A 100% Renewable Future

As I articulated recently in my speech in council, to tackle the climate emergency, we have to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, for which we have 2 alternatives.  We can do less of the activities that emit, and we can reduce the emissions of the activity that remains.  

There are many aspects of our lives that we need to tackle in order to reach our goal of carbon neutrality as local communities, as a nation and as a planet.  This article is going to focus on energy production and whether a completely renewable energy supply is possible. 

What is renewable energy?

Renewable energy is energy from a source that is not depleted when used, such as solar, wind and tidal.  There are some forms of renewable energy that bend this definition slightly such as the energy created from waste (such as anaerobic digestion).  Unlike fossil fuels, the waste generated to create this energy can be replenished during human time frames.[1]

Renewable energy has been used for hundreds of years; The wind powering sail boats, and windmills to grind grain being just 2 examples.  Sadly, humans have turned their attention to polluting, dirty energy sources such as coal, oil and gas, and this is putting pressure on our planet.  We all know the damage this is causing and the importance of moving to renewable sources.  The big question is, can it be done?

Are biofuels renewable?

Biofuel is a fuel derived from living matter and includes liquid, solid and gas fuels.  It is classed as a form of renewable energy (as it can be replenished during human time frames).  The most common biofuel is biomass, which is solid plant material, the most widespread being wood.  Whether biofuel can truly be classed as renewable depends on how its produced, and most have a big limitation – the amount of land they need. 

According to Siham Drissi at UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) “while biofuel initiatives are meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they may affect the ecosystems, water supply and landscape on which indigenous peoples depend, ultimately leading to an increase in monoculture crops and plantations and a consequent decline in biodiversity, food and water security.”[2]

A UN report states that “up to 849 million hectares of natural land – nearly the size of Brazil – may be degraded by 2050 should current trends of unsustainable land use continue.”[3]

Biofuels actually put up the price of food because farmland is switched over to fuel production meaning there is less land available for food.  You could argue that some crops, such as fast-growing trees could be grown on land unsuitable for food crops, so what’s the problem?  According to Danny Chivers, “in practice the companies involved prefer to use the most productive land available in order to maximize their profits.  This means creating plantations on land that is currently covered by forests or used for agriculture.”[4] 

There is also the issue that biomass isn’t actually better when it comes to carbon emissions.  In 2018, a letter signed by nearly 800 scientists sent to the European Union states that “even if forests are allowed to regrow, using wood deliberately harvested for burning will increase carbon in the atmosphere and warming for decades to centuries – as many studies have shown – even when wood replaces coal, oil or natural gas.  The reasons are fundamental and occur regardless of whether forest management is “sustainable.”  Burning wood is inefficient and therefore emits far more carbon than burning fossil fuels for each kilowatt hour of electricity produced.”[5]

Here in the UK, Drax power station, whilst phasing out coal, is now burning wood pellets.  “In 2019, Drax burned 6.88 million tonnes of pellets made from at least 13.75 million tonnes of green wood.  By comparison, the UK’s total annual wood production was just 11.1 million tonnes.”[6]  In other words, Drax is having to import wood pellets and is actually receiving renewable energy subsidies for fuelling climate change.  And let’s not forget the government ignoring the planning inspector recommendation to refuse permission for Drax’s new gas power station as it goes against the Climate Change Act 2008. 

There will be a place for biofuels in our carbon neutral future, but they must be used with extreme caution and we must not let companies use it as a way of greenwashing.  

Can Renewables Meet Our Energy Needs?

There are many out there that will tell you that renewable technologies cannot meet our global energy demand and we will still need fossil fuels to plug the gap.  The problem is that predicted global levels of energy consumption are based on the current trajectory and assume that we will carry on along the same path that we are today.  This path has the wealthy minority consuming the majority of global energy with mass inequality and poverty.  Is this a future we really want? 

The question is not can renewable energy meet our future projections, but can renewable energy meet our future needs.  We need to address how much we really need.   

There is a difference between primary energy use (the amount of energy supplied) and final energy demand (the amount of energy used).  Danny Chivers calculates that “38,500KWh of primary energy in the EU supplies around 27,000KWh of final ‘useful’ energy.  Getting 27,000KWh of useful energy per year in a 100-per-cent renewable scenario would require just 33,500KWh of primary energy per year, because we’d no longer be losing all that waste heat from burning fossil fuels.”[7]  So there is something to be said for efficiency.

Should efficiency solely be restricted to energy production though?  We waste huge amounts of energy.  Many homes are badly insulated, 55% of British journeys under 5 miles are made by car or van[8], and we still produce and discard copious amounts of plastic tat. 

In 2013, the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) produced a report called Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future.  The report details a “technically robust scenario in which the UK has risen to the challenge of climate change by rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero.  It demonstrates that we can do this using only currently available technology, whilst maintaining a modern standard of living, eating well, and meeting our energy demand at all times with 100% renewable UK energy sources.”[9]

There is a section called ‘Power Down’ in the report (from page 38), which demonstrates how we can reduce our energy demand by 60% including more public transport, retrofitting homes and businesses and more local production of produce.  It also requires frequent fliers to cut down on the number of flights they take to the same amount someone on an average UK income does.  What this means is that we can still have a comfortable lifestyle but a less wasteful one with our lifestyles consuming approx. 13,000KWh per person. 

If globally the per capita amount of 13,000KWh was consumed, firstly, it’s important to note that this would be an increase for a large proportion of the world’s population[10] which is a huge positive.  Secondly, renewable energy is underutilised globally, but according to it’s potential, as outlined in the table on page 115 of Danny Chivers book,[11] has the ability with existing technologies (not to mention the advances in technology) to meet global demand if we balance our ‘need’. 

The Dangers of Renewables. 

Simply transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables isn’t in itself necessarily the best approach.  No form of energy is impact free, and whilst renewable technologies are far better than fossil fuels, they must still be used sensitively.[12]  Whilst technologically it is possible to shift to a 100% renewable world, there are still social, political and economic challenges to face. 

The fossil fuel industry has been busy trying to squash renewable energy initiatives.  They only consider alternatives to their dirty business if they can get quick profits and subsidies whilst maintaining their business models.  Companies like BP and Shell have moved into biofuels as it means they don’t have to change their core business practices, and Drax as previously discussed, into biomass.  It’s about exploiting maximum profit with very little consideration for the environment and people.  According to Danny Chivers “if carried out in the wrong way, large renewable projects could develop along the same neo-colonial and racist lines as our current fossil-fuel industry, where the rights of indigenous peoples around the world are trampled in the pursuit of ‘cheap’ energy for the industrialized nations.”[13]

This is one of the reasons why it is Liberal Democrat policy to not just decarbonise our energy, but to decentralise it too, promoting community energy.  Not only is this fairer, but it also helps boost local economies, helps tackles fuel poverty and helps make local energy supply more secure.  The Local Electricity Bill, which is on its way through Parliament, will go a long way to helping with this decentralisation because currently there are disproportionate costs that favour the large energy companies.  Wokingham Liberal Democrats are calling on Wokingham Borough Council to pledge their support for this bill to ensure its acceptance.  The more local authorities that pledge their support, the more chance it has of becoming law.  And we can all benefit from a much fairer way of producing and providing renewable energy. 


[1] Although we don’t want to be in a situation where we’re throwing away more food than we need to create this energy, and as such, this should be limited to unavoidable waste. 

[2] https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/indigenous-peoples-and-nature-they-protect

[3] https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/press-release/hundreds-millions-hectares-nearly-size-brazil-face-degradation

[4] Chivers, Danny, Renewable Energy: Cleaner, Fairer Ways to Power the Planet, 2015, New Internationalist Publications Ltd. 

[5]https://www.dropbox.com/s/l8sx5bl0h02x395/Scientist%20Letter%20on%20EU%20Forest%20Biomass_ENGLISH.pdf?dl=0

[6] https://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/axedrax-campaign/#easy-footnote-bottom-1-9267

[7] Chivers

[8] https://www.cycling-embassy.org.uk/wiki/cycling-is-not-practical-for-the-transportation-or-commuting-needs-of-most-people

[9] https://cat.org.uk/info-resources/zero-carbon-britain/research-reports/zero-carbon-rethinking-the-future/

[10] There are disparities with current energy consumption per capita with wealthy countries consuming substantially more energy than poorer countries.

[11] Chivers

[12] For example mining for raw materials or the displacement and destruction caused by hydro-electric dams. 

[13] Chivers

Golf Club Plans

Sitting between Evendons East and Finchampstead is Sandmartins Golf Club. After a planning application was submitted and subsequently withdrawn to extend the facilities provided, a new planning application has gone in and is now open for public consultation.

The application has been split into 2 planning applications (application numbers 210279 and 210233), with the new greenkeepers building being considered separately. I have been through both planning applications and now submitted my comments. Below is the text from my submission:

These are my comments for both planning application number 210279 and 210233, as they are both dependent on one another, and part of the same site. 

I am in support of the application in principle as it ensures survival of a local business and creates new employment opportunities.  At a time when the economy has been hit hard, this is something positive for our community.  I am also pleased that some of the concerns of residents from the previous application have been taken into consideration.  There are however some improvements I wish to be made and a number of conditions that I wish to be imposed:

Environment

  • The development is being designed to meet current adopted policy.  Those policies are outdated and will be improved in their next iteration in line with both our local and national climate targets.  I would urge the owners to look to the future in this regard, not the past. 
  • I am very pleased about the use of air source heat pumps rather than piped gas but question that instead of an electricity substation on site, why renewable technologies and battery storage aren’t better utilised?  The solar PV panels being proposed are not enough by a long way, and this can be improved greatly.  There is currently no provision for the greenkeepers building (they state that they don’t need to which is not the right answer).  They could put more PV panels on the roofs of the development and above the car parking spaces which would not only provide the electricity, but provide protection for vehicles from the elements, and not require additional land use.  Any additional energy generated, would provide an income as it’s sold back to the grid. 
  • 10% EV car parking is woefully inadequate, particularly as no new ICE (internal combustion engine) cars can be sold from 2030.  There needs to be a greater % of the car park with EV chargers now, and the remaining spaces must all be passive EV.  Some of the electricity generated by the PV’s above these spaces (as mentioned above), can be directed into the EV chargers. 
  • I’m pleased to see the application talk about a biodiversity net gain which is in line with the Environment Bill (currently delayed in the parliamentary process).  I can’t see how much net gain though.  I would like to see a substantial net gain and for this to take into account the trees that were felled last Autumn due to the overhead power lines. 
  • A Fabric First approach, where the building is constructed in a way to minimise the amount of energy required, is the right approach and I’m pleased to see this mentioned.  I would however question the standards being applied.  The application talks about the BREEAM assessment and they’re only striving for a ‘very good’ rating when they could go for excellent and even outstanding?  They could have considered Passivhaus accreditation which is considered more rigorous.  This leads me to question whether they are greenwashing here.  i.e. making it seem like they’re more environmentally friendly than they actually are. 
  • Has the applicant considered modular build techniques?  Modular technologies are not like the old prefab and are just as strong as bricks and mortar.  It has a huge number of benefits, including environmental as the construction can be built off-site and then assembled on-site.  This would reduce the amount of construction vehicles reducing air pollution and noise pollution.  The applicant may even find that it’s cost effective. 

Transport

  • As the planning officer stated in the pre-app letter, the location is not good for accessibility without a car.  So whilst I welcome the inclusion of bicycle storage (and I hope that it is secure), what consideration has been given to actually get to the site without the need to use a car?  Where is the nearest bus stop? 
  • One request is that there could be improvements to the PROW (public rights of way).  Firstly, these could be widened to include a separate cycle track alongside the pedestrian track which would aid not just people accessing the facilities, but also to help the community travel through the site.  This would provide a safe route for cyclists going between Finchampstead and Wokingham Town as currently Finchampstead Road is not safe enough.  There is also the opportunity to improve the fencing that separates the PROW’s from the facilities of the site.  This is something that will need to be considered in the near future by the green infrastructure team at the council anyway.  So it would make sense now to be doing this rather than retrospectively doing it.  May I suggest that the applicant and the green infrastructure team take a serious look at this now and come up with a scheme that benefits everyone. 
  • The application for the greenkeeper access has visibility site lines assuming the traffic speeds are around 35mph.  As the community knows, this is a dangerous road with a 60mph speed limit and we have been campaigning for years to have this reduced.  Whilst the 85th percentile speed is in line with approx. 35mph, speed surveys demonstrate that some vehicles do drive around the 55-65mph speed.  As such, I would request that this application is only approved on the provision that it can not be implemented until the speed limit has been reduced in line with the 85th percentile speed. 
  • I am requesting a restriction on the number of deliveries to the greenkeepers building.  In order to access the building, vehicles using the new drive need to cross a well-used PROW.  This I am not keen on.  The planning statement says currently there is on average 1 delivery a day.  Should this been mandated to be maintained as a maximum, this would provide some mitigation towards my concerns. 
  • I also request that there are stipulations that the access to the greenkeepers building cannot be extended to connect up in the future with the drive that comes from Finchampstead Road.  This would result in a cut through/rat run which would be detrimental. 

Other

  • The planning statement says that a noise assessment couldn’t be done due to Covid and lower background levels of noise.  I am requesting that the planning authority insists that a noise assessment is done before building commences, and a consultation with the public.  This is to ensure that once the facilities are in use, local residents and wild animals are not negatively impacted by the noise coming from the facility.  It may be worthwhile having operating hours stipulated. 
  • I have some concerns about the lighting, although appreciate consideration of the environmental and community impact has been discussed in the planning application.  Like above, perhaps operating hours should be considered to minimise this impact. 
  • I am a little disappointed that there are a number of inaccuracies in the planning statement with regards to names of the local area.  This may be something trivial to raise, but given this is for our community, getting the names wrong shows a disconnect. 
  • I am concerned by the proximity of the greenkeepers building to neighbouring housing.  Will the green screening be enough?  What about noise and odours?  I do not feel suitably informed through the application that there won’t be a detrimental impact for these properties. 
  • I couldn’t see a statement of community involvement as suggested by the planning officer in the pre-app.  I did attend an exhibition before the first planning application, but there has been very little since then.  Other than an email a few days ago about the new application going in, there has been no further community engagement which is a shame.  Many of the comments I have made above I fed into the applicant via the exhibition so I think it’s disappointing that the community have not been engaged as much as they could have been.  Please remember it is better to do something with a community, not to a community. 

Thoughts on the Western Gateway

The highways department at Wokingham Borough Council (WBC) have submitted a planning application to ‘improve’ the junction at Molly Millars Lane and Finchampstead Road.  This junction is known as the Western Gateway to the South Wokingham Distributor Road (SWDR) which is the road that will run from Montague Park off London Road to Tesco on Finchampstead Road. 

This junction has been talked about for a number of years and is part of the council’s Core Strategy.  It is a key junction on an already congested road and will affect many of you reading this blog.  The planning application is now open to public consultation until 1st February[1] and listed on the planning website[2] under application number 203535.  I strongly urge those of you with an interest to take a look at the documentation and submit your comments. 

I thought it useful to share my thoughts on the planning application as I’ve spent a fair amount of time researching.  I fully appreciate that not everyone is going to agree, but I hope it provides some food for thought.  I don’t have all the answers, but then I’m not a transport planner.  I do know how to scrutinise and challenge though which is a big part of my role as a local councillor and following scrutiny of the planning application, I am objecting to the application. 

I am objecting on the grounds that it goes against the following Core Policies from the Core Strategy[3]:

  • CP1 – Sustainable Development;
  • CP2 – Inclusive Communities;
  • CP3 – General Principles for development;
  • CP6 – Managing Travel Demand;
  • CP21 – South Wokingham Strategic Development Location. 

It also goes against the Council’s decision to declare a climate emergency, does not help tackle air quality issues in the vicinity and, despite what the Design and Access Statement (DAS) states, is not compliant with the current government guidance in the Local Transport Note (LTN) 1/20. 

Purpose of the Proposal – CP21

The raison d’etre for this proposed project is to increase capacity as a result of the South Wokingham urban extension that is to deliver approximately 2,500 new homes.  The DAS actually states that “the proposal…will ensure reduced congestion and enhancement to social well-being in the area through minimised journey times.” 

Average household car ownership is 1.4 vehicles per household according to the RAC[4] and on an increasing trajectory.  This equates to approximately 3,500 extra vehicles on the road network.  Wokingham Borough is a high car owning borough meaning the estimation of 3,500 is conservative. 

At initial consultation events, it was sold as a way of alleviating the extra vehicle movements from the South Wokingham Strategic Development Location (SWSDL).  The increased size of the roundabout would allow vehicles to drive quicker and there would be two lane entry on each of the 3 arms to the roundabout increasing stacking capacity.  Upon reviewing the plans, there is only 1 arm that has a decent length of two lane entry (Molly Millars Lane), the other 2 arms with very little length, which therefore does not address the problem.  It is Finchampstead Road that has the current congestion issues, and according to the design drawings, it looks like an additional 4 cars at most could be stacked in the 2 lanes on both the North and Southbound approaches to the junction. 

There is also the issue that the narrow bridge that serves the railway has not been addressed so there will continue to be an issue with high sided vehicles, particularly as there will be additional vehicle movements of this nature accessing the housing on the new SWSDL.  The Council’s Core Strategy under CP21 actually states that “it is…important that development south-east of the town is accessed from a distributor road through the SDL to connect into the A329 east of the town and the A321 to the south. In order for this road to function effectively, it will be necessary to resolve the height restrictions at the railway bridges on the A321 Finchampstead Road.”  It also states under CP10 that “improvements to the railway bridges on the A321 Finchampstead Road, Wokingham…are integral to the core strategy.”  The reasons for not addressing this in the DAS are to do with disruption and cost, although the core strategy addresses the cost with S106 contributions.  Not tackling the narrow bridge makes the proposed project futile. 

Taking all of the above into account, I struggle to understand how this design actually fulfils its purpose and do not see how it is compliant with CP21 as there is not a significant increase of vehicle stacking, and the bridge is not being tackled.  The only additional measure is the increased size of the roundabout which will go some way to helping, but not with the 3,500 extra vehicles in the mix. 

If congestion really is what is trying to be addressed by this project, surely it would make sense to design a scheme that makes active travel measures safer and more appealing to reduce the number of vehicles on the road network in the first place.  I believe the design team have really missed this crucial fact, because making things bigger for vehicles does not solve congestion in the long run; it increases the reliance on private vehicles so you just attract more of them to the road network.  This whole project has been about cars, and consideration for alternative modes of transport have fallen by the wayside. 

Alternative Travel & Safety – CP6, CP2 and CP1

I am a car driver, a cyclist and a pedestrian.  I make this point because sometimes, when advocating infrastructure for walking and cycling, people think I’m anti-cars which I’m not.  I use a car for journeys that I can’t make via walking, cycling or public transport.  Sadly, in Wokingham, the infrastructure that would allow me to choose safe alternative modes of transport is lacking, and for many people that I speak with, having this infrastructure improved would allow them to make better choices about how they move about the area.  In fact, building new roads actually increases traffic because it increases people’s reliance on cars rather than alleviate congestion.[5]

CP1 states that development must “demonstrate how they support opportunities for reducing the need to travel, particularly by private car in line with CP6,” and CP2 states “sustainably meeting the needs of young people includes ensuring that children of primary school age have access to a school within walking or cycling distance of their home (3-4km) along a safe route.”

CP6 states that planning permission will be granted for schemes that:

a) Provide for sustainable forms of transport to allow choice;

b)   Are located where there are or will be at the time of development choices in the mode of transport available and which minimise the distance people need to travel;

c)   Improve the existing infrastructure network, including road, rail and public transport, enhance facilities for pedestrians and cyclists, including provision for those with reduced mobility, and other users;

d)   Provide appropriate vehicular parking, having regard to car ownership;

e)   Mitigate any adverse effects upon the local and strategic transport network that arise from the development proposed;

f)   Enhance road safety; and

g)  Do not cause highway problems or lead to traffic related environmental problems.

Local Transport Note 20 (LTN 1/20)[6] was published in July 2020.  LTN 1/20 sets out better standards for walking and cycling infrastructure.  The plans attached to this application do not meet these standards despite its claims that it is.  Whilst a lot of the design work was undertaken prior to the publication of LTN 1/20, it states in the road safety audit that “a previous stage 1 Road Safety Audit was undertaken in September 2020 on an earlier scheme.”  Given that the scheme was redesigned after LTN 1/20 was published, why was little attempt made to make it compliant with LTN 1/20?  What is even more frustrating is that the design changes made actually make it even less compliant with LTN 1/20 as crucial pedestrian infrastructure has been removed. 

The DAS makes reference to following LTN 1/20 but has been selective in which sections it picks out.  Rather than be led by the guidance, the designers have shoehorned in the existing design and picked out the bits of the LTN 1/20 that they can try and hang from it without taking account the overall principles of it. 

The DAS says that in “Paragraph 6.5.6 of LTN1/20 states that shared use may be appropriate in some situations, if well-designed and implemented such as alongside interurban and arterial roads where there are few pedestrians, at and around junctions where cyclists are generally moving at a slow speed including in association with appropriate crossing facilities and in situations where a length of shared use may be acceptable to achieve continuity of a cycle route. These examples can be applied to this scheme.”  The writer of the DAS is taking liberties here.  Firstly, this is not an interurban area, but an urban area.  Secondly, they haven’t listed the full text from LTN 1/20 which states it needs to be in association with toucan facilities (which as I will comment on in due course, the main toucan facility is being removed).  The author of the DAS hasn’t also taken on board that the LTN 1/20 actually states that “shared use routes in streets with high pedestrian or cyclist flows should not be used.”  The DAS uses existing pedestrian and cyclist numbers to claim that this isn’t a high number.  Whilst looking at future vehicle numbers, the report writers must model for future pedestrian and cyclist usage (which they haven’t) and given that the climate emergency action plan demonstrates a 4-fold increase in cycling is required to be compliant, not to mention the additional usage by people living in the 2,500 properties to be built, this route is a high volume route for cyclists and pedestrians.  There would clearly be a conflict with shared pedestrian and cycle users on the same path. 

In addition to the lack of compliance with LTN 1/20, there is no mention anywhere of the Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plan (LCWIP) which includes a route through the proposed location.  Has the design team for this proposal consulted with the LCWIP team to ensure they’re working together on this or is the left hand not talking to the right hand?  Surely it would make more sense to include the LCWIP design with this design rather than as two separate projects which would create more disruption and increased spending? 

I struggle to comprehend why a footway of just 1.1 metres wide along the eastern carriageway of Finchampstead Road is not being tackled.  There is opportunity to make this wider.  It seems that this may be narrowed further given the comments in the safety audit which states that “the drawings provided detail a proposed directional sign on the eastern side of Finchampstead Road (South) visible for northbound road users. The signs posts are to be located within the eastern footway.  However, no details have been provided on post details or mounting heights. It appears that both of the signposts will be located within the existing footway which will restrict the useable width and it is unclear what width will remain. Narrowing the footway may lead to pedestrians walking into the carriageway to avoid oncoming pedestrians or if a wheelchair users/pushchair is too wide to fit through which could result in a collision between a pedestrian and a vehicle.”  The safety audit also states that “the width of the east footway in front of properties 92 to 100 was not increased from existing provision despite the increase in verge width due to restricted/substandard widths both north and south of the site boundary.”

On the western side of Finchampstead road, the 3 metre wide footway suddenly stops outside 89 Finchampstead Road.  The footway on this side of the road is incredibly narrow, and to suddenly make it very difficult for those on mobility scooters or parents with young children to use the footway doesn’t make any sense, particularly with no controlled crossing facility and goes against CP2 which is about communities being inclusive. 

The DAS states that “the controlled crossing on the southern arm of the roundabout was also removed as it was determined that there is not a pedestrian/cyclist desire line to cross Finchampstead Road South of the roundabout and due to constraints on space with vehicle accesses and lack of available width on the west footway to provide a crossing in line with design standards.”  This is a complete fabrication as there is a desire line to cross at this point (which has also been picked up in the safety audit) and I’m astounded that the designers have the audacity to tell mis-truths in this manner.  Prior to the submission of this application, I have already expressed to the design team the serious concerns I have for safety by the fact that a controlled pedestrian crossing has been removed on the south arm of the junction, and the uncontrolled splitter island has reduced visibility sightlines for pedestrians crossing from west to east.  What the team failed to mention is that the stage 1 safety audit has also highlighted these very concerns, yet this application has still been submitted in the knowledge that there is an increased risk of personal injury. 

As is stated in the safety audit from their site visit, “pedestrian flows were high, and several cyclists were observed particularly on the footway on Finchampstead Road.”  Despite the current poor infrastructure, a number of pedestrians and cyclists do use this route (I am one of them).  Pedestrians use the current controlled pedestrian crossing on the southern arm of the junction in high numbers.  People take the shortest route to get to their destinations and asking people to walk in the wrong direction in order to get to their destination does not happen.  The highways planners should be designing the scheme around what people are likely to do, and that is cross the south arm of the junction.  This makes it confusing as to why the design has removed any controlled pedestrian crossing on this arm of the junction given how heavily utilised it is.  People will try and cross here and the uncontrolled splitter island is not a safe substitute.  Pedestrians will have to cross the west side of the carriageway across 2 lanes.  Those crossing from west to east have very poor sight lines towards vehicles approaching from the south due to the bend in the road, and there has been no consideration of whether properties 89 and 91 Finchampstead Road could put up screening that could prohibit this further (such as trees or a fence or wall).  For all users crossing over the eastern carriageway, traffic coming off the roundabout will be at a higher speed to what it is now (the whole point of the design), and given the high volume of continuous traffic, there will be little opportunity for pedestrians to cross, resulting in them taking a chance.  This will lead to either a pedestrian being struck by a vehicle and/or a pile up with vehicles suddenly braking. 

The reason used of not having enough width on the western footway to accommodate a formal crossing is something of a mystery as well because prior to these revised plans that did include a controlled crossing, this was being accommodated by purchasing land from a property on the western side in order to widen the footway.  This land is no longer being purchased and now the formal crossing isn’t in the plans.  May I suggest the design team have a serious rethink because they are compromising people’s safety. 

The safety audit picks up on my concerns stating that “the drawings provided show the removal of the existing signalised crossing on Finchampstead Road (South) and replacing with uncontrolled crossings via the splitter island for the proposed roundabout. Several pedestrians were observed using the crossing at the time of the site visit and removing this facility may increase the likelihood of a pedestrian/vehicle collision if pedestrians have to use the uncontrolled crossing instead.”

It also goes on to say that “the drawings provided show a proposed uncontrolled crossing on Finchampstead Road (South) via a new splitter island. For pedestrians on the western side of Finchampstead Road waiting on the tactile paving wanting to cross, visibility to the right is limited which could lead to pedestrians starting to cross the road before they can see an approaching vehicle from the south. This could result in pedestrian/vehicle collisions resulting in pedestrian injury.”

What I would say is that it is nice to see the correct coloured tactile paving being used at the proposed crossings in this design, unlike the marketplace. 

I am also concerned about the properties in the vicinity of the proposed junction and how they use their driveways.  The safety audit highlights that “the drawings provided details of an access point to the eastern side of Finchampstead Road on the approach to the roundabout from the northern arm. Previously a turning head had been included as part of this access to allow vehicles to enter and exit the carriageway in a forward gear. It is unclear whether the property gaining access from this access road has space for vehicles to turn around within its boundary. The problem arises if a vehicle cannot turn around, this may lead to vehicles reversing onto Finchampstead Road, where there are now two lanes of traffic, which could result in a side impact collision with a vehicle on the roundabout approach.”

This concern has not been addressed in anything I can see, and in addition, despite me contacting highways to question this, the shared driveway for properties 94, 94a and 96 Finchampstead Road is not even shown on any of the designs, let alone any consideration as to how they might use the driveway given its proximity to the junction and in particular the south arm splitter island.  I would like to understand how these residents are expected to utilise their driveway. 

I am deeply concerned by the safety audits comment that “the Audit Brief states that one Departure from Standard has been identified and is due to be submitted for approval for a reduced visibility on approach to southern entry to CD 116 para. 3.39.”  I believe this is the poor visibility for the south arm given that the new design no longer uses land from 89 Finchampstead Road.  I would be interested to know exactly what this reduced visibility is, why it’s going into the designs and what consideration has been given to mitigate against it. 

Looking at the visibility analysis coming from Finchampstead Road South, it looks at the Safe Stopping Distance (SSD) for the give way line and the junction itself, not the uncontrolled crossing that precedes it.  Given that the speed of approaching vehicles further back will be quicker, and there are already sight line issues that I’ve raised above, this needs to be modelled. 

In the visibility analysis for Finchampstead Road North, the forward visibility only takes into account smaller vehicles that can approach in their lane.  There is no consideration of large vehicles that will be entering down the middle of the highway.  The visibility from this arm of the junction of pedestrians using the uncontrolled splitter island on the south arm is measured from the give way line.  Given the ‘quicker’ nature of this roundabout that we are promised, surely consideration should be given to those approaching the roundabout from further back who don’t need to stop at the give-way line who will speed up and have a longer SSD. 

The Molly Millars Lane entry forward visibility SSD on approach is taken from the left hand lane (the carriageway has split into 2 lanes at this point) and goes to give way line.  How will someone in the right hand lane see someone waiting at the splitter island crossing from the north and vice versa?

Flora and Fauna – CP3

CP3 states that a development must “maintain or enhance the ability of the site to support fauna and flora including protected species.”  The design has multiple trees to be removed, including TPO’d old oak trees.  Just 11 new trees are being proposed to replace the numerous established trees being removed.  This is completely at odds with the council’s commitment on tackling climate change.  What is being done to mitigate this destruction? 

There are to be some green areas around the junction where grass is being sown.  Is this not an opportunity to look at wildflower planting as well to increase local biodiversity? 

Air Quality – CP1

CP1 states that a development must “minimise the emission of pollutants into the wider environment” and “avoid areas where pollution (including noise) may impact upon the amenity of future occupiers.” 

I am extremely concerned by the air quality report attached to this application.  It only looks at Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) and Large Particulates (PM10) stating that “road traffic can make substantial contributions to PM2.5 concentrations at the kerbside (within 1 m of the kerb), but at the roadside (a few metres from the kerb) the contributions are relatively limited.  Given that none of the receptors are located in close proximity to the modelled roads (all being at least 50 m away), PM2.5 is not assessed in this report.” 

PM2.5’s (small particulates) are attributable to 80% of deaths from air pollution, so to not consider their impact on a scheme like this is disgraceful, particularly in light of the verdict of Ella Kissi-Debrah’s tragic death.  This route is used by school children and air pollution is incredibly damaging, stunting lung growth.  In fact, Wokingham is above regional and national averages for children hospitalised for respiratory tract infections[7], so to not consider the biggest concern when it comes to air pollution is negligent.[8]  The reason given for not considering it as stated above is because the monitors are not at the kerbside.  The monitors being referred to are not PM2.5 monitors but NO2 diffusion tubes so that’s got nothing to do with it and they also don’t consider those that are kerbside such as pedestrians and cyclists.  This reasoning for not measuring the impact in terms of PM2.5’s does not stand up. 

Currently, the borough of Wokingham has no PM2.5 monitors, although this is set to change.  PM2.5 can be modelled using the Defra data from the AURN site in Reading, which is what is used to model PM10’s (which the report writers clearly had no problem doing).  The British Heart Foundation have done modelling for this area and the levels of PM2.5 from the modelling are in breach of World Health Organisation (WHO) levels already, without taking into account increased traffic.  Whilst the report states that cars will become less polluting with newer technologies, PM2.5 is a pollutant that doesn’t just come from the engine but from break and tyre dust, and even from the materials used to build roads.  In fact, 75% of PM2.5’s don’t come from exhaust emissions.  With the trajectory of car ownership going up (and the building of more roads just exacerbates this), the fact that we’re already in breach means more needs to be done to mitigate this, and that is reduce the amount of traffic on the roads, not make roads bigger to accommodate more cars.  It’s counterintuitive. 

The argument will be that the legal limits and WHO limits are not the same (the UK government allowing for 2.5x the amount of PM2.5).  Firstly, the government is wrong on this (many countries including Scotland have adopted WHO limits), and WBC has a duty to the community it serves.  Wokingham residents die every single year from diseases attributable to air pollution.  Secondly, the government is working to bring legal limits in line with WHO advice.  George Eustice (MP) has stated that

“the Government has introduced air quality measures in the landmark Environment Bill which was introduced to Parliament on 30 January. The Bill delivers key parts of the CAS and aims to deliver health benefits by tackling pollution, which is the greatest environmental risk to our health. It establishes a legally binding duty to set a target for fine particulate matter (PM2.5 refers to tiny particles or droplets in the air that are two and one half microns or less in width), in addition to a framework for setting legally binding environmental targets, including a long-term target on air quality. We are committed to setting an ambitious target for reducing PM2.5 concentrations, with a primary focus on reducing the public health impacts this pollutant causes. In July 2019, we published a report assessing the progress that will be made towards WHO PM2.5 air quality guidelines with actions outlined in the CAS by 2030. This report showed that significant progress would be made towards achieving WHO guideline levels through the actions outlined in the Strategy, but that additional action would be needed to reach WHO Guideline levels in specific locations (i.e. central London).”  George Eustice MP. 

As such, the government is working on legislation that will make the current levels of PM2.5 (as modelled by BHF) in the area illegal.  As the report is modelling what air pollution looks like up to 2036, it needs to also take consideration of where the law is going, but it doesn’t.  WBC will find itself in a position where it will have more AQMA’s and should be taking measures now to address this. 

The report states that “the Council currently has three declared AQMA’s at Twyford Crossroads, Wokingham Town Centre and the M4, all declared for exceedances of the NO2 annual mean. The Site is located approximately 600 m southwest of the Wokingham Town Centre AQMA.”  It then goes on to say that “NO2 concentrations increased from 2015 to 2016 where they peaked at 1.3 µg/m3 above the AQO. Concentrations then decreased in 2017 and 2018 and are currently within the mean annual air quality objectives for NO2.”  What it fails to pick up on is that the decrease in pollution during the 2017/18 period was when the town centre regeneration works were taking place and often the roads were shut with reduced traffic.  Of course pollution levels went down – they were not typical years. 

This site being just 600 metres south of a current AQMA (which is an AQMA because it breaches legal limits of pollution), and will be a part of the diversion of traffic away from this AQMA is just shifting the problem.  This will reduce pollution levels along Peach Street and move them to this location.   

Additional

Given the importance of this proposed scheme, I’m amazed at the mistakes that have been submitted which makes me question the attention to detail that is compulsory to something like this.  On the road marking plan document for example, part of the legend on the side is missing so it’s hard to understand the full plan.  On the visibility analysis for pedestrians using crossing, it states makes reference to the Finchampstead Road South Toucan Crossing.  Please remember, there is no toucan crossing in this location (see above).  This does not fill me with confidence. 

In the swept path analysis for an articulated vehicle, the Finchampstead Road North section has been omitted.  I’m not sure if this a mistake or are articulated vehicles not allowed to use this section of road?  If articulated vehicles are not allowed to use this section of road, where will the signs be placed that prohibit them using it? 

Summary

As such, I do not believe that this proposal meets CP1, CP2, CP3, CP6 and CP21 and goes against the Council’s own requirements set out in the Core Strategy.  There has been an opportunity missed to design something that is sustainable and in line with our climate change goals.  I would strongly urge WBC to take this back to the drawing board and in the process, take greater consideration as to the impact of those living in the vicinity of the proposed junction. 

All in all, I am objecting to this design and believe it needs a total rethink.


[1] The public consultation went live in the week of Christmas. 

[2] https://planning.wokingham.gov.uk/FastWebPL/welcome.asp

[3]https://www.wokingham.gov.uk/council-and-meetings/open-data/plans-policies-and-strategies/?assetdet91f252ff-550d-4cfa-a838-92ef2cb5f83c=151148&categoryesctl91f252ff-550d-4cfa-a838-92ef2cb5f83c=7733

[4] http://www.racfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/car-ownership-in-great-britain-leibling-171008-report.pdf

[5] https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/news/building-new-roads-just-creates-more-traffic-heres-the-proof/

[6] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/906344/cycle-infrastructure-design-ltn-1-20.pdf

[7] https://jsna.wokingham.gov.uk/

[8] https://cllr-kerr.co.uk/2020/02/11/air-pollution-carbon/

Sackgate

By now most of you will have seen the debacle I have started referring to as Sackgate.  This is the decision taken by WBC to replace the black box recycling system with polypropylene sacks.  The decision has caused a huge amount of controversy and in this blog I will attempt to decipher what has been going on, outlining the facts and dealing with the mistruths. 

In October 2019, the European end markets (where WBC’s recycling is sent) introduced higher quality standards in response to the widespread global economic changes happening at that time. This resulted in significant proportions of WBC’s paper and card being rejected, due to the high moisture content which lowered the quality of the material.  Anything above 10% moisture was and continues to be rejected because we have open black boxes that don’t keep the rain out. 

This means that what is rejected is not recycled, reducing how much we recycle and increasing costs for alternative disposal.  Financially and environmentally something needed to be done. 

The problem is more of an issue in the Autumn and Winter months due to weather patterns and WBC were rightly keen to have a solution in place for the start of Autumn 2020.  They have had a year to do this. 

In early 2020, WBC planned to trial lids for the existing boxes in 2 wards to see if this was a solution that could work.  This was due to happen long before lock down was even on the horizon.  Nothing happened though.  When enquiring as to why it didn’t happen, we were told it would be a waste of time to trial in case it went wrong.  I wish I was joking but I’m not.  There’s me thinking that a trial is to test a solution to see if it does or doesn’t work before committing lots of money, but clearly not a view shared by WBC. 

The next step was to hire consultants to do the leg work and write a report with a recommendation for a solution.  We (my Lib Dem colleagues Paul, Clive and myself), who have regular meetings with the officers who are responsible for the borough’s waste, were waiting on news that the report had been done, and a business case put together to progress a solution.  Instead, we found out that a solution had been found when the Executive Agenda (a public meeting of the Conservative Executive members) for the 30th July was published a week before the meeting.  Under the item Capital Monitoring 2020/21 there was an item that stated

to approve borrowing of £288k for the purchase of hessian sacks which will have the effect of increasing recycling levels and generating a beneficial financial impact far in excess of the cost of borrowing, as set out in paragraph 8 of the Executive Summary

Paragraph 8 stated

Changing global paper markets have created an increasingly restrictive approach towards wet waste. This emerging issue together with the Council’s commitment towards higher recycling targets (consistent with its Climate Emergency declaration) makes it is necessary to replace the current open black plastic boxes with sealable hessian sacks. The annual costs of the new sacks and an extra vehicle and crew to maintain existing collection standards with a sealable sack receptacle is estimated at £295k p.a. The financial benefit arising from increased recycling and reduced disposal costs, as a result of this initiative, is estimated at £698k p.a. There would therefore be a net saving of £403k p.a.

This was it.  No further information was provided.  We had a meeting with the officers 2 days before the Executive meeting to ascertain what was going on.  We were informed that a solution had been recommended by the consultants.  We asked for the options appraisal with the recommendation which was not included in the Executive papers, and told that whilst officers had the options appraisal, we couldn’t see a copy.  The reason why is because the Executive Member for Environment who was making the request for the finances to implement this solution had not seen the report.  Once again, no I’m not joking.  He was asking to spend money for a solution when he’d not seen any information to know whether this was the right solution or not.  Not only that, he was asking the Executive to approve the money without them seeing not just the options appraisal, but a business case.  This is a breach of the Council’s constitution as a formal business case is required for any procurement with a total value above £50k. 

In fact, there were a lot of issues with what had happened and as such, several of my colleagues decided to call-in the decision.  A call-in is a process to decide whether a decision should be looked at again.  The Constitution states that all decisions of the Council will be made in accordance with the following principles:

a) proportionality (i.e. the action must be proportionate to the desired outcome);

b) due consultation and the taking of professional advice from Officers;

c) human rights will be respected and considered at an early stage in the decision making process;

d) a presumption in favour of openness;

e) clarity of aims and desired outcomes; and

f) when decisions are taken by the Executive, details of the options which were taken into account and the reasons for the decision will be recorded.

The call-in was requested based on the sack decision not meeting principles b, d, e & f. 

The call-in is dealt with by the Overview & Scrutiny Management committee, a committee that is politically balanced, and which I am a member of.  It was our role to assess the evidence and decide whether the Executive had followed the correct governance procedure, or to send it back to them to reconsider.  In theory, the committee should be independent. 

The call-in meeting was held on Wednesday 26th August.  As part of the agenda pack, we finally got to lay eyes on the options appraisal, and sadly it wasn’t a pretty site.  The best way I can describe it is that the decision to have sacks was made, and a report was written around it to make that the outcome.  Not only this, it was just an options appraisal.  There was no procurement plan, no timeframes, incomplete costings etc.  Below are some examples of what’s wrong with the options appraisal:

  • The sacks according to the report have a life span of approx. 5 years.  However, under the annual revenue results for which 30% weighting is applied, it states that the replacement rate for sacks is 7.5%.  100 divided by 7.5 is 13.3.  They’d worked out the replacement rate when working out the costings to be 13.3 years.  This error could have a material impact on the outcome of the appraisal. 
  • Under public acceptability which has a 10% weighting, the report uses 90 litre sacks for it’s modelling stating that “option 3 (sacks) performed the best with a score of 6.7 owing to increased capacity at the kerbside.”  The sacks being purchased though are 60 litres.  What’s more, whilst 2 sacks will be distributed to every household, just like the black boxes, households can request more, meaning there is infinite capacity of any solution. 
  • The finances are incomplete.  One example is that they haven’t demonstrated how they’ve factored in collection and disposal costs of the black boxes (let alone the environmental impact)
  • There are lists of other authorities who use sacks, but some of the information is misleading.  Cheltenham Borough Council for example don’t use sacks but boxes for their paper. 
  • No consideration is given to co-mingling, i,e, whether we should separate out various kinds of recycling as many other authorities do. 
  • Monmouthshire County Council are being held up as the authority that WBC are looking to.  However, the report fails to mention that Monmouthshire are only trialling the solution at the moment so there’s no concrete evidence to base anything on.  Since this meeting, we have also asked a number of questions of the Monmouthshire trial and WBC don’t know the answers so haven’t fully assessed this. 

Then there’s the long list of assumptions that have not been tested:

  • They state it will be quicker for the refuse collectors to open the Velcro, shake out the sacks and replace the Velcro than it will to take a lid or shower cap off, empty a box and put the lid/shower cap inside.  This in turn impacts the finances because they state that the sacks will need one extra vehicle and the other options, two extra vehicles due to the length of additional time to empty them. 
  • They state that the lids and shower cap options scored badly when it comes to messaging because the messaging “will need to be instructive to enforce the importance of utilising the coverings. Option 3 (sacks) scored the highest, reflecting the positive messaging related to increased capacity at kerbside and the ease of use in covering due to the Velcro fastening at the top.” 
  • The report states that recycling rates will be lower with lids and shower caps as it is residents discretion whether to use the lids or shower caps and many won’t, but they can be trusted more to use the Velcro fastening. 

This is just some of the points in the report that are questionable.  The assumptions in particular warrant testing as many of them are far-fetched.  What we also pointed out however is what is missing.  As I mentioned, the finances are incomplete, but there was no mention of how procurement would be undertaken, we didn’t have sight of the equality impact assessment that was cited in the report, there were no timeframes.  Honestly, with the information in front of me, I could not make an informed decision as to which was the best decision.  No one could. 

We asked many, many questions and sadly we did not receive satisfactory answers.  The main answer was that the 30th July meeting was just to ring-fence funding and a full report would go to the next Executive meeting on 24th September.  This doesn’t add up though either.  Firstly, you do not ring-fence money for something in your control.  They very clearly voted to approve the borrowing for a large amount of money for a specific solution.  If it was to ring-fence money, it should have been for a solution to the wet waste issue, not for a specific solution. 

What’s more, we were attacked in the press before the call-in for holding up the purchase of these sacks.  A call-in process stops actions of an Executive decision until the outcome of the call-in is reached.  However, if they genuinely were waiting for the business case in September, they wouldn’t be purchasing the sacks until after the call-in, so it wasn’t holding anything up.  If they were going to purchase them after the 30th July meeting though, this demonstrates there was every reason to call-in the decision because it was made without the necessary information.  And if that was the case, then it was their inability to produce a business case at the time of requesting the funding that would have held up the purchase. 

At the end of the call-in meeting I made a proposal that the decision be referred back to the Executive for further consideration, to include a fully costed business case (as set out in the Constitution) and trialling of potential solutions.  This went to the vote, and sadly all the Conservative members voted against this proposal so it fell.  The committee therefore decided to uphold the Executives decision – i.e. approve the spending of public money without a fully costed business plan which is unconstitutional as I pointed our earlier. 

Following the call-in, the Executive brought their meeting forward to 11th September.  They produced more information for this meeting in order to make a decision, but there was still lots of information missing.  The same options appraisal was being used, holes, untested assumptions and all.  It also transpired that the equality impact assessment had been completed without consulting anyone, meaning those with disabilities hadn’t been properly considered.  A member of the public asked a public question and made the point that those with arthritis in their hands hadn’t been mentioned at all in the report as they will find it difficult to open the Velcro sacks.  We still don’t know what the disposal plans are for these sacks.  The material they’re made of is technically recyclable, but requires specialist methods meaning only 1% is recycled.  I’ve repeatedly asked what the plan is here and never had a response.  I should point out that they are not hessian sacks as was initially suggested. 

The reason we are told that a trial was not done is because WBC are basing the evidence from other authorities to make their decision.  My colleague Paul asked the question “could you tell me how these authorities collect paper and card, when they introduced this system and what impact it has had on recycling rates?” referring to the authorities listed in the options appraisal.  In the public meeting at which he asked this, the leader of the council said he couldn’t answer the question as they didn’t have all the information, blaming Paul for a late submission of question (which was submitted well in advance of the meeting). 

I could go on as there’s still so much more to say, but I think you get the gist of it.   

This debate has not been about the sacks themselves but about process (or lack of).  Many people may think this isn’t a big issue.  When you are responsible for the finances for a public authority at any time, let alone when things are tight such as at the moment, it’s imperative to be fiscally responsible.  Approving hundreds of thousands of pounds for something without the necessary information to make an informed choice is irresponsible. 

The question you’re probably wanting to ask me now is, do I believe the sacks are the right solution.  I still can’t answer that question, as I still don’t have the information to make that informed decision.  One way or another though, if I was running things, I would trial the options before spending money on something that may or may not work. 

A Hard Morning’s Work

Last year you may remember the 2 street cleaning sessions we held along the Finchampstead Road.  Over time detritus builds up on pavements narrowing them, and in the case of this section of Finchampstead Road, it was no longer possible for a wheelchair to pass along the full length of the path.  We held 2 community events to clear the detritus and widen the footpath. 

The issue of footpaths narrowed due to encroachment has been a problem for a long while, but with Covid and the need to distances ourselves from others, it’s become even more of a problem.  The council is working to get as many pavements cleared back as possible, particularly around schools now that children have returned.  However, years of neglect means this is a big task. 

We were hoping that the footpath outside Evendon’s Primary School woodland play area would be cleared of detritus prior to school resuming last week, but sadly that wasn’t the case.  Active travel infrastructure in the vicinity is poor anyway, so getting this pavement cleared was a priority. 

As such, 3 of us decided to grab a wheelbarrow, some shovels and our gardening gloves, and after 3 hours of pretty tiring work, cleared back to the edge of the pavement from the crossing to the school gate.  We put the waste into some sacks that I was able to grab from one of the Localities officers at the council and one of the council’s contractors will collect in the morning.  The sun was shining though and we feel proud of a good morning’s work. 

If there are other pavements in the area that are suffering from encroachment, this is the place to report it on the council website https://www.wokingham.gov.uk/roadworks-and-outdoor-maintenance/street-cleaning/.  Alternatively, if you fancy having a go yourself (and with a couple of other people, it’s a good laugh – promise), just let your local councillor know to arrange some sacks and collection of the sacks.  They can also provide high-vis jackets and put you in touch with someone who can help with any health and safety concerns. 

For this particular stretch of road, the council is also planning to put some temporary chicanes outside the school in order to slow the traffic down.  The implementation of these will happen very soon once all the signage has arrived. 

Now for a long hot soak in the tub! 

What’s Wrong With Local Politics

For those that know me, and for those that read the communications I put out, you’ll know that I’m generally quite positive about the work that goes on at Wokingham Borough Council.  I get on pretty well with most of the other elected members at the council across all parties, and believe in constructive challenge, avoiding the petty point scoring that so many of us despise in politics.  One of our duties as elected members is to keep the community informed of what is taking place at the council, and as such, I feel that I am obliged to write the following blog post regarding last night’s full council meeting.  I take no pleasure in writing this and genuinely wish I did not have to, but you need to know what happened. 

Council meetings are open to the public.  Under normal circumstances, there is a public gallery in the council chamber, but during the current restrictions, council meetings are live streamed on You Tube.  But how many people watch these meetings?  The press are also in attendance and choose which aspects of the meeting to report on.  If you haven’t watched a council meeting before, I would recommend it so you can witness the theatre that takes place. 

The Council has a constitution which sets out “how the Council operates, how decisions are made and the procedures which are followed to ensure that these are efficient, transparent and accountable to local people.”  You can find a copy of the constitution here.  My experience thus far of being an elected member is that these meetings revolve more around who is best at utilising the constitution to their political advantage over decision making for our community, and last night’s meeting was the worst experience of this that I have witnessed in the 18 months I’ve been involved in these meetings.

I remember when I was campaigning for the seat I now hold, knocking on doors in Woosehill, speaking with and listening to many of you, I remember one guy who told me that all politicians are the same.  The system is a farce and he would not vote again as he didn’t trust anyone in politics.  I remember feeling a little disheartened by this because there are some genuine people in the political world trying to make a difference, and unfortunately, we seem to be living in a society where having a difference of opinion leads to quite a lot of nastiness out there.  We live in a society where often people are so blinded by party lines, that they automatically berate those that aren’t part of that same party.  I got into this to try and change that and I ended the conversation with this guy saying that I wanted to show him that politics didn’t need to be like that.  I was clearly naïve because after last night’s meeting, I completely understand his distrust and feel as disheartened as he does about our political scene. 

Doing my best to avoid boring you, I’ll briefly explain the construct of full council meetings.  The order is typically as follows:

  • Apologies for absence
  • Minutes of previous meeting
  • Declarations of interest
  • Mayor’s announcements

These are generally relatively quick and straight forward and don’t have any time limitations associated with them as set out in the constitution. 

  • Public questions time which is limited to 30 minutes in total. 
  • Petitions
  • Various reports – these change from meeting to meeting and if any amendments are tabled, this is limited to 30 minutes of debate before voting takes place. 
  • Member question time which is limited to 30 minutes in total. 
  • Committee and ward question time which is limited to 20 minutes in total. 
  • Statements by the Leader and Executive which is limited to 20 minutes in total.
  • Statements from Council owned companies which is limited to 10 minutes in total. 
  • Motions which are limited to 30 minutes each of debate before voting takes place. 

In last night’s meeting, there were 6 reports presented to council before member’s question time.  Full council meetings start at 7:30 pm and are constituted to finish by 10:30 pm, unless members vote to extend the meeting, by which the meeting can run until 11pm. 

The first problem that arose last night was in the first report that was presented to council Addendum to the Constitution: Protocol for Holding Virtual Meetings.  The constitution is not currently set up for virtual meetings so we needed to vote to include changes that would allow virtual meetings to run more smoothly.  However, there was one element that we were not happy about, and as such, two of my colleagues (it needs to be proposed and seconded) presented an amendment.  The bit we wanted to change was the public and ward member participation aspect of planning committee meetings. 

Prior to lock down, at planning committee meetings, the developer, a ward member and a member of the public are each allowed to make representation, speaking for up to 3 minutes each to the planning committee, before they debate and decide which course of action to take.  With the move to virtual meetings, this has been restricted to a 390 word written submission that needs to be supplied to the council, several days before the planning committee meeting.  In all other virtual council meetings, the public are able to speak for their public questions through the Microsoft Teams function we have, and they can even dial in on the telephone if there are technology constraints.  The rationale we are told as to why this can’t happen for planning committee is in case members of the public are disruptive.  As with all Microsoft Teams meetings, the organisers of the meeting (Democratic Services) can mute and/or remove people from the meeting, and it’s a lot easier than physically removing someone from the council buildings should the same thing happen.  

You may wonder what the difference is between providing a written statement and speaking to the planning committee.  It is the democratic right of members of the public to have their voices quite literally heard on these matters.  Planning is where members of the public are most engaged in council matters.  The first virtual planning committee meeting I attended to speak against a development, I submitted my written submission as requested.  So did the developer.  In that meeting, neither of our statements were read out and I was not privy to what the developer wrote.  It wasn’t until the minutes of the meeting were published that I could see what the developer’s submission was.  His submission changed a large aspect of the development, and had I been aware of what his submission was, I would have changed my statement.  I could not speak on behalf of my residents on the comments he made.  Giving people the chance to speak at any council meeting is how our democratic process works, and we tabled an amendment to reflect that. 

The amendment got voted down.  My frustration though stems from the comments made by an elected member who questioned the fact that we debated these constitutional changes, and also to the previous changes that were proposed earlier this year.  In fact, the words he said were “it’s a complete and utter waste of time.”  The previous time constitutional changes were presented in the council chamber, some of the changes would have restricted diversity in the council chamber and we had a debate that actually changed the course of the vote.  It is unacceptable to state that it is a waste of time to discuss and debate the democratic right of members of the public to make representation at planning committee. 

The next frustration was in relation to a question my colleague Cllr Prue Bray asked.  She asked:

“The Liberal Democrats have become increasingly concerned about the fact that due to the time constraints artificially imposed on them, meetings of full Council do not manage to complete all the business that is on the agenda. This has gone on for some time and means that important issues do not get discussed.

In an effort to try to ensure this Council meeting is at least able to reach the motions, which have been waiting some months to be debated, the Liberal Democrat group is submitting only this one written Member Question, saving time but sacrificing our limited opportunities to hold the ruling group to account in the process. At Annual Council the Conservative leader withdrew Conservative questions to get the meeting finished in time. Our question is: what will the Conservatives do at this and future meetings to try to ensure we reach the end of the agenda?”

To provide some context, back in September we submitted a motion to full council for debate.  We are now in July, and it’s still on the agenda because we consistently don’t get to the motions.  We also had another 2 motions on the agenda that were also from previous meetings. 

The problem is that the council meetings get filled up with opportunities to grandstand.  The Leader of the council and the Executive, as you’ll remember, get an opportunity to make statements about what they and their department are up to.  Why then is the Deputy Executive for Climate Emergency asking the Executive for Climate Emergency in the members question time “Now that we are emerging from lockdown how can this Council work to continue the huge benefits that the environment has received from lower carbon emissions?”  And why was the Deputy Executive for Regeneration asking the Executive for Regeneration in the members questions time “What are we doing to help the Towns and Villages recover from the emergency?” 

In answer to Prue’s question, she was told that we shouldn’t debate reports, ask questions or even submit motions if we are to finish an agenda.  As members of the opposition in a council where we have a cabinet style system, this is one of our only opportunities to give the opposition a voice and we were told not to use it. 

All of the above is not new.  These are issues that arise time and time again.  What has made me incredibly angry though is what happened at the end of the meeting.  At 10:10 pm, Cllrs Andy Croy and Prue Bray proposed and seconded a request to extend the meeting to 11pm as we were yet to start on the motions.  All opposition councillors voted for it and all ruling party members voted against.  This meant that we would only be able to debate the first motion, and the rest would fall.  This includes the 2nd motion on the agenda which was the air pollution motion that I tabled.  It’s hardly controversial tackling air pollution, so I’m completely bemused as to why we could not extend the meeting to debate and vote on this incredibly important issue.  The other motions (that have also been carried forward from previous meetings) included one on EU nationals, adopting council tax collection protocol to assist those in financial difficulty, and the installation of sprinklers in buildings. 

The rules of the constitution meant that we had to finish the meeting by 10:30 pm and so we had little time to discuss the 1st motion which was “This Council does not support the expansion of Heathrow airport.”  Wokingham Borough Council is a consultee on this matter, but the decision was never brought to full council to debate and discuss, so we had to bring the motion to ensure it was a whole council decision and not a single member of the Executive. 

At approximately 10:20 pm, an amendment to the motion was tabled by the ruling party that changed the motion.  This had to be proposed and seconded in that time, debated and voted upon.  As such, debate could not happen as we were out of time.  The amendment was changed to “This Council does not support the expansion of any airport unless it can be proven to be carbon neutral.”  This may seem like a trivial change, but given that you can only prove something after the event it actually makes it quite a dangerous stance.  What is to stop Heathrow claiming they can be carbon neutral and build with conditional support to later find out that this isn’t the case.  We had no opportunity to discuss as a party as to whether we wanted to accept the amendment or not and I barely got the opportunity to make my arguments.  We were backed into a corner by running down the clock in the meeting to ensure that deliberation and debate of something that has a huge impact on climate change could not happen.  Where is the sense in that? 

What was very apparent to me last night was the rules around these meetings were used in order to stifle debate and restrict democracy.  I left that meeting feeling not just angry, but incredibly upset that this kind of thing is happening.  I described these council meetings as theatre, and they are just that: Punch and Judy politics. 

If you want to watch how it unfolded, here is a link to the recording on the Council website. 

Save The Arts

When it comes to the arts, taste is personal.  Maybe you love going to the theatre to watch Shakespeare, or perhaps you prefer the panto, a musical or a good comedy night.  Orchestral music could be your preference or maybe you prefer it in the latest blockbuster. 

We all benefit from the arts whether we actively participate or not and your world will feel very quiet if the arts were to disappear.  Can you imagine a wedding with no music, a film with no lighting design, a children’s book with no illustrations, a nursery with no-one to lead the Christmas play, a film where none of the actors had costumes?  Whilst we’ve all been in lock down at home, how many of us have turned to this industry to entertain us? 

On a personal level, I cannot wait to get back to rehearsing and performing again with my lovely choir.  We’ve had regular Zoom catch ups and have even put together performances with us all contributing remotely (watch via this link).  It’s been a huge learning curve in the use of technology, and we’re very proud of what we’ve achieved, but it doesn’t beat performing together and musically bouncing off one another. 

Creative industries are a huge part of the enrichment of our society, making us healthier and happier.  An active participation in the arts improves mental and physical wellbeing, increases the employability of people by developing confidence, resilience and soft skills, makes us more socially cohesive by developing tolerance and empathy and makes us more engaging and engaged.  Creative industries have been growing at twice the rate of the economy and account for more than 5% of the UK’s economy which is bigger than the automotive, life sciences, aerospace, oil and gas sectors combined.  The government’s own figures show that the creative industries contributed £111.7 billion to the UK economy in 2018, before allowing for the related impact on the hospitality industry (every £1 spend at the theatre sees £3 spent in restaurants, hotels and bars). 

With all this in mind, I continue to be perplexed as to why an adequate rescue solution for this industry before it collapses beyond repair has not been forthcoming. 

Most venues are utterly dependent on ticket sales to cover their overheads.  Every day now brings news of another venue closing or another swathe of redundancies.  The Old Vic in London and the Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon are struggling and even the Royal Albert Hall could face bankruptcy in months and not reach its 150th anniversary without an injection of funding.  The National Theatre has just axed 400 casual staff.  The most at risk are those venues in the regions: The Nuffield Southampton Theatre, which is in the hands of administrators, has been unable to find a buyer and has made 89 members of staff redundant.  It would be criminal to allow the demise of the main points of cultural access outside of our major cities.  The performing arts industry has been stripped of its ability to earn revenue and large swathes of the industry could be wiped out within 6 months. 

The infrastructure of the cultural industries means that everything is interconnected and for tens of thousands of individuals across the country, their livelihood has vanished overnight, and in many cases, it seems unlikely to start up again until well into 2021.  A significant number of people in the industry have not qualified for furlough nor self-employment aid. 

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport has released documents containing guidance as to the phased return of sport and reopening of recreation, museums and visitor attractions.  But the list of sectors to which the DCMS has contributed guidance contains no mention of live performance.  The Cultural Renewal Task Force that has been set up doesn’t even have a representative from the music industry. 

I am frustrated when I look at the pictures in the news of inebriated revellers not socially distancing with pubs being allowed to open from 6am on 4th July.  I am frustrated at the fact that people can now travel on airplanes with recycled air.  And yet, am astonished that it is felt that theatres and classical music venues with distancing measures and ordered seating present a higher risk.  The continued restrictions on our activities as performing artists would seem confused and unjustifiable when compared to other sporting and leisure activities, and effectively suffocate any glimmer of hope for independent recovery for artists and venues.  A comprehensive, informed and far-sighted rescue package from the government is therefore even more important to achieve; it is already long overdue. 

I fully appreciate that the situation is complex but with willingness, creative thinking and discussion, a way forward must be found.  #savethearts #letthemusicplay

Getting ready to perform some Wagner.

Air Pollution & Covid-19

It has been ages since I last wrote a blog post.  Like many of you, I have been juggling not just my councillor role, but home schooling my 2 primary school aged boys, and doing what I can to help in the community. 

Many of our statutory committees at the council have not met since the beginning of March.  These meetings were originally postponed or cancelled due to lock down measures.  However, the technology and legislation are now in place to allow these committees to continue their valuable work.  We are yet to see many of them reinstated, and continue to push for this to happen so that democracy can resume (key decisions are still being made, and effective scrutiny is part of the governance structure of local authorities), but we have now been informed that Full Council will be back on the schedule.  This is really good news, for many reasons, not least because we finally get to debate and vote on my air pollution motion. 

Much of the air pollution we experience is created by the burning of fossil fuels.  Man has been creating pollution in the air ever since we learnt to make fire.  Today, a lot of the air pollution created by the combustion of fossil fuels comes from generating heat and electricity and powering vehicles.  This combustion process releases gases such as nitrogen oxides (NOX) and sulphur dioxide (SO2) as well as small particles.  NOX is the generic term for both nitrogen oxide and nitrogen dioxide.  These gases can also react with other pollutants in the air to create secondary pollutants such as ammonia.  It’s also important to note that small particles are also in our atmosphere due to other sources, such as dust and soil blown by the wind, including road dust. 

As I’ve written about before, it is the fine particles that are of most concern.  Particulates are defined not by what they’re made of, but their size.  Larger particles known as PM 10s can be seen as smoke or haze and our bodies natural defences filter them out, such as nose hair.  It is the smaller particulates, PM 2.5s, that are concerning as they are often carcinogenic.  They can penetrate much further into the body and enter the bloody stream causing all kinds of damage and are attributable to 4 out of 5 deaths from air pollution.  Whilst the World Health Organisation (WHO) has set maximum limits for PM 2.5s, no threshold has been identified below which no damage to health is observed.  As Public Health England state, “current levels of particulate air pollution in the UK…[has] a significant impact on the life expectancy of the population.”[i]

Local authorities are required by law to identify areas that either exceed or risk exceeding national objective levels of air pollution for particular pollutants, and develop action plans to meet those objectives.  So you may be wondering why I’m bringing up this subject again, and trying to address the issue of air pollution at a time of national and international crisis.  Well, I’ve been reading some very interesting research on the subject that links with the Covid-19 situation. 

In a research paper from Havard School of Public Health[ii], is a study of whether long-term exposure to PM 2.5’s is associated with an increased risk of Covid-19 deaths in the United States.  We already know that there is a greater chance of a severe outcome in patients with certain infectious respiratory diseases with a greater exposure to PM 2.5’s and that air pollution causes inflammation and cellular damage.  The study has made adjustments “for a wide range of socioeconomic, demographic, weather, behavioural, epidemic stage, and healthcare-related confounders.”  With all that taken into account, it found that an “increase of only 1 𝜇g/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter) in PM2.5 is associated with an 8% increase in the COVID-19 death rate.”  This means that “a small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 leads to a large increase in the COVID-19 death rate.” 

In another study from the University of Birmingham[iii], scientists have analysed the impact the lock down has had on air pollution in Wuhan, China, and how this has affected the death rate.  The study has found that nitrogen dioxide reduced by 63%, which in turn prevented 496 deaths in Wuhan itself, 3,368 in Hubei province and 10,822 in China.  The official death toll from Covid-19 in China is 4,634.

This leads to the question of how do they know how many lives have been prevented?  There is a lag between the exposure and effect of air pollution (i.e. people don’t suddenly just die), so it’s not a straight forward answer to define death rates from air pollution.  Deaths attributable to air pollution are calculated based on the total years of life lost.  For example, “in the UK, air pollution is shortening life expectancies by 3 to 7 months on average, amounting to 340,000 years lost across the total population.  Divide this by the average lifespan, and you get to a figure of around 40,000 deaths.”[iv]  However some people’s exposure shortens their lives by a day, whereas some could lose 10 years.  Estimating the number of deaths makes it much easier to communicate to the public.  It’s important to remember though that, whilst the mortality effect of air pollution is not instant, not only does air pollution shorten our lives, it can lead to chronic and debilitating illnesses that make those shorter years more painful.  If you want to read up further on how this is calculated, particularly in the UK for local authorities, Estimating Local Mortality Burdens Associated With Particulate Air Pollution[v] by Public Health England explains it all. 

I am sure that we’re going to see many more studies come out in due course, but I’m sure many of us can recount personally how the air has tasted so much cleaner whilst we’ve been on lock down.  These initial studies have shown the importance of continuing to enforce measures that clean up our air.  Therefore, I am proud to present a motion for our next Full Council meeting to take the next steps in tackling this issue.  Whilst I believe we can do more, this is a starting point, and we need to take the public with us on this journey.  Therefore, I am asking the council to:

  • Monitor the level of particulate matter 2.5 across the borough. 
  • Review the work done on No-Vehicle-Idling nationally in other local authorities and integrate this into an Action Plan for No-Vehicle-Idling zones covering the Wokingham Borough Council area with a view to implementing No-Vehicle-Idling zones, around as many schools in the Borough as possible, by the end of 2022, and in other identified areas such as taxi ranks and close to level crossings
  • Encourage local businesses to sponsor green walls on school buildings and tree planting near schools and the appropriate executive member includes this in their action plan.
  • Increase spending on active travel in future budgets, especially safe cycle lanes. 
  • Produce a strategy for implementing a car club scheme across the borough. 

This motion follows on from my colleague, Cllr Paul Fishwick’s motion last year for the creation of a low emission transport strategy (including an electric vehicle strategy) which is underway. I look forward to being able to update you with the outcome of the above motion in due course. 

Stay Safe! 


[i]https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/332854/PHE_CRCE_010.pdf

[ii] https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.04.05.20054502v2.full.pdf

[iii] https://airqualitynews.com/2020/05/15/wuhans-lockdown-cut-air-pollution-by-up-to-63-new-research/

[iv] Smedley, Tim, Clearing The Air

[v]https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/332854/PHE_CRCE_010.pdf

Enough is Enough…Again!

Today was the first day of the public inquiry for Woodcray countryside.  Woodcray is a piece of countryside land next to Finchampstead Road backing onto Luckley School.  Gladmans have put in an application to build 216 houses on the land, and Wokingham Borough Council turned it down for a number of very good reasons.  I’m not going to go into detail on all the aspects as you’d be reading this all day, but if you want to dig into detail on certain aspects, the documents are on the WBC planning portal under application number 190286. 

In short, WBC is fulfilling its housing quota and the location is unsustainable for a number of reasons.  What has been amazing is seeing the team effort, spear headed by a group of residents, into scrutinising all the information submitted and co-ordinating our responses.  Today, 10 members of the public and councillors (cross-party) spoke against the application, and there are more to come on Friday morning.  This group of amazing residents worked with us to ensure that we all picked up on different aspects so we weren’t all repeating ourselves.  The result today was some incredibly powerful statements that demonstrate why the planning inspector must turn down this application.  It was a fantastic team effort, and I am also impressed with WBC’s barrister and the effort the officers have put in in preparation for this inquiry. 

The inquiry continues with the following itinerary:

  • Wed 11th – Landscape character and appearance – evidence and cross examination
  • Thur 12th – Round table – trees in the morning and highways and pedestrian safety in the afternoon.
  • Fri 13th – Public statements followed by round table – access to local services and public transport (finish by lunchtime)
  • Tue 17th – Round table – housing land supply in the morning and affordable housing and planning evidence in the afternoon
  • Wed 18th – Affordable housing and planning evidence continued
  • Thur 19th – Planning conditions and S106 agreements followed by closing statements.

Therefore, if you wish to speak either for or against this application, there is another opportunity on Friday morning. 

What was also incredible today was the number of people in the council chamber opposing the development.  Not only was the council chamber full, so was the public gallery.  Please do continue to come down and support us all on this.  It sends a very strong, clear message to the inspector making the decision. 

Please see below, the statement I made today for the inquiry. 

Junction Design

The design of the junction onto the A321 Finchampstead Road to and from the proposed development, is substandard and consequently dangerous, for the following reasons;

The access road from Finchampstead Road is the only public access road to the proposed development, which for a development of this size, contradicts policy.  Policy that is there for the safety of people.  Both the Highway Design Guidance and Living Streets states that in a development that proposes an access with no through movement and is a cul-de-sac, a maximum of 100 homes would be allowed.  This application has more than twice that number of homes. 

Finchampstead Road is an A class road with a speed limit of 40 mph at the point of the proposed junction.  In order to determine visibility for junction design, either the speed limit is used or the 85th percentile speed from a speed survey.  Although reference is made to a speed survey in the application, there is no speed survey.  Therefore, visibility for the design must be determined from the stated speed limit of the highway – 40 mph. 

There is some confusion as to which highways guidance should be used for this application.  At the point of application, the Wokingham Highway Design Guide 2006 was the document on the council’s website to use.  On 1st October 2019, the council released Living Streets: A Highways Guide for Developers in Wokingham.”  As the latter is still draft policy and has not been adopted yet, the 2006 Design Guide is the policy which should be accorded most weight in determination of this appeal. 

The Wokingham Highways Design Guide 2006 states that for a road with a 40mph speed limit, the ‘Y’ distance, which is the visibility a driver would have looking out along the Finchampstead Road, must be 120 metres.  Not the 59 metres that this junction has been designed to. 

Even if this application is determined in accordance with the guidance set out in Living Streets, this requires that the Manual for Streets 2 should be the basis for determining the ‘Y’ distance for a 40mph road. The Manual stipulates that the ‘Y’ distance should be based on ‘safe stopping distance’ as determined in the Highway Code. This is 36 metres (12m thinking distance and 24m braking distance).  However, the Highway Code also states at Rule 227

“..in wet weather, stopping distances will be at least double those required for stopping on dry roads…”

Under these circumstances, to allow a safe stopping distance in accordance with the Highway Code, a ‘Y’ distance of 72m should be provided. Either way, whichever policy framework is applied, the 59m ‘Y’ distance proposed in the design of the junction is well short of what is deemed safe. 

These images demonstrate what the proposed ‘Y’ distance of 59 metres looks like.  Please note that the ‘X’ distance of 2.4 metres, which is how far back the driver is set, cannot be demonstrated as there is too much hedging in the way.  Note, you are looking for me in a high vis jacket in each image. Image 3 you can’t see me due to the bend in the road. As you can see from these images, there is very little time for a vehicle travelling at 40 mph to react. 

The safety audit even highlights that the ‘Y’ visibility is not right for the speed of the road stating it “may result in an increased risk of vehicular collisions.”  So the probability of an accident is increased by the poor junction design.  This design is not safe for road users and it is not safe for those living in the development.  Approving this development puts people’s lives in danger. 

Air Quality

Air quality in the area also concerns me greatly.  I frequently walk and run along Finchampstead Road and I can actually taste the pollution, it’s that bad.  I have 2 young boys at Evendons Primary School and my youngest, Leighton, since starting at the school has developed a severe allergy to cats.  Prior to starting school, Leighton had no issues around cats.  Now, even after taking antihistamines, with some cats he not only gets red and itchy eyes, he gets a rash all over his face and body, his breathing becomes very laboured and wheezy and he coughs so much he cries because its hurts.  The children’s play area at the school backs onto Finchampstead Road. 

More and more these days, people are suffering with allergies, and science has proven that one of the main contributing factors is the rise in air pollution.  And it’s not just allergies that air pollution causes or affects.  There are a whole range of chronic illnesses people suffer from that are either caused or made worse by the poor air that we breath, including heart disease, asthma and cancer amongst others.  Air pollution stunts lung growth in children and in Wokingham, according to the Joint Strategic Needs Assessment, we are above national and regional averages for children being hospitalised for respiratory tract infections. 

Air pollution is now the number one environmental cause of premature death in the world.  A major contributor to air pollution is transport, and Wokingham is one of the highest car owning boroughs in the country. 

The proposed development is approximately 1 km away from an Air Quality Management Area (AQMA) where we have hard data showing that we are in breach of the Nitrogen Dioxide limits.  Don’t let people tell you that it’s getting better there.  When the levels dipped in 2018, the town centre, where the AQMA is, was being regenerated and the road was closed.  Preliminary Nitrogen Dioxide testing has also been taking place through Friends of the Earth outside Evendons Primary School, and the raw data is showing levels of nitrogen dioxide that breach World Health Organisation (WHO) and EU limits. 

The British Heart Foundation have been doing a lot of research into air quality and interestingly, have produced quite different results in the area of this proposed development that contradict the air quality report done by Wardell Armstrong. 

Using the same source of data, Defra, the British Heart Foundation have found through their methodology that the average level of particulate matter 2.5 in the vicinity of the proposed development was 10.13 micrograms per cubic meter in 2017 and 10.18 micrograms per cubic metre in 2018, i.e. it’s on the rise.  Particulate matter is the solid matter that gets absorbed into your blood, is often carcinogenic, and is attributable to 4 out of 5 deaths from air pollution.  The amount of particulate matter 2.5’s in the vicinity of this proposed development is already above World Health Organisation (WHO) maximum levels.  Please bare in mind that small particulate pollution has health impacts even at very low concentrations – indeed, no threshold has been identified below which no damage to health is observed.  10.18 micrograms per cubic metre of particulate matter is equivalent to smoking 129 cigarettes per year.  No wonder my little boy is suffering!  And we’re talking about putting more polluting cars on the road! 

This leads me to question why there’s such a difference between the British Heart Foundation (BHF) Research and the Wardell Armstrong research.  Firstly, whilst both are using the Defra data, Wardell Armstrong are using 2015 data, and BHF are using 2017 data.  Secondly, Wardell Armstrong appear to use a composite approach where they show the background levels of pollution then superimpose the traffic levels on top, based on estimations, as there is no monitoring in the area.  This is different to how BHF do it, who use Defra’s raw output data and don’t use a composite approach.  (Link to BHF methodology https://uk-air.defra.gov.uk/assets/documents/reports/cat09/1903201606_AQ0650_2017_MAAQ_technical_report.pdf).  With particulate 2.5’s, you would typically see between 10 and 20% of the total amount attributable to traffic, but the data in the Wardell Armstrong report is substantially lower, with figures between 6 and 8%.  This doesn’t make any sense given the traffic movements on this major A road.  And if you compare this report to the air quality report submitted with the previous application for this site in 2017, which was done by the same company but different authors, the levels of particulate 2.5’s in the previous application’s report is substantially higher and breaching WHO limits.  The air quality report for this application is showing a substantial decrease in particulates, which goes against the national trends which demonstrate it increasing, and as previously stated, the 2017 and 2018 data from BHF demonstrate exactly that.  In addition, there is no mention in the report from Wardell Armstrong of the Southern Distributor Road that will be coming out at the Tesco’s roundabout which will accommodate the 2,500 houses being built there, and will be placing even more vehicles onto this route.  In short, something is wrong with the Wardell Armstrong report, and it does not reflect the reality of what we are breathing every day. 

The British Heart Foundation has also produced research that demonstrates how many of the annual deaths due to heart and circulatory disease in Wokingham were attributable to air pollution.  The most recent data they’ve produced for Wokingham was for 2017 and that figure is 65.  Let that sink in for a moment – 65 people died in Wokingham alone from air pollution in just one year! 

Gladmans will tell you that people can travel without using their cars.  The reality is that the infrastructure for this is extremely lacking.  This is an unsustainable location.  The bus service is so infrequent, very few people use it, and throwing a small amount of money at it, isn’t going to fix it long term.  The footways, where they exist, are narrow and right next to this busy major A class road.  Gladmans may very well state that residents of the development can use their new cycle and walking access route, but it doesn’t stretch the whole length of Finchampstead Road.  They will join this heavily polluted road at Tangley Drive, and that’s if they’re heading towards town.  There are other locations they may be travelling to, such as towards Finchampstead, that would mean they would be accessing and using Finchampstead Road from the poorly designed junction I mentioned earlier.  If they were trying to take one of the infrequent buses, they still have to stand and wait on the side of the road breathing in the polluted air.  And what about those of us that aren’t living in the development?  We all still have to carry on using a heavily polluted, narrow and dangerous footway with no safe cycling infrastructure with even more cars either driving or idling next to us.  Think for just a moment about those children being walked or who cycle on the narrow footway to school having to have the growth of their lungs stunted by the pollutants coming out of those car engines.  And most children do walk and cycle to Evendons Primary School despite the terrible infrastructure, the school having recently won an award for this. 

Do not tell me for a single moment that this development is not going to make air quality worse.  It’s already damaging us and our children and this development will make it worse.  This development is unsustainable and must be rejected. 

Nevertheless, She Persisted…

This Sunday it’s International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate the achievements of women across the globe, raise awareness against bias, and strive for a gender equal world.  There may be many of you wondering why we need this day, but the scary truth is that in 2020, we still have a long way to go.  In the UK last year, we actually fell 6 places in the global rankings for gender equality from 15th to 21st.  Not only are we not making progress, we’re going backwards. 

I have never been what I would call an active feminist, despite having been the victim of gender inequality.  This is in part because I just accepted this was how society was, but as I get older and wiser, and am in a position of influence, I want to speak out and do something about it. 

One thing I believe that as a society we need to appreciate more, is that in order to provide equal opportunity you have treat people differently because everyone is different.  This doesn’t just relate to gender equality.  In order to ensure a wheelchair user can use a bus, special provision has to be put in, above and beyond what other users would need.  Why then do so many not recognise this with other protected characteristics, such as gender?

I had many experiences early on in my career that have happened based on my gender.  These have ranged from experiences of inequality in the workplace to attempted sexual assault.  I am not saying that these things can’t happen to men, (men can be sexually assaulted), but it was me being a woman in these circumstances that led to the behaviour. 

The experiences that stand out include:

  • The boss who on a business trip knocked on my hotel bedroom door under the pretence of wanting to discuss something business related, and resulted in me having to kick him in the nether regions as he tried to force himself upon me;
  • The time I had my drink spiked in a bar after work.  What was equally upsetting was the reaction I got from my colleagues who I was with.  My colleagues blamed me for not having taken greater care of my drink.  I was in central London and I somehow made it home to my place in Surrey and my neighbour found me passed out on my front lawn.  Not one colleague helped me or even checked I made it home safe.  I was just 22 years old! 
  • I worked for a large American IT firm in my mid 20’s and was very good at my job consistently achieving well above my targets.  I went on maternity leave and when I returned, after a couple of months, applied for a promotion that had become available.  I didn’t even get an interview being told “we need you to reprove yourself.”  I would happily accept if I wasn’t right for the role, but my maternity cover hire, doing the exact same job was the one who got the promotion and to have been denied even an interview on the grounds of needing to reprove myself is unacceptable. 

I am not alone in these experiences.  The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) estimates that 20% of women and 4% of men have experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16, and according to research from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, 77% of working mums have encountered negative or discriminatory treatment at work.  These are just some of many examples of what I experienced, and I am ashamed to say that I did nothing about any of them.  I just accepted that this is what society is like.  I felt I didn’t have a voice to use and didn’t want to lose my job.  So why am I speaking out now? 

I was elected onto Wokingham Borough Council just over a year ago and in that short time, have been dismayed at the inequality that prevails, and believe that I have a duty to inform in order to incite change.  Looking outside of the council chamber and the services that WBC provides, I was shocked to hear that women only swimming sessions had been cancelled.  I was in a meeting where we were discussing how to engage more residents in sporting activities and exercise.  As I stated at the beginning, in order to provide equal opportunity, you have to treat people differently because everyone is different.  Women only swimming sessions were offered because there are a number of women in society who won’t or can’t access public swimming pools whilst men are using them.  For some this is due to their religion, and for some, they could have escaped domestic abuse and are too traumatised to want to be seen in their swim wear by men.  Yes, I appreciate that domestic abuse happens to men as well, but it is something that disproportionately affects women, and I’m using this as an example.  There are women in society that having men in the swimming pool provides a barrier for them to use the facility, and a way of overcoming that was provided.  What was shocking to hear was that this service was stopped because men complained that they weren’t getting equal treatment.  If there were genuine grounds for a mens only session, that is another matter, but to claim inequality demonstrates how far we still have to go in society. 

Back inside the council chamber, we currently have 18 female elected members out of 54, yet the latest numbers show that more than 50% of Wokingham’s population is female.  In order for good democratic decision-making, local politicians need to reflect the diversity of the communities we represent, and when it comes to gender, we’re not doing that.  There are a number of barriers in the way and these need to be addressed. 

In January’s full council meeting, it was proposed to move full council meeting times earlier by 30 minutes.  I’m sure many people would believe this not to be a big deal, but I spoke that evening about how it’s yet another barrier to diversity in the council chamber, and thankfully the chamber voted against it.  Whilst a small move, the shutting down of diversity leads to poor democratic decision-making, and we should be moving in the other direction. 

I would like to see positive changes made at the council that open us up and make us more diverse so that we can truly represent our community.  My fear though is that there is an engrained attitude that will make this hard to overcome.  If anyone remembers Charlotte Haitham-Taylor’s exit speech when she was bullied out of her position, you’ll remember she spoke of the old boy’s network. 

In the year since I’ve been elected, I’ve had inappropriate comments made about my appearance (inappropriate enough that other councillors have jumped in and said something); I had a late night intimidating phone call from a senior councillor, trying to shame and belittle me because I dared to stand up to them; I have been told that I am too naïve and unintelligent to be any good at my role and voters were conned into voting for me due to my appearance…(no, I’m not joking); The scariest experience though is the print media and online bullying and intimidation I’ve been subjected to.  Bullying and harassment has been an ongoing problem in national politics, and in recent times has become quite high profile in the media.  QC Gemma White led the independent inquiry Bullying and Harassment of MP’s Parliamentary Staff last year, and several female MP’s stood down from re-election for last year’s election, citing the nastiness and intimidation that has become commonplace.  My experiences conclude that the problem is at all levels of politics. 

To quote Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre, “I do not think, sir, you have any right to command me, merely because you are older than I, or because you have seen more of the world than I have; your claim to superiority depends on the use you have made of your time and experience.” 

We have got to overcome this inequality and I will continue to push to break down these barriers at the council.  I also want to take the opportunity to thank all those out there, women and men, who are fighting to break down the barriers we have throughout society.  In particular I would like to thank Louise Timlin and Juliet Sherrett for helping me put this piece together.  To still have to fight in 2020 is quite frankly unbelievable, but I hold out hope that one day, we will get there.  #eachforequal #IWN2020