VIDEO: Executive approves Gorse Ride redevelopment plans

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WOKINGHAM BOROUGH COUNCIL’S Executive committee has approved plans to regenerate Gorse Ride in Finchampstead.

The meeting, held its Shute End offices on Wednesday, May 16, was well attended by members of the public, some of whom asked a number of questions. The Wokingham Paper was the only media present. 

Chairing the meeting, Cllr Charlotte Haitham Taylor, the leader of the council, thanked people for  coming to this “very important meeting”.

The project will see 243 new homes built on the estate – a mixture of include one- and two-bedroom bungalows, one- and two-bedroom apartments and two, three, four and five bedroom houses.

It is expected that the first phase will start in the spring of 2020 and see the demolition of home Billing Avenue, Dart Close, Firs Close, Orbit Close and Whittle Close (excluding numbers 19 to 26), as well as, Gorse Ride South (numbers 8 – 42, even numbers only).

Total cost and where The Wokingham Paper got it wrong

The total cost of the project has been redacted by the council, under grounds of commercial sensitivity. However, almost £30 million will come from developer contributions (sometimes known as Section 106 money).

The Wokingham Paper incorrectly reported in today’s edition (May 17, 2018) that parts of last night’s Executive meeting were to be held in private: it is the figures that have been kept secret. No part of last night’s meeting was excluded to the press or public and we are sorry for the confusion caused by the headline in the paper.

The report was written before the meeting took place and the Executive had the option to exclude the press and public if they had wished to do so.

Despite this inaccurate reporting, The Wokingham Paper believes that the total cost of the Gorse Ride project should be in the public domain and will continue to press the council to release the financial information ahead of the planning application being approved, especially if it adds to the level of debt being generated by the council. 

Ownership after the new homes are built

Cllr Richard Dolinski, the Executive Member for Adult Services, answered a range of questions from the public and councillors.

Michael Jones wanted to know why the council would not confirm that existing homeowners on the Gorse Ride estate would be offered a like-for-like swap for their homes when they are completed.

Cllr Dolinksi confirmed that the homeowners would have priority for a newly-built home that has the equivalent number of bedrooms. “However, the brand new homes are likely to be worth significantly more than existing homes and therefore, the Council is not proposing a straight swap.

“The Council recognises that the full market value of existing homes may not be enough to enable homeowners to purchase outright a similar home on the rebuilt estate or elsewhere locally.”

He said that homeovers would have the option of purchasing a new home via an equity share scheme, with the council retaining a percentage share of the property.

“You will not be expected to pay any rent or interest on the part you do not own and will only need to repay the council’s share when you sell the home in future,” he added, pledging that the new homes would be, in most cases, built to higher space standards.

Will you be able to own your own home still?

Carole Bates also wanted to know more about the ownership arrangements.

She said: “I currently own 100% of my home and would like to continue to do so, but you’re not letting me.”

Cllr Dolinski replied: “The council has listened to the views of home owners during our recent consultation and widened the choice for homeowners.

“If the shared equity option does not suit, it may be possible for you to own 100% of your new home on or off site if you are able to invest a lump sum payment to cover the difference in property values.

“Alternatively another option may be to purchase a smaller property on or off site using the value of your current home.”

Breaching statutory duties?

Chris Wallace said: “If the Executive approve the recommendations of the Gorse Ride Regeneration report they will once again be in breach of their Statutory Duty to all the affected tenants. Why are you allowing officers to present reports with consultation outcomes that do not meet the requires laid out quite clearly by the HCA (Homes and Communities Agency) in the Tenant Involvement and Empowerment Standard?”

Cllr Dolinski said that the Council had been actively involving tenants, home owners and others on the Gorse Ride estate over the proposals, including fortnightly surgeries and regular Steering Group meetings.

“I am satisfied that the proposals in the report … [are] in line with Section 105 of the Housing Act 1985 and the regulator’s Tenant Involvement and Empowerment Standard.”

Including all residents

The final residents’ question came from Matt Sales, who own a brick-built house in Whittle Close. He said that a few years ago “our local councillor lobbied to have us excluded from the schemes”.

“Please can I ask that our views are taken into consideration … and a special meeting be arranged for us to talk about this with relevant parties … before they are put to planning?”

Cllr Dolinski thanked Mr Sales for his support for the proposals, “you play a key role in shaping the future of your estate and the council really does appreciate this”.

He continued: “Subject to tonight’s decision, a fresh tender process will need to be undertaken to appoint architects to develop the final plans. We expect the successful company to continue to engage with residents and other affected parties, including yourself and others living outside the redevelopment boundary.

“We are happy to do this through a special meeting if that is felt necessary.”

Councillors ask questions

Private sale v social rents

Cllr Prue Bray
Cllr Prue Bray

Cllr Prue Bray expressed her pleasure at seeing the council plan new affordable homes in the borough.

She said: “I am disappointed that 37 – more than half – of the additional properties are for provate sale, while the rest of the increase is either for shared ownership or intermediate/affordable rent. There are no plans for any additional properties at social rent, even though these are the type of properties that would be of most help to the residents who are most in need.

“Why are so many of the extra properties being built for sale on the open market?”

Cllr Dolinski said: “The tenure mix is indicative and is likely to change over the life of the project. We are proposing to replace the current council homes with the same number of high quality, new social rented homes.

“We are also seeking to provide a range of housing types and tenures and to create a balanced and mixed community.”

He said that 136 homes would be social rents, 12 affordable rents, 19 shared owners and 76 homes as being on the market value. Of those 76, 39 would be prioritised for existing homeowners on Gorse Ride.

“Without these open market sales, the council would need to inject further commuted sums into the project,” he said.

Can homes be protected from right to buy?

Finchampstead South councillor Ian Pittock asked if any of the homes, particularly the bungalows, be designated as specialist, protecting them from Right to Buy schemes and ensuring they are kept the social housing sector.

Cllr Dolinski said: “The tenants would be offered a new home on the estate on a ‘lifetime assured tenancy with broadly similar terms to their current Council tenancy’. This would include a preserved right to buy where tenants currently have this provision in their tenancy agreements.

“Generally bungalows … are exempt from right to buy as they are deemed specialist,” he continued, saying that the right to buy scheme is currently being piloted as a voluntary scheme for registered providers.

“It is unlikely that Right To Buy will be offered to new tenants moving into new homes on the redeveloped estate.”

Transfers

The issue of where tenants will live during the works was raised in the final question of the evening, asked by Labour leader on Wokingham Borough Council, Cllr Andy Croy.

“The Land Transfer section states that it is necessary to appropriate the site from the HRA, but does not sure the point at which that becomes necessary. Residents has been led to believe that planning application process will be completed for the whole site at one time but that residents would be decanted in stages.

“As the land will not be vacant at the time of transfer, who will be the landlord for the tenants in this period and what exploratory steps have been taken to obtain consent from the Secretary of State?”

Cllr Dolinski said that although the planning application will cover the whole site, the development will undergo a series of phases [similar to the way in which Arborfield Green is being built].

“It is anticipated that residents on each phase will be rehoused, either to an earlier phase on the estate or to alternative housing depending on their wishes, and then that part of the site will be cleared prior to the transfer to Loddon Homes.

“We therefore expect each phase of the site to be transferred with vacant possession and for each transfer to be covered by the general consent. Should this change, our experience with other schemes is that the process of securing Secretary of State consent is relatively straight-forward and takes around two to three months.

“The council will remain the landlord for all affected tenants until they are decanted and rehoused on or off site.”

The vote

The executive members – reduced in number due to the loss of David Lee and Mark Ashwell in the recent local elections, and the absence of Cllr Keith Baker and Cllr Norman Jorgensen held a very brief discussion where there expressed their approval of the plans.

All five Executive members present – Cllr Simon Weeks, Cllr Richard Dolinski, Cllr Charlotte Haitham Taylor, Cllr Julian McGhee-Sumner and Cllr Stuart Munro – voted in favour of progressing the scheme.

Reaction

Speaking to The Wokingham Paper afterwards, Cllr Dolinksi said: “The next stage is to look at engaging architects to look to work with the residents.

“This will take probably up to two years and then to deliver will take around 10 years.”

And Cllr Prue Bray said: “This is a really important project for the council because we have number of houses in Gorse Ride that are not in a very good condition and we need to do something with them. This is an opportunity to replace them with homes that will last longer and hopefully get more affordable housing as well.  

“It is difficult because we have public money which has been given to go to affordable housing and I really want to make that stretch as much as possible.

“This is a step forward and I don’t think there are any councillors who think this is the wrong thing to do.”

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