. Many farmers are also starting to look at their bottom line as the price of fuel and fertiliser rockets and more funding becomes available. A 2018 study of 20 US farms found that while those using regenerative systems experienced a drop in yields of 29%, profitability increased by 78%.


There is a huge debate around the role that cows, and other livestock can have on improving biodiversity and increasing crop yields. Cows pooing and trampling in diversely planted fields boosts soil health, micronutrients and attracts insects, birds and butterflies is an argument put forward by some, while others argue that livestock farming, especially grazing, drives ecological destruction and deforestation at alarming rates, outpacing even the notorious palm oil industry.


Hall Farm has many cows, over 500 hectares of fields and a big investment by the University of Reading into advanced research facilities. Why are they not involved in finding answers to these questions, and why are WBC encouraging them to sell their fields to property developers, while encouraging us to consider carefully our “food miles?


Liege in Belgium is an example of how it can be done differently. In 2013, a group of activists who wanted to make food and city life better, greener and fairer, brought 600 people – all with an interest in food production – together. It asked them to imagine what could be different in Liège, within one generation. What they arrived at was this: “That in 35 years, one generation, the majority of food consumed in the Liège region would be grown locally in the best ecological and social conditions.” That’s a nice, if wordy, aspiration. But the thing is, they’ve tried to make it happen and even – to a degree – have succeeded.


However, it is complicated and difficult. It requires imagination, dedication, commitment and above all else a drive to fight back against big corporations and industrialised food production. Alternatively, maybe environmentalist George Monbiot is right when he argues that farming in fields should be replaced with factories growing food in labs from microbes and water using precision fermentation.


Sadly, it seems that Reading University, despite their claims to be the “greenest” university in the U.K. are not interested in trying to find answers to these questions and Wokingham Borough Council are only interested in sustainability in food production if it doesn’t interfere with their plans for concreting over the South of the Borough, thereby preserving the precious green belt in the North of the Borough.


Our legal advice is we can only fight the Local Plan on grounds of “Soundness”. If the Plan is considered by an Independent Inspector to be “Sound”, then it will be passed. What then, might make a good case for proving the plan is not sound?


Traffic, flood risk and environmental impact are the top three areas where we need our own, independent, professionally written reports. My wish for a sustainably grown local food or a rewilding project that sequesters carbon in the face of impending climate catastrophe, is not going to be in with a snowballs chance in hell until we prove that Hall Farm is not appropriate for thousands more houses.


We are going to need money to pay for these reports because the Inspector will give more weight to arguments made by professionals with qualifications. We are going to need a LOT of money because the best people can charge the most for their services. We need to be fund raising and data gathering NOW because in just a few months’ time the Revised Local Plan Update will be published, and it is highly probable that most if not all of the 4,500 houses proposed in the “Loddon Valley Garden Village” are going to be right back where they were when WBC planning officers cooked up this scheme back in 2021.


It’s Time for Arborfield, Early, Shinfield and surrounding areas to WAKE UP to the impact that the development of Hall Farm will have if it gets the green light to go ahead.


YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!


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I have another item that niggles me. UoR attracts students from far and wide, all seeking accommodation. During the covid lockdowns, we'll over 2500 rental properties in Reading were vacant ( a question I asked of an agency). These property's would be better occupied or purchased by people needing them, rather than only having the choice of new build purchase or fighting over a lack of affordable rental accommodation. So UoR, why do you not involve a bespoke developer to build student accommodation co-funded by private investors, which would generate an additional income at 8% return.. thus releasing housing stock for residents while giving students a better solution and facilities than they get in off campus accommodation and boosting revenue…


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Paul Stevens
Paul Stevens
Aug 17, 2023
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A very good point Chris. Worth writing an "open letter" to one of the local papers?

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