Is the tail wagging the dog?
Let’s start with a recent article published in Wokingham Today:
It is gratifying to hear that the leadership group at Wokingham Borough Council are doing their utmost to get recognition for “over delivery” of houses in the past. But why were so many houses being built? What possible motivation could there be for building more houses in Wokingham than we were required to build under the Government housing formula?
Are the politicians in charge, or are the officers in the planning department the ones driving these "unwanted developments"?
If the officers wish to lobby for Hall Farm - even if it’s only on the basis of their fears that the University of Reading will sue the Council and win - then those same officers need to come out from behind the protection from public view and criticism that the elected representatives give them - and be recognised for what and who they are.
If the officers want to only deal with a single principal land profiteer over the lifetime of the Local Plan Update and beyond, then those same officers need to be called to account. Preferably this would be by the Leader and relevant members of the Executive, secondly by Full Council.
But if needs be, then a member or members of the public should be calling the whole Council to account for itself - well before anyone tries to launch yet another completely phoney “Public Consultation” where we’re asked if we’d like to be garrotted, gassed or guillotined?
The next meeting of the WBC Executive is Thursday 29th September and there are a number of people asking questions, including one Paul Stevens, who is asking the following:
"Can the Executive Leader confirm the determination of where the houses in the Local Plan Update (LPU) are to go is a political decision - not an officer decision and that the officers are doing what the politicians want them to do?"
This leads nicely into a question being asked by another local resident:
"A recent discussion with officials from the University of Reading made clear that the university is still very much focusing on the plan to build 4,500 houses at Hall Farm. At what point will Wokingham Borough Council make clear to the university that this plan is unacceptable to the Council?"
A supplementary question then might be "Are the current administration being misled by Planning officers and do those same officers need to be refocused onto doing for the public what the public wants done? Specifically, should they be acting as “unpaid” UoR salesmen?
Note - I put “unpaid” in quotes not because I’m trying to imply that the officers are "on an earner" - but because the Council IS “on an earner” from every new house that gets built in the Borough - via CIL or S106 developer contributions and via the government’s "New Homes Bonus”.
Community Infrastructure Levy or CIL is a levy that local authorities can choose to charge on new developments in their area. The money should be used to support development by funding infrastructure that the council and local community want.
If you’re not familiar with the New Homes Bonus, here’s the link to the 2022/23 proposed payments to England’s 333 principal councils :
So how is that working for us, the people who pay our taxes to have some of it returned to us as CIL? Are we getting the infrastructure we deserve? Three weeks wait for a phone appointment with my Doctor? Perhaps I am just unlucky?
Shinfield has a new Community Centre, but the one promised for Arborfield Green is still just a pipedream, six years after the houses were built. What of the local shops? At long last these are now being planned, and a few have even been built, but they are still encouraging a car dependent society. "Infrastructure" seems to translate all too often as "build new roads, out of town shopping and housing estates without public transport".
Yes, we are having a discussion (at long last) about getting people out of cars and onto cycles, or walking, but at the same time the private bus companies are struggling to keep local busses running, with Local Authorities having to subsidise bus services due to falling passenger numbers.
All this at a time when WBC are having urgent discussions about possibly cutting back on refuse collection and are also facing huge problems paying for increased costs in Social Care.
We were told by the previous administration that the SDL concept was the best way to deliver infrastructure effectively and that this was the preference expressed in earlier consultations. But where are the actual results of these consultations?
In Dacorum, a Local Authority District in Hertfordshire, they had a consultation on their Local Plan that started in November 2020 and finished in February 2021. The same time period as our consultation.
You can see the results of the Dacorum consultation here:
https://www.dacorum.gov.uk/home/planning-development/planning-strategic-planning/new-single-local-plan (Too busy to read it? A very detailed, open and transparent report on their public consultation).
Compare that with the results of Wokingham’s consultation here: https://www.wokingham.gov.uk/planning-policy/planning-policy-information/local-plan-update/ (No need to read it, it says nothing!)
To quote just a (very) small part of the Dacorum consultation:
“The recent Emerging Strategy for Growth consultation attracted substantial interest, and we are grateful for the time you have spent engaging with the Local Plan process. We have now prepared a summary report which contains all responses received and draws out the key issues and themes emerging from the feedback”
Meanwhile in Basingstoke their Council have published this open letter:
"I thought it may be helpful to you to have the wording of a statement about the borough’s housing figure and the Local Plan Update that I made at the Cabinet meeting last night (Tuesday 6 September): “At tonight's meeting of the Cabinet we will not be formally agreeing the start of a consultation on a Local Plan draft that includes 17,000 new homes. “Since the unanimous vote to reject this housing number, created by the ‘standard method’, Cabinet members have been working hard with council officers on a plan to successfully develop a new sustainable number of new homes. “I believe everyone is in agreement that the trend over the last 60 years of extreme housing growth in Basingstoke and Deane needs to slow down in order for local services to catch up and create a much more sustainable future for the borough. “The council has been working towards updating its Local Plan to ensure an approach to the future which meets the needs of our residents and visitors in a way that responds to the climate change agenda, ensures that communities thrive and are sustainable and our precious environment is protected. Any one of these would have challenges but delivering on all of them in the current planning system is a significant challenge. Commentators who suggest otherwise are in denial over the complexities of the system. “I would like to thank the parish and town councils, visiting speakers and the councillors on our local Economic, Planning and Housing Committee for all their hard work discussing and providing feedback on the preparatory work to benchmark the starting position. “Whilst we have been working proactively to move forward with the development of the plan and its policies, it is clear that there are significant challenges around how we identify the borough’s true housing need. It is important to keep the plan process going but in a way that responds to both local concerns and local circumstances. Some of this work relies on up-to-date data which is not yet available. “It is very clear that it would not be appropriate to undertake a consultation on a draft plan at this stage when such significant concerns around the impact of the housing number remain, and until further and full consideration is given to this issue to ensure the council moves forward with a Plan that is robust, responsive and can be fully supported. “As leader of the council, I have already asked officers to produce a report that clearly states what work and data is still required so that we can identify the true level of local need for housing and support changes to the planning system that give more local say over development in the future. This report will be discussed at the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday 27 September, and we will then decide on a way forward. “Councillors and MPs up and down the country agree that the current planning system is fundamentally broken and needs a significant overhaul to put local decision making back at its heart. We will continue to work with our local government colleagues to make recommendations and suggestions on what these changes should be. “I am heartened that everything that the new prime minister has said in recent months shows that she agrees that local need should be decided locally. It cannot be right that the borough has experienced eye watering levels of house building yet is at the same time punished for lack of housing supply. “We need strong planning policies in place, shaped by the people who live here, that protect our borough and its environment from unsuitable development and create the kind of place we want Basingstoke and Deane to be.” Kind regards Cllr Simon Bound Leader of Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council
Why are Wokingham so far behind our neighbours in dealing with the thorny issues of:
a) Where to put the new houses we need?
b) How many houses do we need?
With thanks to the SOLVE Hall Farm Steering Group for their input and apologies for such a long read.