‘NOTHING has been agreed or accepted” over plans to build a new 15,000-home town in Grazeley.
That’s the view of Conservative group leader Cllr Julian McGhee-Sumner.
On Monday, Minister of State for Housing Kit Malthouse MP announced £750,000 funding to enable fast track planning to be carried out on proposals to turn the village on the edge of the borough’s boundaries into one of the biggest and most ambitious housing projects in the Thames Valley.
But campaigners and opposition parties say that the news makes a mockery of a statement that Cllr McGhee-Sumner made in the council chamber last Thursday evening, where he announced plans for a special consultation after the local elections.
This would be the closest the council could arrange to a local referendum, asking residents if they felt they had had enough of housing numbers.
At the time, he said: “The government continues to pile on additional numbers to us, numbers which are higher than our neighbours. It is almost like being rewarded for not doing the right thing and penalised for doing the right thing.”
He added that previous council leaders had met with the Prime Minister in a bid to get the borough’s commitments reduced.
“Other Executive members have met with the relevant ministers. They have even met with the Chief Planning Inspector. All to no avail, no change in the numbers – you have to take them.
Cllr McGhee-Sumner continued: “We have reached that crossroads where ‘enough is enough’ and we have to find a different way to convince the government to be more reasonable.”
He added that a referendum on the issue would have been ‘illegal’ but a special consultation would be permitted.
“I know many residents will comment that we ignore consultation responses, but this is very different. We will pose a question in that consultation asking if you support the government inflicted housing numbers in a simple yes or no manner.
“We want as many residents to respond so we can go back to government to say to them – “look, all these residents cannot be wrong” – you have to do something about these overly high housing numbers. The more responses we get the stronger the argument.”
He ended his address to the council calling for opposition parties to work with him, something that they are prepared to do in principal.
However, the situation changed on Monday with the bombshell that plans for Grazeley had progressed.
The scheme had initially been worked on in secret and was leaked to The Wokingham Paper back in 2016. There are also schemes proposed for Twyford and Barkham Square.
Mr Malthouse said: “The new Grazeley Garden Town could not only provide homes for local families, but would be a vibrant place where everyone, including the wider Wokingham area, can benefit from new infrastructure – leaving a legacy for future generations to be proud of.
“I congratulate Wokingham Borough Council, West Berkshire District Council and Reading Borough Council for putting forward their ambitious proposal, which could deliver up to 15,000 high-quality homes, and am pleased to support them as they work to make these plans a reality.”
He added: “Conservatives in Government have scrapped regional building targets, and abolished Labour’s top-down South East Plan which threatened to rip up the Green Belt.
“Locally elected councillors are now in the driving seat – and should determine where badly-needed new homes should and should not go, in consultation with local residents.”
Jim Frewin, one of the residents behind the Save Our Shinfield campaign against over development in the area, was appalled.
“Another disgraceful example of politicians seemingly hell bent of serving developers, who in turn pay themselves multi-million-pound bonuses on the back of political decisions. Decisions being again made behind closed doors with no consideration for the residents the politicians and officials are meant to be serving,” he said.
Independent councillor for Arborfield, Gary Cowan, said: “[Cllr McGhee-Sumner] is a candidate in May and there are no votes for him in Grazeley or the green fields and greenbelt of Wokingham Borough.”
Liberal Democrat leader Cllr Lindsay Ferris added his voice to the dismay, saying: “If the Conservatives, and in particular the Leader of the Council Julian McGhee-Sumner, are so much against the building of houses in Wokingham Borough, as they claim, why have they not withdrawn the proposals for 15,000 houses in Grazeley?
“This smacks of hypocrisy.
“Also remember at one stage the Conservatives even tried to keep their proposals secret from the public.”
Labour group leader Cllr Andy Croy felt that the Conservatives stance was electioneering.
He told The Wokingham Paper: “It just goes to show what a mess the Conservative party is in. The Prime Minister just doesn’t listen to local leaders and this consultation will not matter one jot.
“It’s likely we’ll soon have a new Prime Minister and they’ll care even less.
“Grazeley seems to be a done deal and this won’t stop it.”
Cllr McGhee-Sumner defended his Enough Is Enough stance and promised that if Grazeley town was created it would take 30 years to build and need appropriate infrastructure.
He said: “Without huge government financial support and the special powers this proposal will simply not work and the Borough Council will not be able to agree with it moving forward.
“Any potential for building homes in this new Garden Village will not come into play until 2024 at the earliest. By that time the 8,000 houses mentioned in my speech in March will have been built so the government target for the five-year land supply will be at serious risk.
“If the government wants us to build a new garden village here then they must help us now by agreeing to our requests from the “Enough is Enough” campaign as well as providing the funding and special powers. They are inextricably linked.”