RESIDENTS presenting a petition to Wokingham Borough Council walked out of the meeting saying they felt their voices were being ignored.
And they were joined in the walkout by a furious Liberal Democrat group whose leader said that the meeting was “absolutely disgusting”.
The extraordinary council meeting was called on Thursday, January 24, to discuss a petition raised by residents in Shinfield who are fed up of ongoing building works. The parish has had thousands of new homes built and with the council considering a super development in Grazeley, more could be on their way.
The debate follows a similar one held last November after Barkham residents raised their concerns with the council.
Now, more than 10,000 residents have added their names to petitions concerned with overdevelopment of the borough.
Members of the planning committee were advised not to take part in the debate, but instead leave the chamber, as the proposed Cutbush Lane development had not yet come before it. By withdrawing from the chamber, this would prevent the committee from being accused of prejudicing the application when they come to consider it.
The meeting opened with a series of questions from residents, who wanted to know about issues such as drainage works, planning procedures and the supply of houses.
Then resident Mark Chatfield opened the debate, in which he thanked fellow Shinfield area residents for “the tremendous help and support they have given to enable us to get to this point”.
He added: “I hope I am able to portray to those present the depth and strength of feeling the Shinfield Southern Ward residents have about the mass, inappropriate ill-thought out housing development they are having to endure.
“Residents see a council bending over backwards to assist the developers, they see their councillors failing to listen to reasoned argument, they see MPs and councillors too interested in keeping their jobs, not prepared to stand up to central Government, even when the overwhelming evidence suggests that they should.”
The subsequent debate was muted slightly as Executive members and those councillors who sit on the planning committee were unable to take part in the debate.
Cllr Parry Batth (Conservative, Shinfield South) said that he was pleased to see so many residents at the meeting ready to make their voices heard.
“We are here to listen and act appropriately,” he said. “I want to see development in appropriate locations to ensure disruption including traffic congestion kept to a minimum wherever possible.”
He added that residents are suffering from a lack of parking spaces, blaming Labour’s John Prescott for this.
Cllr Lindsay Ferris (Lib Dem, Twyford) was next, and highlighted the high building numbers being forced on the borough. “This explosion of properties will significantly impact on the character of our borough, turning a semi-rural areas into one that is mainly inner and outer suburbia. It will also lead to gridlock as our local roads will be unable to to take such a significant growth.”
He urged the council to lobby the Government for a reduction in housing numbers.
Former council leader, Cllr Charlotte Haitham Taylor (Conservative, Shinfield South) thanked residents for coming along, pointing out: “Tonight is a very significant night for this council. It has now received over 10,000 signatures in the form of three different petitions specifically in relation to current development, future proposals and over development within the borough.”
She urged the council to push for a housing figure below 700 homes a year, rather than 894.
“Inappropriate development has already been won by appeal on flood plains leading to poor quality homes where sewage seeps through families’ garden lawns,” she said.
To large applause she said: “We need to stand by our residents, tell central Government to urgently rethink its current strategy and look again at where homes and future growth are best place to support all of this country.”
Arborfield’s independent councillor Gary Cowan said: “Residents are genuinely frightened by this threat [of more housing] and even the urban areas not stuck with development will also pay the price with congested roads, smog, lack of accessible medical facilities and schools. It’s time to say no more. It’s what our residents would want us to do.”
Cllr Simon Weeks (Conservative, Finchampstead South) highlighted how each new home has a levy of more than £40,000 which helps fund new investment in essential infrastructure.
However, he also warned that developers had built only half the 3,200 homes they were meant to build between 2008 and 2013.
“This substantial shortfall was regrettably added to our future targets, so developers and landowners subsequently exploited this by persuading planning inspectors that we had a record of under delivery.”
Labour group leader Cllr Andy Croy warned that what is happening in Shinfield now would happen in other parts of the borough.
“Wokingham Borough finds itself in one of the most economically viable areas in the country,” he said.
He urged that control on housing should be taken away from developers and put back in to the community.
Cllr Anthony Pollock (Conservative, Shinfield South) highlighted that residents commute between 30 and 50 miles a day.
Cllr Stuart Munro (Conservative, Swallowfield) said that “we are constrained by law” at the moment. “We do need more affordable and social housing as well,” he added.
Cllr Prue Bray, (Lib Dem, Winnersh) said: “No [resident] has said how local ward councillors have helped them in Shinfield. If a petition of this size came from my ward I would be ashamed if I didn’t support them.”
This comment received large applause from the public gallery.
Another Liberal Democrat, deputy leader Clive Jones (Hawkedon), asked “Why should Wokingham take more houses than Bracknell, Reading, West Berkshire or South Oxfordshire? There is no sensible reason for this.
“The Conservatives have built more houses than they needed to, and Shinfield has taken more than their fair share of these new houses.
“Plans being looked at now give Shinfield and surrounding areas including Grazeley: thousands more homes in the next 10 to 30 years.”
He thanked the residents for collecting so many signatures and “caring about our borough”, but he warned that “the only way to get your message across now is through the ballot box”.
The mayor, Cllr John Kaiser (Conservative, Arborfield), then called on Mr Chatfield to bring the debate to a conclusion.
He warned councillors to take a look at what is happening in Shinfield ward to see the slowdown in housing number for themselves.
“We [in Shinfield] were sold a neighbourhood and that’s not what we’ve got … your strategy is not working,” he warned. “Residents have had enough. They don’t believe you, they don’t trust you.”
The mayor then moved to the motion. Under Wokingham Borough Council constitution rules the person who stands up first presents the motion to the council. As both Cllrs Cowan and Munro had mentioned in their speeches that they wanted to raise motions, it was a race to attract the mayor’s attention.
Cllr Munro won, and it was this that led to the residents and councillors walking out. The Liberal Democrats were joined by Cllr Cowan.
Cllr Ferris interrupted Cllr Munro’s speech introducing the Conservatives’ motion, pointing out that Cllr Cowan was involved with the petition.
Defending himself, the mayor said that he was a victim in this, and had to follow the constitution of the council.
Cllr Cowan raised a point of order, saying: “The opportunity for the administration was there to refuse it and then vote on their motion. By taking this line, as exactly happened with you on the Barkham debate. The administration is using its power and influence to override the opportunity of this chamber to have a say over something over and above what they want. There was no point in residents coming to this council with any petition because it will be just thrown out.
“It’s a very sad day for democracy.”
His motion, had it been discussed, said:
“I propose that this council apologises to its residents for letting them down by not publicly consulting with them when, from 2013 onwards, this Council increased the housing numbers on several occasions over and above the Consulted and approved Core Strategy Housing numbers and replaced that housing number with those proposed by an un-elected body of consultants which they never challenged.
“This failure did not recognise the serious environmental damage the increased housing numbers will have on our remaining green fields and green belt along with the additional damage such development will have on the wellbeing of all of our communities in social, health and community welfare terms.
“This Council agrees to challenge the new housing numbers with immediate effect.”
The residents then walked out. As they did so, one said, “So much for listening”.
Another, from the public gallery, shouted that the debate was “a stitch up” and “shame on you,”
As the mayor tried to bring order, she carried on complaining. He banged his gavel and said, “We’ve had a debate here today”, but the woman continued venting her anger.
After decorum had been restored to the chamber, Cllr Munro presented his motion.
“This Council recognises that residents rightly feel that the number of houses being imposed on our Borough is currently too high. This Council, as a champion of our community, will continue to robustly make our case to Government to lower the recent housing numbers. The number of houses is determined by a Government formula and has been mandated by successive governments of all major parties.
“Further, this Council will continue to challenge inappropriate developments in our Borough – which we spend a lot of money doing – and we are supported in this approach by recent decisions to dismiss several planning appeals.
“This Council is currently undertaking a comprehensive consultation across the Borough with residents, to get their views on the sites that have been proposed as part of the statutory Local Plan process.
“All sites will be subject to comprehensive assessment and engagement before the Council approves its preferred strategy and site allocations through the Local Plan process.”
Cllr Batth seconded the motion.
All Conservatives and independent councillor Richard Dolinski voted for the motion, while the Labour block voted against.