This last couple of weeks has continued to throw a wide variety of case work my way. One of the things I need to do is find a way of organising myself. I am normally a highly organised person, perhaps annoyingly so, with a spreadsheet for everything, a holiday folder with dry and wet weather activities and a daily school schedule stuck to the inside of the front door (yes really!!). I need a system to organise my workload as a Councillor, but I honestly have not had time to think about how to do this, and am currently scribbling everything down in a notebook. Thankfully my colleague Adrian is a whizz when it comes to IT, so once we’re through the May election, he will get some kind of system in place. Until then, I need to get a basic spreadsheet in place.
Case work these last couple of weeks has included potholes (Lib Dems love complaining about potholes!) and the general quality of some of the road repairs that have been taking place (or not taken place in some cases). The council is in the process of changing highways contracts which is why there have been a few quality issues. Balfour Beatty’s contract finishes at the end of this month (March) and Volker Highways will be taking over from 1st April. We have been assured that there are KPI’s in place for a number of things including quality, so hopefully from April we should see an improvement. We are also moving to a new portal on the website to facilitate reporting of issues which hopefully will make things easier.
Highways related issues continue to be the majority of the work that residents approach me about. I am meeting one of the lead officers at the council regarding traffic enforcement to discuss a number of issues raised so I can understand what is and isn’t possible. This includes the speeding down the Woosehill Spine Road which many residents have contacted me about. Speed data has now been collected, and with the data, I need to see if it warrants any action.
Residents of Oaklands Drive will also be pleased to hear that the double yellow lines should be extended past the postbox on the Molly Millars end of the road. This has caused concern as it’s on a sharp bend where cars regularly park making it dangerous. The work is just waiting for final sign off at the top level and I’ve been informed it should happen by the end of April.
The big thing over the last couple of weeks was the demonstration along Finchampstead Road in opposition of Gladman’s proposal to put 216 properties there. For those that aren’t aware, there is a section of land called Woodcray which is behind the golf course and next to Luckley School that Gladman’s has previously tried (and failed) to build upon. There is a ‘Save Woodcray’ group that have been working hard to get local residents to object to the potential development.
Many of you may be reading this and thinking NIMBY, but I am in complete agreement with the Save Woodcray group. It is nationally recognised that we desperately need more housing, but it should be noted that it is not in the interest of developers to solve the problem. Once housing demand is met, house prices fall and so do developers profit margins. Developers want to build in Wokingham because of the high level of house pricing we have in the area (more profit), but the rate of building is at a level that keeps house prices high.
Our housing quota is determined by a methodology called Objectively Assessed Needs (OAN). The methodology is clearly flawed as our high level of house building does not seem to have been taken into account (and this isn’t just a problem in Wokingham). Because of this, I have set up a petition calling on central government to redesign the methodology (link is at the bottom of this post should you wish to sign). However, I have also been informed by MP Jake Berry, Minister for the Northern Powerhouse and Local Growth, that “a housing need figure is not a target.” Mr Berry states that local authorities use the quota as a starting point to help them make an assessment and consider “whether the need is more appropriately met in neighbouring areas.” Talking to WBC officers though, the reality is not quite that simple. We used to have a regional structure regarding housing quotas for the south east, but this has been removed and everything now falls on the individual local authorities. In other words, there is not a high-level strategic approach.
It’s also important to note though that the quota could be 850 1 bedroom apartments, or 850 6 bedroom houses – it does not specify. There is more profit for developers in larger properties, but is this what Wokingham really needs? We do want to have people move to our town as it’s good for our businesses, our diversity etc. However, we must also cater for our own population, and this is something that has been greatly overlooked. We have a large influx of big properties and not enough smaller properties for our children to move to and for our retiring residents to downsize to. Whilst we may be attracting people to Wokingham, we will also be losing many of our residents who move elsewhere, and that balance needs to be redressed. Wokingham Borough Council has its own building company Wokingham Housing Limited that also incorporates Loddon Homes. We could have so much more control over the development of our borough.
Green Space & Congestion
Addressing the concern of volume of house building, we do have areas of green space within the borough. Does this justify concreting over it though? Yes our population density is lower than a number of other places like Reading and Bracknell, but these are not comparable. We have to respect that we are a market town without the infrastructure to sustain large levels of population increase and a semi-rural borough which I fear is being lost. We have congestion issues on our roads, poor air quality due to this, very limited access to schooling (unless you go private), difficulty getting doctors appointments, this list goes on. Our town and infrastructure was not built to accommodate the high increase in population that we have already seen. The congestion on Finchampstead Road is already in a terrible state, and with the Southern Distributor Road due to be built over the next couple of years, will get worse. What is the alternative? We can look at cycle paths, greenways and other infrastructure, and this is something I am in discussions with at the moment, but this won’t fix the issue completely. Building a by-pass road that runs parallel to Finchampstead Road and comes out away from town could work, but how do we pay for it? The only way we would get the money for that would be by building more houses to get the levy money from the properties to build it, and we would need a huge number of properties to afford it. This in turn would create thousands more cars which would add to the traffic. Yes, we would have a new road to help, but the volume of cars could increase on our main roads, even with a by-pass built.
Change from the Top
It’s all very well me ranting like this (and boy does it feel good to rant), but what is the solution? Personally, I am in favour of garden cities. There are many parts of the country where this could work and we’ve seen success with places like Welwyn Garden City and Milton Keynes. Jobs and communities are created with the infrastructure from scratch, rather than trying to cram more into historical places. We need change from the top though of our political system and that’s why we need to lobby our government. My petition on its own won’t be enough, but it’s a start and I hope to come up with a range of initiatives that will help us have our voice heard. In the meantime though, I would like the council to take control of the house building we have to do through their own company and keep the developers at bay.
My petition can be signed at:
Getting Things Done
To finish on a more positive note, I have had some success this week with a couple of things I’ve been working on. After discussions with the Chair of our Neighbourhood Action Group (NAG), there was a decision not to hold the Evendons annual litter pick as the council would not be collecting the waste until during the week, so it would be left out for the rats and birds for a few days. Having escalated this, the council agreed to collect on the day of the litter pick, but not in enough time for it to be arranged, so they are letting us hold it on another date – 30th March. I do hope you can join us.
I was also amazed to find that when it comes to consultations, the council did not have a list of disability groups they approach to ensure they are taking all view points into account. After raising this at an Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting, this is now being undertaken.
Small things at this stage, but you can get stuff done! Now, time to rest up before my half marathon on Sunday for mental health charity Mind.