TONY JOHNSON: Consultation Prize

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You might have noticed that Wokingham isn’t quite as nice a place to live as it was.

Our main roads are so jammed that getting to work now wastes even more fuel and time. Getting a doctor’s appointment can take weeks.

An A&E visit is so long that the government proposes to scrap the four-hour target. And at times, if you want to give birth – please find another hospital as Royal Berks is full.

The reason’s deceptively simple: more people; more cars; more houses; same infrastructure.

And the prize is working out what to do about it.

Enough isn’t Enough

Despite the pre-election claims that enough IS enough, as far as housing is concerned it clearly isn’t.

Da Bildaaz have been doing a jolly good job – out-foxing the Planners at Shute End – getting Bristol, Westminster and pretty much all of Whitehall in support.

Bristol’s the Planning Inspectorate, aka the boys from the bumf stuff.

Westminster is the seat of parliament and someone called Ben – he’s ‘Big’ apparently.

Whitehall is the corridors of power and where there’s nothing as ‘Civil’ as ‘Servants’.

And despite WBC having issued enough planning consents for the next decade, it’s nowhere near sufficient, so we’re being ‘encouraged’, appealed against or litigated into giving up even more.

Finance

We know that Wokingham’s “the lowest funded authority in the country” because Conservative politicians have been telling us this for at least five years, so it must be true.

Over the same period, Conservatives have consistently claimed that none of our council tax money has been used to fund big ticket spending on Regeneration.

At the same time, the rate support grant from central government has been cut to zero.

Despite this, WBC hasn’t suffered the same scale of austerity and cutbacks, nor the mass sackings, nor going bust under a mountain of debt, that other councils have experienced.

So that’s low income and high spending, how’s this possible ?

Income

Back in 2008, before the current Local Plan, the Council used to get around £5k for every new house. The Local Plan raised this to around £30k and today the figure is closer to £40k. With around 1,000 new homes in the last year, this totals to circa £35M.

Add in the Government’s new homes bonus of £5.7M and it’s over £40M – yes that’s forty million pounds. In one year.

As WBC’s Council Tax only raises around £100 million each year, if we stop taking new houses, where’s the other £40 million coming from ?

But…

And there’s the dilemma – moral as well as fiscal.

Despite the £40 million from developer contributions and new homes bonuses, it’s only a quarter or a third of what’s really needed to keep level pegging in terms of key infrastructure like roads, schools, hospitals, utilities etc.

And every new home in our area isn’t just a loss of land and pleasant views, it’s a reduction in service or capacity in every single bit of infrastructure that we enjoy today.

So if we want Wokingham to really be a nice place to live, we’re not going to need more money. We’re going to need a LOT more invested in infrastructure.

But that’s a topic for another day.

There was an answer

One solution would be to raise Council Tax by 40% but that’s illegal without a Council Referendum.

And that referendum would have been interesting.

A Conservative-led council taking up arms on housing policy against a Conservative-led government, with the Conservative Prime Minister living in our Borough???

Right up to the time where Mrs May resigned, it would have produced either a) more money from Government or b) a re-think on housing numbers.

If you’ve any doubts, back in Feb 2017 the leader of Surrey county council went toe to toe with an un-named person over a referendum to raise council tax by 15%.

By December the referendum proposals had been shelved and HM Treasury had allowed Surrey to keep all their business rates.

Interesting that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, second lord of HM Treasury and Conservative MP for Runnymede and Weybridge (in Surrey) is one Philip Hammond.

The Last Word

In the absence of a referendum to concentrate the minds of those in power, the Borough has chosen to consult its residents instead with a Housing Target Survey at www.wokingham.gov.uk/consultation.

The question is simple: “Do you believe the Government imposed housing target is too high?”

But ‘the answer’ might not be quite so straightforward.

Especially if the next minister for housing doesn’t live in the Borough but wants to focus new homes around transport hubs such as crossrail train stations – even if they’re in the green belt.

It’s up to you as to whether the prize is a consultation or a consolation.

caveat.lector@icloud.com

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