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Here’s a surprise! Mystic Meg predicts more houses for Wokingham. (WBC Infrastructure newsletter, 4th October 2023). Ok, so the graphic below is a simple representation of a complex idea, but (forgive the pun) you get the picture?

Planning for important infrastructure is never easy and inevitably leads to differences of opinion. Witness a recent planning decision regarding a petrol station in Arborfield. The case against such a development is weighed against the case for, and a judgement is made. Sadly, in this report by Wokingham Today a basic factual error is made; there is no such body as Arborfield and Barkham Parish Council! However, for me the article makes two important points:

· Cars, and the infrastructure required to run them, are more important in some people’s minds than the environmental damage they cause.

· Cognitive bias is an inescapable facet of being human, people will always tend towards a subjective or personal viewpoint, and it will probably be the viewpoint they started off with.

Much has been made by our Local Politicians of the importance of not allowing “predetermination” to colour our judgements. (Particularly when refusing to debate our petition or refusing to answer our questions) but actually, predetermination or “the fact that something has been decided or arranged before it happens” is, in my view, an inevitable part of the decision making process. At some point we must make our minds up about any given situation, otherwise nothing ever gets done.

The Wokingham Local Plan Update (LPU) is seeking to look ahead for the next 30 years, even though only 15 years are required by law for a viable plan. If it is hard to see 15 years into the future, then surely looking ahead 30 years is going to be even harder. Nonetheless, decisions have been made and, right or wrong, the plan is on its way.

In essence the most important stage of the Local Plan, called the “Proposed Submission of Plan for Publication”, is proposed for November this year. This will be when an updated list of sites should be issued. The purpose of this “consultation” is to provide an opportunity for representations to be made on the amendments to the local plan before it is examined by a planning inspector. The important thing to note here is that the decision to include some sites and to exclude others has already been made.

As written about before there are alternatives to building at Hall Farm but they do not offer the simplicity of dealing with one compliant land owner, such as the University of Reading (UoR), as is the case at Hall Farm. A cynic might also suggest that building at somewhere like Twyford would not be popular with some of our local politicians because of who, and where they represent. But given the fuss WBC are making about “active travel” and getting us all out of our cars I would suggest building houses next to the new Elizabeth Line is a long term positive investment in all our futures. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?

In the view of increasing numbers of people climate change leading to global warming is no longer something we can ignore. For many the big question now is how soon will an irreversible “tipping point” be reached? Here is a “fact”: Cars cause climate change I use my electric bike, a self-charging hybrid car, the bus and the train when I can, but I simply cannot function without at least some access to a motor vehicle. Are plug in all electric vehicles the solution? As I am sure many of you are aware there are a number of problems of changing to an electric vehicle: Cost, range, choice, servicing, and charging, (speed, compatibility, and availability) to which we can now add the soaring cost of insurance for electric vehicles.

It is a problem many of us are increasingly having to grapple with, one way or another.

I would argue that under investment in Public Transport is just one example of the bias that exists in our infrastructure planning. Almost from birth we are encouraged to consume more, live in a private bubble, and demonstrate our social status through ego boosting prestige products, never mind that these products are destroying the quality of our lives in so many ways.

We need a new hospital in Berkshire. The old Royal Berks Hospital (RBH) is falling apart, and a new site would offer a great opportunity to modernise and improve what I think we can mostly agree is “essential” infrastructure. Attending a presentation recently regarding a potential new road to be built in Shinfield I was told that should RBH move to Thames Valley Science Park (TVSP) a new junction would be required on the M4 to accommodate the traffic. The new junction could "just fit" between Junctions 10 and 11 and would cost in the region of £1Billion. Is putting a new hospital in a location that requires such massive infrastructure a sensible planning decision?

To put 4,500 houses at Hall Farm, just across the River Loddon from TVSP, will require a (slightly cheaper) new road bridge over the M4. The 4,500 new houses will bring close to 6,000 new cars (assuming an average of 1.33 cars per household). There is no way all the people wishing to move to such a location will also be prepared to catch the bus, cycle, or walk. The cars will have to be accommodated.

To return to the case of the Petrol Station refused planning permission linked to above, “Some residents welcomed the news, while others felt that the petrol station was needed to support the village’s extensive housing development”. It is a given that more houses means more cars and no amount of bluster about 15 minute communities is going to change that.

Now for some good news :-) Arborfield and Newland Parish Council and Barkham Parish Council (Note, two separate and distinct parishes) are about to finalise purchasing an area of ancient woodland called The Coombes using their Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL). CIL money comes from developers as a levy on housing, so no doubt some will argue that without the housing we could not have bought the woodland. Equally I would argue that the greatest threat to the woodland has been more housing development. (WBC have previously spent a lot of money on fighting illegal development in these woods after other parts were sold in small parcels to opportunist developers.)

The two Parish Councils found the prospect of the woodland becoming closed to the public, combined with damage that any new owners might inflict on it, deeply unpalatable. They have carefully researched and now jointly committed to conserving and enhancing its natural wildlife habitat, rich biodiversity, and carbon capturing potential. To do this, sufficient funds have been set aside to preserve the site for public access, with legal structures that will protect them, in perpetuity.

Now that’s what I call a Local Plan.

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