By Cllr Gary Cowan, independent borough councillor for Arborfield at Wokingham Borough Council
I am not, nor have I ever been, against housing but I believe a reasonable and balanced programme of housing delivery including affordable and key worker homes supported by the right infrastructure and environmental enhancementsis the right way forward.
I am opposed to excessive housing numbers especially those that are plucked out of thin air by a consultant representing the Government using a very suspect algorithm which uses a lazy one-size-fits all national methodology that fails to take note of local characteristics and other essentials that improve the quality of all our lives.
How should Wokingham fight these excessive housing numbers we are being threatened with?
Initially I would encourage residents to start by signing the petition currently doing the rounds which Wokingham Borough Council needs to flag this up much more prominently on its website.
One wonders why our approved planned Core Strategy housing numbers – which were allowed to creep up from 662 to 789 houses a year – was never challenged by Wokingham in the past?
Not surprisingly when the suspect algorithm jumped housing numbers from 789 to an astonishing 1,635 houses a year up to 2036 they eventually reacted.
Whether the reaction was a knee jerk response with their fear of political suicide next May or not I have no idea but it’s good to see at long last.
One must also wonder what level of housing is acceptable to Wokingham Borough Council? 15,000 houses in Grazeley plus thousands more in Shinfield, Arborfield and Barkham for starters is my guess.
A petition, although helpful, will not be enough to stop the housing number increase so further steps will need to be taken and taken very quickly to challenge the housing numbers.
I am not sure what Wokingham Borough Council Conservatives are planning as they tend to keep their plans to themselves and never consult anyone but the way forward must involve a two pronged approach based on history (The South East Plan Public Inquiry) along with lobbying MPs.
History first; the South East Region was runby a body called The Government of the South East (GOSE) who resided in Guildford.
It was a representative structure responsible for all matters affecting our region. They created the South East Regional Assembly which consisted of 55 district and Borough Councils, 12 Unitary Authorities and five counties.
It had 73 elected Councillors and 38 other interested non-elected members on it.
Sadly, in 2011 the Conservative Government disbanded the Government Office of the South East along with the Regional Assembly which meant from that moment on the South East Region had no real regional representation.
In effect we were all left to our own individual devices.
Another nail in the coffin of democracy from a Conservative government.
The then Labour government held a 12-week consultation in July 2008 on the South East Plan: interested parties were proposing 847,000 to 1,240,000 houses between 2006 to 2026.
Of the comments submitted to the consultation 80.3% were objectors (10,894).
To challenge the plan, all of the region’s councils, irrespective of political backgrounds, got together and developed a strategy to fight these housing numbers.
We held a series of meetings often held in Wokingham Borough Council’s own chambers, which I attended.
Our officers played a major role in developing that strategy which looked at all of the damaging aspects of the South East Plan would have on all our communities. This strategy was used at the subsequent Public Inquiry by all of the regional councils which I also attended.
It challenged the Government’s plans on a wide range of issues such as housing numbers, affordability, key-workers, housing markets and growth areas, housing supply, rural housing, quality design and sustainable construction.
Not forgetting traffic, education, environment and medical provision.
This strategy met with considerable success as it led to the Planning Inspectors recommending 654,000 houses for the region over a 20-year period.
The only downside for Wokingham was the approved Plan ruled that 2,500 houses would be built in Shinfield to meet the needs of greater Reading and 3,500 houses could go in Arborfield Garrison as the garrison was closing.
This set the scene for Wokingham’s Core Strategy.
To fight our corner my advice to Wokingham Borough Council is:
Phase 1: Continue with the efforts to get residents to sign the Petition and ask them to get all their neighbours to sign it also.
Phase 2: Ask residents to lobby all our MPs as well as other MPs who have had massive increases imposed on them. Apparently there are 107 other Conservative MPs who have had their housing numbers increased. Examples are: Dominic Rabb (225 to 774), Priti Patel (1,137 to 23,880, Boris Johnson 559 to 2,026). Lobby them all.
Phase 3: Update and resubmit every objection made by the Regional Council Groups to the South East Plan Public Inquiry as the reasons for objecting then has not changed. In fact they have just got much worse.
I hope there is a willingness to take this course of action by Wokingham Borough Council without playing their usual political gamesis perhaps the only way we have any real chance of ensuring our green fields in the borough are not all concreted over with the usual exception of the northern parishes in the borough.
It is our children’s and their children’s futures we are playing with.
Cllr Gary Cowan is an independent borough councillor for Arborfield at Wokingham Borough Council