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What has SOLVE been doing?

Our campaign might seem to have gone quiet for a while. If so, there’s a reason it might look like that. We’ve been waiting to see what changes the Council may have made to its local plan update. You remember? The LPU was consulted on nearly two years ago, and a key feature was the ‘socially and environmentally disastrous’ Hall Farm proposal, as a LibDem councillor has called it. (That was before she was elected. Since then, silence). So far, no changes to the LPU have been announced by our Lib Dem council rulers.

WBC says it has been waiting to see what changes central government is making to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Initially, these changes were to be announced in the spring, according to the Westminster government, and WBC argued they would affect the form the LPU takes.

Now we’re mid-way through autumn but the NPPF details haven't been published yet.


Below: WBC’s Council Chamber

WBC says it still doesn’t know if the forthcoming changes allow it to bring housing target numbers down significantly. The line it's taking is that if that happens, a huge building project on the scale of the University’s 4,500-houses Hall Farm proposal shouldn't be necessary. Whether we believe it or not, that's their story, and they're sticking to it.

Questioning the Council

In the meantime, our campaigners haven’t been idle. We have been seeking to reduce the

Council’s wriggle room on the future local plan by asking them questions at public meetings. Executive meetings and Full Council meetings take place roughly every month, and feature an opportunity for the public to question their elected representatives. This blog post highlights the questions we’ve put and answers we’ve received since Summer 2022, but there are many more that could be asked. Any resident is entitled to hold the Council to account in this way. Upcoming meeting dates can be viewed at

https://wokingham.moderngov.co.uk/mgListCommittees.aspx?bcr=1

by clicking on the appropriate link, Council or Executive. This web page explains how to put questions:

https://www.wokingham.gov.uk/council-and-meetings/meetings/ask-question-meeting

Of course, being political people, councillors are rather good at only giving partial answers, irrelevant answers, or even no answer at all when they feel they can get away with it. They also benefit from having members of the public submit their written questions in advance. This allows them to take advice from council officers, not least the legal department, often find clever ways to be opaque, or even disengenuous. However, questioners can follow the councillor’s prepared answer by asking a supplementary question. To answer this, councillors have to think on their feet, and that's where you might get an interesting tidbit of information they let slip.


Matters of concern

Over the last year or so, SOLVE members have asked the Council questions on a range of housing-related topics we know our supporters are concerned about:


  • The impact of housing development on traffic levels

  • The flagrant north-south imbalance in where houses have been built so far

  • Whether SDLs (Strategic Development Locations) are the best way of getting essential infrastructure with housing development

  • How far the Council takes account of future costs incurred by flood events affecting a new development

  • How far the allocation of housing in the LPU is a decision for elected councillors, not unelected council officers

  • How much discussion WBC has had with neighbouring local authorities about using brownfield sites for housing

  • The timetable for publishing the LPU


Getting some answers

Thanks to the various questions we’ve been asking, we've learnt a few things about the council’s intentions, and the options it has. We discovered that it set up a cross-party working group last year to deal with the finalisation of the LPU. Oddly, this working group doesn’t appear on the council’s web site, so we might not otherwise have known about it. We still don't know its membership or anything about how it works, though.

Above: A council Executive meeting from 2015

We’ve also been told that if the final version of the local plan differs very significantly from the present one, a new consultation will take place. If councillors wish the LPU to differ from what council officers advise, they will have to answer to the Planning Inspectorate with good reasons for doing so. In other words, they must answer to Westminster appointees driven by a national development agenda. The Council officers, on the other hand, do not have to answer to local residents affected by their advice.

As to whether there should be more SDLs in future, such as the one that’s been such a roaring success in Shinfield (!), the Executive was non-committal. It still expects there to be large-scale housing development, but preferred not to talk of SDLs as such.

More questions than answers

Most questions are answered in a way that’s procedural, rather than engaging with fundamental problems that concern residents. If Hall Farm went ahead, construction would stretch into a second planning period, 2040 and beyond. Reading University themselves, who sponsor the plan, are warning about the unknown scale of future climate-related risks. We put a question to the Executive about unforeseen costs as a result of major flooding in future. The answer given was that there has to be ‘a flood resilience’ aspect to every development. That is no doubt true, but the real question wasn't answered: Should the council commit to a proposal stretching decades into the future, close to a floodplain, when it might not be able to cover the costs of large-scale flooding events?

In response to a question asking for details of the council’s lobbying of central government, little was provided. WBC said it had asked Westminster for clarity on ‘key issues such as past over delivery in both assessing planning applications and when preparing a Local Plan.’  It just gave an example, rather than answering the question with details of other aspects of lobbying. The Executive member did however mention that the current housing number target for Wokingham Borough is 795 houses per annum, which was useful to know, even if not an answer to the question.

Another non-answer was provided by an Executive member who was asked about supporting the use of local farmland to grow food. How was this being served by a policy of encouraging the University of Reading to sell off farmland for housing development? She refused to answer, using the formula that he could not ‘predetermine any judgement’ on the Local Plan. She had apparently overlooked the public support given to the University of Reading’s Shinfield Studios expansion by the previous council leader. The law on ‘predetermination’ of planning applications has not changed since then. In fact the law did change, back in 2012, but since then it's been legitimate for local councillors to give an opinion on the suitability of housing proposals.

What we've learned

All in all, we’ve learnt that the council Executive will tend to bat questions away, rather than get to grips with issues. For example, the northern parishes can't be built on because they’re green belt land, councillors can't express an opinion on a housing proposal because that would be ‘predetermination’, and so on.

Still, I can end on a positive. There was a very useful reply in September to a question we raised on the LPU submission timetable. The Executive has agreed that logically, if they don't get clarity on how national planning policy reforms affect housing numbers, the publication of the local plan scheduled for this November should be postponed.

Suppose they don't do that, though, and cut and run with the plan before a government announcement. Then it will be a blatant giveaway that the council’s excuse for taking no action on the Hall Farm proposal was just a sham. Even though the Lib Dem council leader Clive Jones demonstrated with us against that proposal in April 2022. Ah, but wasn’t that when he was standing for election, you might ask? True. So we put a question to him three months later as to where he stood now. His reply: “My administration will be working with Officers to look carefully at options.” Uh-huh.

Pat Phillipps

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