TONY JOHNSON: What's driving division?

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Grazeley
Grazeley

As last week’s commentary looked at the political splits among local Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, so this week looks at one root cause of the divisions – the Local Plan for housing.

Make Room, Make Room!

23 years ago, Steve Bacon (Arborfield, LD) launched plans for a ‘huge development’ of 2,500 homes at Grazeley. MP John Redwood planted a tree there in opposition and Gary Cowan later won the Arborfield seat.

Despite this, population growth continued with many incomers.

Secret plans

In 2015 Keith Baker, a Woodley town councillor and Conservative leader of WBC, kept Grazeley plans secret, even from his own Conservative councillors. 

In contrast to every other council who’d held public discussions on their Garden Town plans, matters came to a head after The Wokingham Paper revealed what was going on.

Then, in a letter to the paper, the three Shinfield South Conservative councillors representing Grazeley made their objections public.

High Noon

Conservative councillors elected a new Borough leader in May 2017 and Charlotte Haitham Taylor (Shinfield South) duly took over, appointing David Lee as her deputy leader and putting him in charge of the Local Plan.

As well as WBC councillors visiting her in London, Prime Minister Theresa May came to town and on one famous occasion, had to walk from Peach Street to Shute End. In hindsight, one wonders whether Will Kane (played by David Lee) shouldn’t have just met her in the middle of Broad Street.

2018’s ‘Growth Scenarios’ report shows that Twyford / Ruscombe and Barkham Square were being evaluated in addition to Grazeley, but before they could be published, David Lee had lost his town centre seat in May 2018’s election. Stuart Munro (Swallowfield) was duly put in charge of the local plan.

Back Yard or Back Ward

But that 2018 election revealed another threat as Jim Frewin (Shinfield South, Ind) nearly won his first ‘enough is enough’ campaign based on Shinfield’s housing numbers going up from the old Local Plan’s 2,500 to over 4,000.

After ousting CHT as leader in late 2018, Julian McGhee-Sumner proposed another WBC consultation on housing under the title “Enough is Enough”.

That ABBA election

In May 2019’s local elections, Julian McGhee-Sumner lost his seat as the significantly weaker but still in charge Conservatives elected John Halsall as their leader and a reshuffle followed. 

Coming within a whisker of losing his seat to an energetic Lib Dem, Barkham’s John Kaiser was appointed Deputy Leader. Wayne Smith (Hurst) took over the job of the much delayed Local Plan from Stuart Munro.

WBC’s ‘housing consulation’ used scarce resources to discover that we really REALLY didn’t want any more Housing. I’m sure that someone thought it worthwhile, but just like the many showdowns with government ministers and civil servants, it hasn’t made a spit of difference to government policy.

A cunning plan

Finally, the long-delayed Local Plan came to January 2020’s ‘extraordinary’ Exec. meeting for approval.

Although it isn’t that easy to find yet, at 172 pages the draft covers the proposals in some depth. There’s supporting documentation that will be put forward for public consultation ‘real soon now’.

There’s three broad swathes to the proposal :

  • First is the new strategy – Grazeley Garden Town. 
  • Second is completing the previous strategy with the four SDLs at Arborfield Garrison; South of the M4 (‘Shinfilled’); North Wokingham; South Wokingham.
  • Third is a tactical selection of fifteen sites (of circa 300 submitted) dotted around the borough.

Bias, what bias?

One of the interesting things about complicated plans or strategies is trying to visualise their ‘opposite’, then comparing and contrasting that with what’s being proposed. Another is to take a look at what they DON’T say, as much as what they do.

And while my ‘read’ of the draft plan is very, very, far from complete and definitely not comprehensive, there’s already two things that stand out :

Strategically – it doesn’t include Ruscombe (Halsall, C), Twyford (Ferris, LD), Hurst (W. Smith, C) or Barkham Square (Kaiser, C).

Tactically – the 900+ houses of Policy H2 are dotted around as follows :

  • Conservative Wards 220 houses in 6 wards – avg. 37 each
  • Marginal Wards 140 houses in 1 ward – avg. 140 each
  • Lib Dem Wards 556 houses in 3 wards – avg. 185 each

Just desserts

Living in the Woodley / Twyford / Ruscombe area, local MP and former prime minister Theresa May confirmed on 24th May 2019 that she would resign as Conservative Party leader on 7th June, actually tendering her resignation on 24th July. She was re-elected as an MP in Dec 2019.

In a Local Plan running two years late, you might be wondering why the borough’s current leaders couldn’t wait until next year, when there’s no elections and thus less political fallout if things go badly. Cllrs John Halsall, Lindsay Ferris and Wayne Smith were elected in 2016 and their four year terms expire in May 2020.

The Acton Diet …

… will be back.

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