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TONY JOHNSON: Views of the news in 2018

Columnist Tony Johnson looks back at what happened in Wokingham borough during 2018, as seen through The Wokingham Paper’s coverage

January

If change were the only constant in life, then 2018 would turn out to be a very constant year. It opened with closures – The Spin nightclub’s hasty departure from central Wokingham in late December, coupled with WBC’s announcement of a programme of 47 road closures for winter drainage works – which even the council admitted could “cause some inconvenience”.

Meanwhile, Mrs May showed her commitment to new homes by popping in to Montague Park resident Laura Paine’s house for a cup of tea.

The PM went on to say: “we want to see homes being built in the right places. It’s important we protect the green belt as far as possible”.

Wokingham’s station toilets promptly closed again, due to vandalism (not Mrs May’s visit).

More new homes were approved in a ‘cunning plan’ – but it was neighbouring Hart Council who’d been cunning, approving a quantity of new houses on WBC’s border without making any CIL contribution (community infrastructure levy) to WBC. Meanwhile over in Woodley, shades of things to come became clear as WBC razed all the trees to the ground on a former Age Concern site.

There was news that Market Place improvements had encountered delays due to some underground issues and the opening date would now be March.

The month closed with an Extraordinary Council Meeting debating the Finchampstead residents’ petition, following which the public were invited to join a traffic group created to address road congestion issues around the borough.

The year was barely a month old as changes in the ruling executive were announced: Chris Bowring was booted out as exec member for Highways and replaced by Keith Baker. Julian McGhee-Sumner took on the Finance role due to illness in the previous incumbent’s family.

February

February opened with WBC publishing a map of eight major improvements to the local road network around the borough.

Six years after it had decided to install sprinklers in new school buildings, WBC showed that it hadn’t followed its own decision, nor had it learned much from the 2017 Grenfell tragedy as the new Maths block at Emmbrook school opened – minus the sprinklers but with the cladding.

Losing one planning appeal a month could be problematic, but we managed to lose two appeals in February alone, with more to follow.

Encouraging news that recycling was being extended took a bit of a knock as a procurement cock-up meant that this year’s blue bags wouldn’t have any handles.

With the number of sites being proposed for new housing soaring past 200, the Local Plan update continued and a new pressure group called CPRW (Campaign to Protect Rural Wokingham) was created.

However, by year’s end it was looking more like the Campaign to Protect Ruscombe and Wargrave (both in Mrs May’s green belt).

Regeneration blunders continued as WBC went and chopped down the trees on Elms Field – permitting itself to do things that it hasn’t given developers permission for.

March

Chopping seemed to be uppermost on WBC’s mind as it created a wasteland when it removed all the trees on land adjacent to the River Thames in preparation for a park and ride/bus lane bridge scheme which hadn’t got full planning permission yet.

Over on Wokingham’s flagship housing development at Phoenix Avenue, residents were cheesed off with the shambles of unfinished works and repeatedly broken promises for broadband installation.

In the face of overwhelming housing developments, Parish and Borough Councillors wrote to Government ministers (including the PM) making it clear that the developer practices of land-banking coupled with punitive action by DCLG’s Planning Inspectorate weren’t acceptable.

Closures continued with the shutting of Prezzo’s in Wokingham and Woodley being announced. Amidst the massive housing developments in Shinfield, Hyde End Road was closed to install new water mains. And Emmbrook Road was closed (again) to prevent flooding under the railway bridge – which has gone on ever since its construction in the 1840s.

Theresa May’s visit to open the council’s Phoenix Avenue development did the trick to get Wokingham’s various housing companies to make it pleasant and safe to walk around.

But even this ray of sunshine couldn’t dispel the sense of impending doom as a well-orchestrated filibuster at the Council Meeting delayed business by so much that the debate on WBC offering an apology to residents over the Elms Field debacle didn’t get a look in.

April

Internationally, Donald Trump’s cries of ‘fake news’  were looking more and more credible as political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica closed after a massive Facebook data-breach gave it

87 million users’ personal information.

Closer to home, The Wokingham Paper revealed, on Thursday March 29, that local firm ‘Cantley Analytica’ was using Facebook to predict who’d drop litter. However, the statement that Ms Dora Albury would be dropping a can of Monster energy drink on Goatley Way on Tuesday was incorrect. We’d like to apologise for this error. It should have said Sunday.

As the borough’s local election campaigns ground into gear, John Redwood’s warning from January 2017 that Grazeley plans “could backfire” seemed to edge closer to reality as opposition fears of a £50M shortfall ending up on council tax bills were made known.

Conservatives announced an ambitious ‘Rent to Buy’ scheme for first time house buyers as part of their election manifesto, together with a range of other measures to deliver the best for the borough.

But this promising start faltered when their Arborfield candidate decided to delete some Facebook posts.

Incensed, the resident whose posts had been deleted mounted a publicity campaign with such vigour that the candidate’s election efforts never really recovered.

Rats in the borough showed their contempt for the new housing developments by moving into nearby residents’ homes. This led to the discovery that WBC doesn’t have a team of rat-catchers on immediate stand-by,  contrary to popular belief.

The Conservative campaign received further setbacks when it became known that town mayor and leading light of the local party had links with far-right groups. Rather than let things fester as an ongoing gift for the opposition, he immediately resigned his role, his seat and his party.

May

Investigations carried out by The Wokingham Paper showed that the Borough’s expenditure on temps had sky-rocketed in the last year.

And as political campaigning came to an end on election day (May 3rd) the count of ballot papers produced some surprises.

For much of the night some candidates felt they’d done enough to retain their seats, then discovered they hadn’t.

Opposition parties were jubilant and another shake up of WBC’s executive became inevitable.

After the ‘beast form the east’ had seen temperatures plummet earlier, Spring saw the grass growing ‘faster than expected’ under WBC’s feet, so 2017’s ‘grassgate’ got another airing.

Politically, it was a treat to have an opportunity to meet and interview a national party leader as Sir Vince Cable visited the borough to chat with local Lib Dems.

As temperatures soared, grass grew, and Royal weddings were celebrated, WBC decided to rebuild a council house estate in Finchampstead.

More roads were closed, including Langborough Road and part of Denmark Street as Elms Field construction got underway while Market Place completion was delayed yet again.

A rare publishing ‘bludner’ gave Wokingham Paper readers a sense of deja vu as page 6 one week looked suspiciously familiar.

For those with a short memory this wasn’t a problem, but a quick look at page 5 showed the content was identical.

June

More closures were blamed on Regeneration as the Grape Escape and Wetherspoon’s Gig House both shut suddenly.

The town centre street concert proved popular, as did Twyford’s beer festival, Woodley’s Carnival and the Hurst Show and Country Fayre.

The return of ArtFest was in doubt, but contractors managed to lay just enough new paviors to allow it to go ahead amid the Market Place chaos.

However it was apparent that the warm weather was having a less pleasant effect as shocking news of two assaults and countless examples of anti-social behaviour were reported.

The Borough council was in denial over failing to help local businesses with rate relief and the axing of school lollipop crossings showed that WBC was spending £400,000 in order to save £85,000.

There was a ray of political sunshine as WBC’s mayor opened Fosters Independent Living – a new council-built housing scheme for older people.

In a welcome show of civic fortitude, June’s planning meeting saw Reading’s so-called mass rapid transit scheme being kicked into the long grass (no trees remember).

July

Continued concerns over the safety of removing the school crossing patrols led to one school governor publicly asking why they hadn’t had the courtesy of a reply to their letter to WBC.

Unrelated but in the same week, former council leader Keith Baker resigned his post as executive member for Highways, while WBC Mayor John Kaiser, acting as a ward councillor, helped launch a petition against another 1,000 new homes being added to Barkham.

A completion date of mid-August was announced for Wokingham’s Market Place and WBC’s third executive member for highways in 2018 announced that the 19a/c bus service suspended in 2017, would be coming back.

But as the hot spell continued, one six-year-old in Winnersh got fed up with the litter on her walk to school and promptly wrote to the Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, the road closures continued as Southern Gas and South East Water each added to motorists’ woes by tearing up roads in Woosehill and Winnersh, then causing gridlock in south Wokingham by shutting the junction of Molly Millars Lane and Finchampstead Road.

Light relief was on hand for visitors to the Marvellous Festival at Dinton Pastures in Hurst while on a slightly more serious note, party activists welcomed the visit by Sir Keir Starmer – Labour’s national Brexit front bencher – at a Wokingham town centre restaurant.

Following the loss of yet another planning

appeal, WBC’s leader Cllr Charlotte Haitham Taylor pledged that the council would be holding a public consultation on new housing as part of the Local Plan update.

August

Closures continued as the gas main works saw Winnersh Crossroads turned into a one way system while over in Waterloo Road in Wokingham, a burst water main had caused so much damage that the collapsed road was still closed three weeks later.

After much debate on social media, in the press and in the council chamber, WBC’s ruling executive group decided to demonstrate that they weren’t listening to residents after all and voted to axe the school crossing patrollers.

Another town centre road closure saw the executive member for Regeneration gamely trying to explain the challenges of the various town centre works, following which the council promised to meet the August 18 end date. (It didn’t).

Despite the hot weather, local retailers finally lost

patience with WBC’s approach on providing any support for their businesses which had seen revenues collapse following the huge drop in town-centre footfall (WBC felt it had done what it could to offer assistance during the works).

Meanwhile, as the Market Place block-layers continued working – for up to 16 hours a day, seven days a week – thanks to WBC giving itself planning permission for extended working, a new hazard was become evident as people started tripping over the parts that had been ‘finished’.

September

As August turned into September, work on block laying in the Market Place dragged on.

And on.

An exposé in the weekly commentary questioned the veracity of Borough press releases, although until this fine distinction had been pointed out to one town councillor, there was a distinctly litigious atmosphere around the place.

Continuing political divisions came to light when the deputy leader of Wokingham Borough Council resigned.

It was a public indication as to the level of strife as splits (plural) as well as differences between public policy and private secrecy showed that all wasn’t well among WBC’s ruling group.

The plague of rats continued as a long-term Gorse Ride resident confessed that they simply didn’t have the money to get rid of the blighters. (Rats, not politicians).

Finally, after many, many months of delay, obfuscation and common-or-garden civic blundering, Wokingham’s Market Place reopened.

Initially with a few stalls on the Thursday, followed by a much bigger celebration 10 days later.

Work starting on the so-called ‘smart M4’ saw Winnersh residents protesting the up to 10-times increase in noise levels after trees and shrubs on the motorway embankment were blitzed in advance of widening the hard shoulder to become a fourth lane.

Lib Dem councillors reported Wokingham Borough Council to the Secretary of State for local government following concerns over the running of the borough’s finances.

October

After more than six months of inactivity it appeared that the traffic group set up in January appeared to have quietly disappeared up its own exhaust pipe.

Residents and visitors ‘going for a trip’ (sic) in Wokingham’s regenerated market place were promised a safety audit as WBC Cllr Philip Mirfin, executive member for Regeneration, explained.

Three months later, we’ve not heard anything more about the safety audit, although there has been a meeting of the traffic group.

I’d love to tell you what was discussed, but the new rules of engagement of that group had made discussions confidential, so I’d chosen not to attend.

However as December ended with yet another executive member for Highways in charge (four in one year), perhaps the public might be allowed to learn about matters that the public have been discussing with the council. Honestly – even I couldn’t make this stuff up.

On a sad note, a civic service was held in the memory of Ann Davis, a former town mayor and highly respected councillor of many years standing.

Meanwhile, problems with rats continued to be reported on WBC’s Gorse Ride estate as a ‘colourful’ letter to the paper prompted the chair of the joint Bracknell-Wokingham-West Berks Public Protection Partnership (PPP) to respond. We learnt that the PPP “doesn’t carry out … work for rats … responsibility rests with the occupier … work[ing] closely with colleagues … on Council owned properties”.

Sounds like somebody’s taking the PPP.

The middle of the month brought the shock news that Wokingham’s Crown Post Office was due to be closed and that in future, post office services would be provided from a kiosk in WH Smith.

Wokingham’s residents have been promised a consultation, unlike Twyford’s, where the post office counter in Booze Bargain simply closed without notice.

Road closures continued as a very sorry looking minibus was pictured nose down in a sink-hole on Nine Mile Ride after a burst water main.

At Shute End, WBC’s interim CEO Manjeet Gill departed suddenly “to pursue other opportunities”.

Opposition councillors were unsparing in their criticism of the ruling Conservative group for this sudden departure. I feel there’s a LOT more to this little sequence of events.

November

Over in commentary corner, chatter continued about change, political change which, although it hadn’t happened yet, would do so before the month was out.

Meanwhile, over in Sindlesham a lorry was left not just a few bricks short of a full load, but with a load of bricks all over the road, as one of my photos and supporting text made the front page (surprising but nonetheless very welcome).

In Sonning a local MP, with a somewhat ‘busy’ day job, made time to open the refurbished squash courts at the Berkshire County Sports Club.

Mrs May also demonstrated that she was up to date on new dance techniques as it turned out that flossing wasn’t just a dental activity after all.

The centenary of the First World War’s Armistice Day was commemorated by thousands of people across the borough in morning, afternoon and evening ceremonies. I wrote ‘Centennial’, a poem in appreciation of my maternal grandmother’s two relatives (her brother and her husband) who gave up their life and their health respectively in the First World War.

Suddenly, all the rumours about political change were over. The ruling Conservative group booted out their leader after just 18 months and voted a new one in. As the paper’s leader said: “Charlotte, thank you. Julian, good luck”.

The following week saw the recently deposed leader make a personal statement and what a statement it was – no whimpering, no bang even. More like a series of well-aimed spotlights to illuminate 20th century practices in those ‘smoke-filled Tory backrooms’.

It being the run-up to Christmas, Wokingham’s town centre saw a somewhat commercial but very busy winter carnival taking place, while Bracknell MP Dr Philip Lee waded in to support his constituents in a planning battle.

December

Receiving a somewhat contentious Christmas message from the Thames Valley Police commissioner Anthony Stansfield, the newly Independent Woodley borough councillor Richard Dolinski expressed his surprise at learning the Commissioner doesn’t get involved in police matters.

Over in Twyford, a happy and relaxed looking Theresa May PM joined the festivities to switch on the Christmas lights, while in Wokingham, one of her ministers (Claire Perry) was shown round the Peach Place development with Wokingham constituency MP, John Redwood, now Sir John.

The slightly delayed availability of two of the Peach Place retail units saw Waterstones (booksellers) and Gail’s (bakers) moving in and opening up in the run up to Christmas and reporting brisk trade as shoppers flocked to these new stores.

WBC’s planning committee kicked out Reading’s revised plans for a mess (sic) rapid transit – again. More deja vu, but from June rather than page 5.

And finally – WBC announced that Susan Parsonage would become CEO in the new year.

The Last Word

So that’s it. All of 2018’s political ‘news’ which your Wokingham Paper reported throughout a turbulent and fractious year, holding ‘authority’ as well as ourselves to account, keeping you informed of how things run, walk, or totter round here.

It only remains to wish you the reader, and all the hard-working Councillors and Officers in parishes, towns and at Shute End, an even better 2019.

caveat.lector@icloud.com

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