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MP launches fight to protect green space by Sand Martins

Dr Phillip Lee visits proposed housing development site with local Conservative councillors

ONE OF the borough’s four MPs has lent his support to the borough council’s efforts to protect a green space from being developed.

If it goes ahead, a field in front of Sand Martins golf club on Finchampstead Road would be turned into 80 homes – and remove a green gap between Barkham and Finchampstead.

The borough council’s planning committee turned down the plans in April, and last December the council lost an appeal to create a SANG (Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspace) that the applicant, Gladmans, had proposed to be built next to the homes.

Gladmans is appealing against the homes refusal, something that Dr Lee says could cost Wokingham Borough Council more than £100,000 to defend in the courts.

Earlier this week, Bracknell MP Dr Phillip Lee – whose constituency includes parts of Finchampstead and Wokingham Without – met with Conservative ward councillors at the proposed site.

The councillors – Dan Sargeant and Charles Margetts – say that the proposals would be out of character for the neighbourhood and would be unsustainable. They also argue that the council is already meeting government housing targets across the borough and therefore there is no need to use this site.

After the meeting, Dr Lee said:  “I do not normally become involved in planning matters, as they are rightly the responsibility of the local council.

“However, in this case, we have a council that has made a decision locally, based on published policies and with a sufficient landbank to meet the government’s five-year requirement, being challenged on a speculative basis by a company that boasts it is confident it can achieve a planning win for its landowners in 90% of cases.

“This is a matter of local democracy and I am passionate in my belief that local councils who play by the rules, as does WBC, should not have their decisions second-guessed by a non-elected government organisation.”

When the planning inspectorate ruled last December on the SANG application, it noted that the proposal had to be considered separately to the 80 homes plan: “the material considerations of that scheme should be considered separately” the report noted.

It added: “In respect of concerns relating to the erosion of the gap between settlements, the proposal would retain the site as an open habitat, and therefore I consider that it would maintain the gap between settlements.”

Residents have also been campaigning against proposed developments in the area, with similar schemes applied for in Spencers Wood, against the current local plan recommendations.

This is something that Dr Lee would like to see resolved.

He said: “Under the current arrangements, speculative land promoters have a huge advantage.  Councils are in the incongruous position that they need to spend considerable amounts of local taxpayers’ money defending their decisions, and that is money that, for the most part cannot be recovered – win or lose.  On the other hand, any costs incurred by the promoters can simply be split and added to price of any houses built at the site.

“That is wrong and needs to be changed.  I would like to see a change in the regulations such that all costs – the council’s and the developer’s – are met in full, whatever the outcome, by the developer.  That, at least will go some way towards creating a more level playing field and ensuring that local decisions really are taken locally.”

Cllr Margetts defended the council’s actions on housing.

He acknowledged that houses had to be built but said: “There is a need for more housing in the borough. It is important it is provided in areas where there is the appropriate infrastructure to support it.

“Wokingham Borough Council is hitting the central government target for housing delivery and can show over seven years land supply when the government requires it to show five.

“WBC refused this application on the basis that it would lead to the loss of the last green gap between Finchampstead and Wokingham, is out of character with the surrounding areas, has no public transport links, is totally unsustainable and that the government target for housing is being met elsewhere in the borough and therefore development on this site is not necessary.

“Local people elect local politicians to make decisions on their behalf. It is not undemocratic that Gladmans should try to over turn this decision by appealing to the planning inspectorate in Bristol when WBC is meeting the central government target for housing delivery and therefore should be able to determine this at a local level.

“It will cost WBC around £100,000 of taxpayers money to defend this appeal which could be spent on further public services rather than fighting of land speculators.  I welcome and am grateful for the support of Dr Phillip Lee on this issue.”

And Cllr Sargeant, who was elected in May, added: “WBC delivers the housing required of it by central government through the Local Plan, which ensures it is done in a sustainable and democratic way. This application is not sustainable and was rightly rejected.

“Fighting this appeal will cost the Council around £100K and the decision will be taken by the Planning Inspectorate, rather than by accountable local politicians. It is a wholly unreasonable system that is costing Wokingham Borough residents.”

Phil Creighton

Editor of The Wokingham Paper, and has worked in local journalism for more than 20 years including the Wokingham Times, Bracknell Standard and Reading Evening Post. He's also written for computer magazines, The Baptist Times and, to his delight and probably not yours, interviewed several Doctor Whos.

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