Have your say on Wokingham’s local plan

As most of you will be aware, Wokingham Borough Council is putting together an update to its local plan.  A local plan is a strategic approach to new homes and infrastructure.  The council did consult previously on the local plan update (LPU), but the proposed garden village of Grazeley became unviable when AWE Burghfield expanded their emergency planning zone.  As such, new sites have been put forward to be considered for development, as well as sites that are to be classed as local green space. 

If you haven’t already done so, this is your opportunity to put in your views on the proposed development sites, green space sites, and more strategically about the approach to development.  Documentation and how to take part can be found here https://engage.wokingham.gov.uk/en-GB/projects/right-homes-right-places-local-plan.  You can also send in your comments to lpu@wokingham.gov.uk.  The deadline for submission is 24th January. 

I am putting in 2 submissions to the consultation in addition to a submission put in collectively by our Liberal Democrat group.  The first, which I have now submitted, is about the council’s approach to development considering climate change and the environment.  This submission was put together with the assistance of colleagues who have expertise in climate mitigation measures and reads as follows: 

  • The aspiration for new development to be carbon neutral is not bold enough.  We should be striving for carbon negative (climate positive) whereby more emissions are sequestered than produced. 
  • The LPU needs to include a plan for how it is going to sequester (through natural carbon capture) the emissions produced by the plan.  This must include not just the emissions produced by homes and transport (which should be minimal), but also the construction process.  The carbon capture plan should take account of the previous point and aspire to making the LPU carbon negative/climate positive.  
  • The council should commission a bespoke carbon assessment of spatial strategy options for new development to provide the necessary evidence in order to adopt a carbon negative/climate positive local plan. 
  • Flood plains must not be built on.  There also needs to be consideration for future areas of flooding.  As we suffer the effects of climate change which sadly are inevitable, more areas will flood, and the LPU must look far enough forward to understand what areas are likely to flood in the future and not build on those either.  We understand that a climate adaptation review has been commissioned as part of this process, so this is information that council should have access to. 
  • Permeable asphalt is now available, so the LPU should stipulate a ban on all non-permeable surfaces and soakaways should be installed rather than rainwater being channelled into drains. 
  • It is imperative that villages remain viable, and consideration should be given to a ‘Viable Village’ model, whereby local villages/parishes have the opportunity to articulate their priorities to ensure that a bottom-up approach is taken.  This would mean the emphasis is put onto what is needed to ensure the villages remain viable, with the infrastructure and facilities required that mean the majority of what those who live in the area need, can be reached quickly and easily.  This would reduce the need for private car journeys. 
  • The LPU needs to be future proofed for emerging technologies and the many advances that we will see, particularly in the green industry, during the life span of this LPU.  The currently adopted local plan fails in that carbon neutral requirements could not be added in any supplementary planning documents because the local plan did not provide anything to ‘hang it on.’  It is imperative this does not happen again, and provision is put in to mitigate against this. 
  • One of the future proof considerations is that of the emergence of transport as a service (TAAS).  With the introduction of autonomous vehicles, and the decrease in car ownership, new development needs to consider any requirements/infrastructure to support this inevitable change. 
  • No new development of any kind should be connected to the gas network.  The majority of carbon emissions from homes come from gas, yet there are a range of viable alternatives to be considered.  National Grid is in the process of off-loading their gas network which is a good indicator that this is not the future. 
  • Provision should be made in the LPU for the use of district heat networks where appropriate. 
  • A ‘fabric first’ approach to construction is imperative to reduce the demand for heating and cooling of properties.  There is little point in heating a leaky property. 
  • As well as stipulating the high level of insulation development has, sustainable construction materials (such as timber) and methods (such as modular) should be required. 
  • Where possible, homes should be orientated for solar gain, and all homes should have energy generation means installed as standard as well as EV charging points. 
  • All homes should have bicycle storage as standard. 
  • According to the Environment Agency, we are in an area of serious water stress.  This proposed LPU should be contingent on evidence demonstrating that a sustainable water supply can and will be provided.  If not, this should be used as grounds to reduce the housing quota to one that is sustainable.  
  • Domestic water demand must decrease in line with government requirements.  Therefore there must be provision in the plan to include technologies that allow this (such as rainwater/grey water recycling). 
  • If possible, the LPU should stipulate that new development and infrastructure is adopted by the local authority.  Having to pay both council tax and an ever-increasing service charge is a huge financial burden to our residents and to be avoided at all costs. 
  • The emphasis on moving about must follow the transport hierarchy whereby pedestrians and cyclists are prioritised.  Where new roads do need to be built, these must be built wide enough so that the various forms of transportation can be fully segregated to ensure safety.  This must consider newer forms of transport such as e-scooters which will become legal on the public highway in the near future.  Any sections that are for private vehicles should be narrow enough to limit speed. 
  • Any SANGs that are required must be fully accessible by foot and bicycle with safe, segregated facilities and safe, secure facilities to store bicycles in. 
  • Planning policy and development control functions need to address the accelerating loss of biodiversity, by producing a developing nature toolkit for developers and mandating a minimum 20% biodiversity net gain which must include provision for maintenance so that gains are not lost. 

The second submission I am close to finishing, and is focused on specific sites including local green spaces (LGS).  The consultation asks for reasons for agreeing or disagreeing with the proposed allocation for each site and if the commenter would like to, to suggest any changes.  There is only one proposed site allocation to development in Evendons ward: Millars Business Park (5WK030).  However, there are a number of other allocated sites that sit outside of the ward but have an impact on the ward and those that live within it.  The most notable ones are an extension to the South Wokingham Strategic Development Location (5WW030) for 835 dwellings (this is in addition to the 2,500 houses from the current local plan most of which are yet to be built), the current library site (5WK047) for 15 dwellings, Hall Farm strategic location between Winnersh, Arborfield and Shinfield for 4,500 dwellings and Rooks Nest Farm (5BA032-33) for 270 dwellings.  There are a range of other sites that would have an impact as well which I will be commenting on.  Sites can all be found in the consultation document which can be downloaded here, or can be found on the interactive map which can be found here.   

For anyone wishing to make comments on specific sites, some aspects to consider (and include in your comments where applicable) are:

  • Is the location brownfield or is it countryside;
  • Does the proposal maintain settlement separation or will it create urban sprawl;
  • How well connected is it to public transport links;
  • Is there safe walking and cycling infrastructure connecting it up to local facilities;
  • Is the proposed site likely to create an excessive number of private vehicles on the highways network;
  • How close is the site to local facilities such as schools, supermarkets, medical centres etc;
  • How close is the site to local employment;
  • Is the site likely to be impacted by flooding.

This is by no means an exclusive list, but hopefully provides some aspects to consider. 

There has been a vast improvement in the number of local green spaces proposed as part of the LPU.  I will also be submitting comments on each of the sites in and around Evendons ward which include Leslie Sears field, Viking field, Woosehill Meadows, Fox Hill, Waverley park and Elms Field.  There are some sites though that are not listed and as such, I will be submitting requests to make them local green spaces.  These include Chestnut Park, Woodcray, the land between Doles Lane, Blagrove Lane and Barkham Road, and the land in the Buttercups estate that is enveloped by Laurel Close and Evergreen Way. 

In order to be classed as local green space, the sites need to meet the requirements of paragraph 102 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which are:

  • In reasonably close proximity to the community it serves;
  • Demonstrably special to a local community and holds a particular local significance, for example because of its beauty, historic significance, recreational value (including as a playing field), tranquillity or richness of its wildlife; and
  • Local in character and is not an extensive tract of land. 

I will be putting in comments that demonstrate these sites meet these requirements. 

For those that haven’t completed the consultation yet, but want to have their voices heard, please remember that you’ve got until 24th January.  Other areas you may wish to consider (which was included in the Lib Dem group response) include allocation of social housing, transport considerations, trees etc.  If you would like to discuss any aspect of this with me, do please get in touch at sarah.kerr@wokingham.gov.uk

Women Just Want To Feel Safe

Earlier in the year I was canvassing in my ward and a man said to me that he thought I campaigned too much on minority issues like ‘women’s stuff.’  I’m not even sure where to begin with the many aspects of that statement that are concerning.  Providing a voice for those less often heard was why I got into this.  I watched with horror at the news when Grenfell Tower was burning.  Those poor people were not listened to by those in power, and it was at that moment I knew I wanted to get more involved in my local community, providing a voice to those that need it. 

To imply that you can campaign too much on an issue also troubled me.  Until the issue has been rectified, you cannot campaign too much.  Maybe he was concerned that campaigning would take me away from focusing on other things, like chasing up on missed bin collections, or vegetation cutting or any of the other concerns I get contacted about frequently.  But it doesn’t.  I work hard for my residents on an array of issues, as well as finding positive ways forward, and I campaign on a wide range of issues alongside that. 

What really irked me is the way he dismissed the concerns women have as a minority issue and that it didn’t require attention. 

I was contacted early in the year by a resident who wrote “I’m a mum of two daughters (young adults).  I’m really shocked at the amount of cat calling and intimidation girls and young women are experiencing in the area.  It seems to have got worse.” 

Hands up if you’re a woman and you’ve experienced cat calling, lewd comments, inappropriate comments about your appearance etc?  I think I was 13 years old the first time it happened to me.  Since then, I’ve lost count of the number of times it’s happened, the number of times I’ve had comments made about my appearance that have made my skin crawl.  I’ve also had far worse (which will be articulated further down in this blog).  And I’m not alone in these experiences. 

The trouble is society normalises the behaviour, so no one batts an eye lid.  Women are seen as objects that can be jeered at, touched for pleasure, and worse.  And the response is that women need to change their behaviours to avoid it.  How is that right?!  Why is it that women are told that the way they dressed was what was wrong?  Er no, self-control on the part of the man/men in question is what’s required. 

I wrote a briefing paper for my Lib Dem group about some suggested courses of action that we could ask the council to take on this matter.  We had a long discussion, and this culminated in my colleague, David Hare, presenting a motion at full council last Thursday.  The motion reads as follows:

White Ribbon UK is a leading charity engaging with men and boys to end violence against women and girls. Their mission is for all men to fulfil the White Ribbon Promise to never commit, excuse or remain silent about male violence against women and girls.

It is not enough for men to not be violent towards women and girls. Men need to take responsibility for helping to make change happen. All men can help prevent physical, mental or emotional violence against women and girls by speaking out whenever they encounter such behaviour. If men do not act to correct this, women and girls will continue not feeling safe to do many of the thing’s men do without thinking, making us a morally corrupt and emotional poor society, as we trivialise the sickness that is any type of violence against women and girls.

Wokingham Borough Council resolves to:

  • Seek White Ribbon Accreditation for the Organisation within the next 6 months and encourage all male councillors to take the White Ribbon pledge, never to take part in, condone or stay silent about violence against women.  As part of this Wokingham Borough Council will appoint a male Councillor as an Ambassador for White Ribbon.
  • Promote the Our Streets Now campaign to make street harassment of women a crime; ask the Chief Executive to write to the Home Secretary to ask them to make street harassment a specific crime; ask the Chief Executive to write to the four MPs who cover the Borough, as well as the Police and Crime Commissioner, to ask them to show their support for this campaign by signing the petition and by lobbying ministers to make street harassment a specific crime and encourage elected members and residents to sign the petition.
  • Ask schools, academies and colleges in the Borough to each develop a clear policy on tackling physical, mental, emotional or spiritual harassment of female pupils or staff, separate to their bullying policy and ask them to include education to prevent public sexual harassment, as part of their PSHE education.

What I am still struggling to come to terms with is the ruling group would not support the motion.  An amendment was circulated which had a male councillor’s name on it, but a female councillor presented it.  The amendment was designed to kick this into the long grass, referring it to some committee to ensure there was no duplication of existing work, and lots of claims in the speeches that there was lots already happening to tackle the issue we’re trying to solve.  They could not unreservedly support action. 

Rachel Burgess (Labour) gave a really impassioned speech.  Both this and all speeches can be found online via this link.  This is the speech I gave:

I echo what Rachel just said there.  This is like the previous amendment: procrastination, no commitment and in the intervening period, more women and girls are going to suffer as a result of this. 

Almost every woman at this meeting tonight, will have survived some form of sexual harassment or assault.  For some of us, it will have been on multiple occasions.  It is such a widespread, daily occurrence that it is rare to find a woman who hasn’t experienced some kind of sexual harassment or assault. 

We are not saying that men don’t get attacked.  What we’re saying is that women and girls are disproportionately the victims of violence because they are women and girls.  I should be able to go out in an evening and not have my drink spiked; I should be able walk through town and not have to hide in a shop until the stalker stops stalking me; I should be able to go away on a business trip and not have my boss try and rape me.  Those are 3 real things that have happened to me. 

Violence towards women and girls stems from the misogynistic culture that is prevalent in our society which has been normalised.  Men who kill women do not suddenly kill women, they work up to it.  There is a direct correlation between the normalised objectification of women and girls, and the harassment and violence we are subjected to.  We too easily as a society brush off the catcalling, the lewd gestures, the inappropriate comments about how we look, the sexist jokes.  We have normalised this, and it must stop now, not once it’s gone to some talking shop. 

I am really pleased that the council is developing bystander and allyship training.  This is a positive step forward.  But it barely scratches the surface of what needs to be done.  The council have adopted an equalities plan, which doesn’t mention women or girls in it even once.  The 3 priorities focus on:

  1. Listening to and learning from our communities
  2. Acting on our commitments
  3. Building a diverse and engaged workforce, where everyone is respected

We are asking you to listen and learn, to act on your commitments, to engage as you’ve promised and set an example as Cllr Halsall said we would.  Please act now on these promises. 

We’re asking that you raise awareness and lobby government to make street harassment a specific crime – you can vote for that tonight; that you work with schools to set up specific policies and education in PSHE specifically on this – you can vote for that tonight; and that this council seeks white ribbon accreditation which goes far beyond what this council is already doing. 

If you genuinely care about ending violence against women and girls, voting against the amendment and for the original motion allows this local authority to be a proactive role model.  As you decide which way you’re going to vote, think about your female colleagues, your mothers, your wives, your sisters, your daughters, your granddaughters.  Vote against this amendment and for the original motion for them.  And I just want to say that I’m so angry at you.  Really angry!

I want to provide some more context as to why I was so angry.  The female councillor who presented the amendment has been jeered at in the council chamber by some of the male councillors in a previous meeting.  The ex-leader of the council, Charlotte Haitham-Taylor, referenced in her resignation speech when she was ousted by the old boy’s network, #metoo and was visibly distressed afterwards by the ordeal she had been through.  I have had officers tell me that they tell female officers when they first start, not to have meetings with certain men on their own.  I personally have experienced very inappropriate behaviour towards myself: inappropriate comments about how I look; late night phone calls trying to intimidate me; I was even told that I was voted in for my appearance only.  When I raised some of the actions internally, I was simply told, “well it’s your word against his.” 

Misogyny is rife and there is no action being taken to tackle it.  We presented a model of how it could be tackled internally, and how this could be used as an example out in the community, so we start to see societal change.  As my colleague Stephen Conway so eloquently put it, whenever the ruling group present a motion, we will try to find reasons to support it (doesn’t mean we always do, but we often do).  However, when we or Labour present motions, they either amend or vote against it.  We regularly hear from the Conservatives how much they want cross party working, but in practice, there isn’t much reciprocity.  And the result of this is decisions are made that are not in the best interest of those we represent. 

So we have a council that has a problem with the way women are treated, a motion being presented to tackle the root causes, an amendment to that motion written by a man, given to a woman to present that ultimately denies there is a problem.  A lot of people are quite rightly angry about this.  This coming Thursday (25th November) is White Ribbon Day.  It’s a national day to raise awareness of the issue.  There is also a meeting of the Council’s Executive that day starting at 7pm in the council chamber.  A group of us from all walks of life are going down from 6pm to demonstrate outside the council offices and to lobby the Executive members to reconsider and make a commitment to ending male violence against women.  I hope those reading can join us.

A Pluralistic Approach to Climate Change

Like many people, I am disappointed and deeply concerned at the lack of progress being made on tackling the climate emergency at every level.  We are running out of time, and already seeing the consequences of that inaction.  Many of you will have seen reports of the heat dome in the Pacific Northwest, and the devastating flooding in Germany and its neighbouring countries.  We also know about the global injustice of the climate crisis, where poorer countries who are the least responsible, are suffering the consequences of our over consumption. 

Climate change is not a future threat but a present-day reality.  Yet there is a huge gap between the global goal set at the Paris Climate Agreement and the actual commitments individual nations have made.  In order to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees above preindustrial levels, global emissions need to be around 25 gigatons of CO2e by 2030.  We are expected to reach 56 gigatons by 2030 by the commitments made by individual countries.[1]  Worse still, of those commitments made, most nations are not on track to meet them, including the UK. 

We are also witnessing issues around net-zero commitments.  Net zero commitments are needed because the only way we can limit warming to 1.5 degrees at this stage with the amount of CO2 we’ve already emitted is with large scale carbon dioxide removal.  Sadly, this has led to a reckless ‘burn now, pay later’ approach, where there is more effort put into offsetting and very little in regard to the required cuts in fossil fuel use. 

Tackling climate change is a global issue, and it requires global action.  It has been widely reported that the UK government decided to break its election promise and cut foreign aid by circa £4 billion.  You may wonder what this has to do with climate change.  The most pressing challenges we face are global including climate change and part of the UK’s foreign aid is used on climate change initiatives.  The International Climate Finance (ICF) pot of money that sits within the foreign aid budget is being increased but this is for developing countries to limit their carbon emissions and adapt to climate change.  Developing countries have very little by way of carbon emissions.  It is developed countries that produce most of the planets carbon emissions, and as such, it is adaptation that developing countries need the financial assistance with.  This however makes no mention of the ground-breaking research projects that the foreign aid budget was supporting that if funded properly, will benefit us all in our quest to limit global warming.  And it doesn’t take account of the net effect from the reduction in the foreign aid budget.  Developing countries are not getting the Covid vaccines they need because countries like ours have cornered the market, travel restrictions have killed their tourist industries and the rest of the aid budget has been savaged. 

At the other end of the scale, we have a national government that does not like local government.  It consistently underfunds local authorities like Wokingham and removes power.  A classic example is in planning and the reforms being proposed that will remove the voice of local communities.  The same is true when it comes to tackling climate change.

In 2012, in response to a government question, a group of experts described how local authorities can show leadership in tackling climate change including through making houses and buildings more sustainable, encouraging low carbon transport and improved waste management.  The Covid-19 pandemic is an example of how important local authorities and communities are.  People on the ground in their communities making decisions for those communities because they know and understand them.  We need national government to wake up and stop centralising power and give it to the people. 

The good news is that most councils have a declared climate emergency and the majority of those councils have set aggressive zero carbon targets.  The disappointing news is that the sector is likely underperforming.  A 2019 report from Friends of the Earth[2] said councils are not doing enough.  UK100[3] said “to enable local government to play its full part and unlock the benefits of climate action in communities across the country, it must be given more powers and resources.”

Local authorities like Wokingham Borough Council have a number of statutory duties that they have to deliver.  These cover all manner of areas including planning, social care etc.  Not one of these duties covers climate change.  And in the government’s 10-point plan for tackling climate change, local authorities are mentioned just once and gives them no new powers to tackle it.  In fact, this 10-point plan pledges £12billion but fails to mention that only £4billion is new money.  Where are the discussions on integrating local authorities into the national plan? 

Councils need to be given the ability and resources to insist on sustainable housing, to incentivise the use of renewable energy, to recycle more waste and to move to low carbon forms of transport. Councils need to be given a clear roadmap as to how they can implement the Government’s ambitious plans.  If not, they risk failure.

For Wokingham Borough Council, whilst waiting for the government to wake up and do the right thing, there is much more it could be doing rather than cherry picking what looks good on an election leaflet.  For one thing, it could be prioritising emission reduction projects over offsetting projects.  And one of the most important steps it could take is to reach out to the community.  I’m not talking about through it’s usual forms of communication which are typically one-way and a box ticking exercise, but through a deliberative process that brings experts and the public together to share and discuss a way forward with everyone on board.  A solution based on sound evidence and pragmatism. 


[1] https://www.unep.org/interactive/emissions-gap-report/2019/

[2] https://policy.friendsoftheearth.uk/insight/33-actions-local-authorities-can-take-climate-change

[3] https://www.uk100.org/sites/default/files/publications/UK100%20in%202021.pdf

Improvements for Nature

WBC’s Full Council meeting has just taken place.  I sadly couldn’t attend in person as I got pinged by test and trace so am self-isolating until Sunday.  Not all councillors can attend anyway because the venue isn’t big enough to host all councillors with Covid measures in place.  If you don’t attend in person, you can ask questions and take part in debates via Microsoft Teams, but you cannot vote or propose or second motions.  In other words, we can’t fulfil our full duties as elected members for our constituents. 

At the beginning of the meeting, the Mayor announced that we wouldn’t get to any motions in the agenda due to time constraints.  We repeatedly have issues with time running out.  Motions are an opportunity for members of the opposition as well as the ruling group to put forward policy ideas.  As members of the opposition, there are few opportunities for us to be a part of steering the direction of the council and to hold the ruling group to account.  There are motions on the agenda that have been on the agenda for months now.  We have a log jam.  Democracy is not happening. 

Tonight, I was due to second a motion that Cllr Ian Shenton is proposing that we wrote with the assistance of the head of policy at BBOWT (Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust).  We sadly didn’t get to it, despite the urgency.  We have of course resubmitted and just pray that we get to it next time.  Here is the wording of the motion:

“This Council formally declares an ecological emergency and will:

  1. Address ecological issues alongside climate emergency actions and ensure that opportunities to gain co-benefits from addressing both the climate and ecological emergencies are maximised. 
  2. Add ecological implications alongside those for climate in committee and council reports. 
  3. Ensure the delivery of biodiversity and environmental enhancements through our planning policy and development control functions by providing guidance through a biodiversity supplementary planning document. 
  4. Strive to enable the development of a 20% mandatory biodiversity net gain policy for Wokingham through the new local plan. 
  5. Create a Developing Nature Toolkit and direct developers to use the toolkit to assist them in demonstrating a net gain in biodiversity, to be used from the very outset of planning new developments, and ideally at the time of selecting sites to acquire for development. 
  6. Re-establish the Wokingham Biodiversity Forum to allow the Council to collaborate effectively with partners and the wider community. 
  7. Where possible, embed ecological initiatives within all council work areas, including Covid-19 recovery projects and programmes. 
  8. Promote woodland planting and rewilding in the right places and with the right species, peatland restoration, natural flood management, wild flower meadows, and habitat creation and restoration. 
  9. Work with local, county, regional and national partners to increase wildlife habitats, green infrastructure and natural capital in Wokingham Borough ensuring robust connectivity between them. 
  10. Manage council services, buildings and land in a biodiversity-friendly manner, including by reviewing the use of harmful chemicals, such as pesticides and taking opportunities to create new wildlife habitats and corridors.
  11. Provide advice for local communities and businesses on how to incorporate biodiversity, green infrastructure and natural capital into Neighbourhood Plans and other initiatives. 
  12. Encourage residents to take biodiversity measures in their own homes by, for example, wildlife gardening and home composting. 
  13. Working collaboratively with the Berkshire Local Nature Partnership, Wokingham Biodiversity Forum, a cross party working group and other stakeholders, produce a local nature recovery strategy and associated action plan with an annual progress report to full council.”

The Mayor stated that he will work with leaders of all groups to try and resolve the issue of not getting to motions.  I just hope that a way forward can be found so we can get the commitment from the council to act on important issues like protecting and improving nature! 

I also didn’t get to ask my ward question due to meeting being extended by 30 minutes (which is constitutionally allowed), being voted down by the ruling group.  My ward question was:

“The My Journey team has developed maps for each school in the borough to encourage more active travel to and from school.  I took a look at the one for my local school, Evendons Primary, and was shocked at what had been put together.  It assumes no children live south of the school, and for those that live north west, actually suggests they walk along a 60mph narrow lane with no pavement.  It doesn’t show the pedestrian crossing or any other paths that can be used, yet shows buses that are seen less frequently than a solar eclipse. 

The school has mapped out where its children live and where the pitfalls are in the active travel infrastructure.  I’ve repeatedly asked for highways officers to meet with myself and the headteacher so we can get a plan in place to make improvements to encourage more walking and cycling.  Please can you instruct the highways team to make this meeting happen?”

On a more positive note, I did get to ask a question of the Executive member for environment:

“This Council, as part of its environmental commitments, needs to ensure that whilst some open spaces like play parks and some roadside verges are regularly cut, it takes the opportunity to improve biodiversity in other public areas by turning them into native wildflower meadows. To ensure that the Council’s grass cutting contractor doesn’t accidentally cut these areas, and to mitigate any complaints from the public regarding perceived neglect of such areas, will this Council please adopt the blue heart plaque scheme, installing these plaques in wildflower sites and issuing a series of public communications to raise awareness?”

The response was that this was a great idea and they will be looking to pursue this.  I also requested, along with Cllr Shirley Boyt, that there is an easy to use system for residents to communicate and nominate sites for rewilding.  It’s very easy to report a problem on the council website, but the same technology could be used for making suggestions of this nature. 

I will work with officers in the background to ensure the positive response turns into positive action! 

How do you get to school?

Apologies for being so quiet of late.  post came up on my Facebook timeline last week that says “Being an adult is basically saying ‘but after this week things will slow down a bit’ over and over again to yourself until you die.”  I posted that 2 years ago and it’s so true. 

So much has happened since I last published a blog post both personally and as a councillor.  And now we’re in the summer holidays with the children home for 7 weeks.  This blog post is a short one about something colleagues and I have been working on. 

Ian Shenton (one of my fellow Evendons ward councillors) and I have been contacted by numerous parents about the accessibility of secondary schools.  For children who live along the Finchampstead Road corridor, getting to school is a mission.  The pavements are narrow, there is no segregated cycling lanes and the road is a heavily used, polluted A road.  There is also inadequate bus provision for school children.  For children living in Evendons East and Wescott West who attend Emmbrook Senior school, they have to get to a bus stop in Finchampstead on Barkham Ride to board.  This is nowhere near where they live.  There is no bus route along Finchampstead Road for them.  We also understand that the school bus to St Crispins is often oversubscribed.

As more housing is built in the area, catchment areas for schools shrink, and now a considerable number of children in the area can’t get into their nearest schools.  There are still school places available, but the schools with places are further away from where those attending live, over 3 miles each way in some cases.  Without adequate walking and cycling infrastructure and bus provision, this leads to more children being driven to school in private cars which has a detrimental impact to congestion levels, air quality and the climate.  Safe, green transport options need to be readily available for our children and their absence is counter to the Council’s declared climate emergency.

The Council is working on it’s LCWIP (local cycling and walking infrastructure plan) which is a strategic project to improve provision in the borough.  The Finchampstead Road corridor has been identified as an area that needs vast improvement.  This won’t be done anytime soon however, and we will continue to work with officers to get the best provision we can for our community. 

For children going to school this September and onwards, we launched a petition as detailed below:

“We, the undersigned, petition the council to commission additional school bus transport for secondary school children living along the Finchampstead Road corridor, ensuring there is a school bus place for every child that wishes to have one.  The additional school bus transport will be routed along Finchampstead Road collecting and dropping off children who live in the vicinity.”

“Currently there is inadequate school bus provision along the Finchampstead Road corridor and poor walking and cycling facilities.  There is a bus to St Crispins but it may be oversubscribed, and children attending Emmbrook have to get to a bus stop in Finchampstead on Barkham Ride to board which is nowhere near where they live. Walking and cycling facilities are very poor with narrow pavements along heavily used A roads and no segregated cycle lanes. Safe, green transport options need to be readily available for our children and their absence will increase car use, with emissions growth counter to the Council’s declared climate emergency.”

Cllr Ian Shenton, Cllr Maria Gee and I spent several hours going door to door to gather signatures and collected 143.  We also have an online e-petition that can be found here https://bit.ly/3dhKRH1.  The online petition currently has 56 signatures, so we have 199 in total.  The petition is being presented to Full Council on Thursday and the e-petition will be closing down tomorrow (Wednesday 21st).  It would be great to get past 200 signatures, so if you live in Wokingham, please do sign.  Even if you don’t have school aged children, this affects the whole community. 

Thank you and fingers crossed! 

Are We On Track For Net Zero Carbon?

When Wokingham Borough Council declared a climate emergency back in July 2019, one of the requirements was for a cross party working group to steer the direction of action.  Like most people I speak with, I hate the thought of the climate agenda being used as a political football and want to see all parties coming together to help address the challenges.  Having had a positive experience with the WBC arts & culture working group, where different parties work together for the greater good, along with external partner organisations and individuals, I was delighted in the summer of 2019 to be invited to sit on the climate emergency working group. 

Sadly, my experience has been quite different.  The Climate Emergency working group has been excluded from the development of the action plan, and our attempts to demonstrate how we could help have fallen on deaf ears. 

As such, my role has become one of scrutiny of the plan rather than contributing to its development.  Like many of you, I am thrilled that the council declared a climate emergency, but I am fully aware that this is an incredibly ambitious goal, and scrutiny of the action plan to ensure it can achieve its goal is paramount.  I am not claiming to have all the answers.  In fact, no one can.  Tackling this threat to our planet requires collaboration and sharing of knowledge, expertise and ideas from a wide range of organisations and people, and part of the journey means that we need to be open to scrutiny and challenge to ensure these plans are robust.  We cannot afford to get this wrong. 

Working with a couple of colleagues, we have been through the published action plan[1] to see how it all adds up.  We know that this is a working document, and it is going to adapt and evolve over time.  We do need to challenge though any anomalies at every stage or we run the risk of going too far down the wrong path and miss other opportunities. 

Our Analysis

Addressing the climate emergency is first and foremost about reducing the amount of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emitted into the atmosphere.  The currency of this is Kilotonnes (KT), which is thousands of tonnes of CO2 or equivalent.  The stated aim of Wokingham’s plan is to reach “net-zero”, the point at which we are removing as much CO2 from the atmosphere as we are emitting into it.  Wokingham’s aim is to achieve this by 2030.

The climate emergency action plan (CEAP) starts from a baseline of CO2 emissions for Wokingham Borough in 2017 of 580.9 KT[2].  The intention is to reduce this figure to net-zero by 2030, mostly through measures to reduce CO2 emissions with some measures to increase removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. 

A large proportion of the CO2 reduction will happen as a result of national initiatives.  Wokingham’s CEAP is responsible for reducing to net-zero the remainder.  Upon analysing this information, we have significant concerns about:

  • The assumptions made for the benefit from national initiatives
  • Overlap between national and local initiatives
  • The legitimacy of some initiatives in the local plan

We believe that the current plan may only achieve around 50% of the goal and that the community is being misled by the Council to believe that the plan is sufficient.

The Contribution of National Initiatives to the Wokingham Plan

The CEAP makes a sweeping assumption that the 5.6% rate of CO2 emission reduction from national initiatives achieved between 2012 and 2017 will continue through to 2030.  This would more than halve emissions.  However, the latest government (BEIS) forecast for national emissions by 2030 is a reduction of less than half of the assumption in the Wokingham plan.  This is the same BEIS that WBC is using as the data source for the current emissions profile of the borough.  Our concern is reinforced by the most recently released data which shows the actual reduction between 2017 and 2018 for Wokingham was only 1.4%, one quarter of what was assumed would happen.

The difference between the CEAP assumption and the BEIS forecast is a further 176kT of CO2 which will need to be removed and is not catered for in the plan. 

The original CEAP (Jan 2020) recognised this issue and that “it is anticipated that the current ‘business as usual’ approach emissions will eventually plateau at a much higher level well before this as most of the ‘quick wins’ will have already been achieved.”  However, in the more recent CEAP (July 2020) this caveat is missing. 

We calculate that this disparity in assumptions on national initiatives will result in approximately 30% of Wokingham’s actual target reduction in emissions being not achieved.

Overlap between National and Local Initiatives

There is little evidence of analysis of the measures behind the national reduction, and we think it is highly likely that there is duplication between national initiatives and local initiatives.  For example:

  • There are substantial reductions assumed both nationally and locally as a result of a shift to electric vehicles. It is impossible to determine the extent to which measures and assumed reductions in CO2 are double counted. 
  • Some of the forecast national reduction will be dependent on local actions.  For example, in order to achieve the government’s ambition of banning the sale of ICE cars by 2030, the necessary infrastructure will need to be in place to support this, which requires involvement from WBC.  This crucial point is not taken into consideration anywhere within the CEAP.

We calculate that 11% of the actual target reduction in emissions falls into this category and needs further analysis to verify its status.

Wokingham’s Local Initiatives

We believe there may be significant double counting between individual measures.  For example, 3 measures each claiming significant reductions in emissions from transport without clarity on the overall between these:

  • A 20% reduction in total distance travelled in private vehicles per individual per year
  • The use of all cars, vans and motorbikes as a mode of transport decreases from 74% (current national/borough average) total miles to 56%
  • 50% of new vehicle registrations by 2030 being electric vehicles

The plan includes a number of initiatives which are being justified in the name of the climate emergency, despite having no apparent, or at best a questionable, link to CO2 emissions.  The most significant of these is the £17M investment in managing road congestion which is claimed as CEAP investment, but no CO2 emission reduction is forecast.  Air quality initiatives are another example.

We have a significant concern over how renewable power generation is treated in the plan. 

  • The generally accepted definition of “Net Zero” is that the amount of CO2 being removed from the atmosphere (for example by adsorption by trees) equals the amount of CO2 being emitted.  The CEAP includes the generation of solar power and claims that this will reduce Wokingham’s CO2 emissions by 28KT. 
  • Renewable energy projects are an essential part of addressing climate change globally and we welcome this happening in Wokingham.  However, in terms of the CEAP this project must be viewed dispassionately in terms of its impact on CO2 emissions.  The power generated by this project will feed into the national grid as a part of the overall national generation capacity.  It will accelerate the decarbonisation of the national grid but the contribution to the CO2 footprint of electricity consumed in Wokingham is tiny.  No CO2 is removed from the atmosphere in Wokingham, and it cannot be correct to calculate this as an offset against other emissions.[3] 
  • Even if an argument is put forward for the inclusion of this in the CEAP, the assumed benefit will in time reduce as the national generation capability is decarbonised.  The current calculation appears to be based on a legacy value for the carbon cost of generation.

We calculate that this 4% of the actual target reduction in emissions is incorrectly claimed by this measure.  However, this error has been compounded in the July 2020 update to the plan where the benefit of solar farms and other renewable generation appears to have been taken twice.  We think that this, together with measures where the assumptions or plan behind the CO2 reductions are unclear is a further total overstatement by 14% of the actual target reduction in emissions.[4]

Summary

We have analysed the national and local initiatives and assumptions in the CEAP in terms of their likely contribution to achieving the net zero target.  This is summarised in the chart below. 

Conclusion

We conclude that there are multiple issues in the CEAP which, if not addressed, will result in Wokingham missing its net zero 2030 target by a huge margin.  We accept that the CEAP is a working document and expect to see changes in it over time.   We are not claiming to have all the answers to this problem, but we believe that it is essential that the true scale of the challenge is made clear to residents and that a plan for net-zero is based on sound and realistic assumptions.

We would like to see the focus of our efforts and investment being on carbon reduction initiatives, rather than off-setting which doesn’t tackle the problem.  The climate emergency needs to be tackled collaboratively not just within the council, but externally with partner organisations, businesses, the third sector and the public coming together.  And it must be done on a transparent basis. 


[1] https://www.wokingham.gov.uk/council-and-meetings/open-data/climate-emergency/

[2] This excludes consumption CO2 (from the production of goods consumed) and emissions from national rail and motorways within the Borough.

[3] The July 2020 CEAP states that “Installation of a large scale solar farm on council owned land will allow the council to offset its carbon emissions from electricity and gas usage.”

[4] The July 2020 CEAP states “When all the actions in the plan have been implemented, the Borough will still fall short of its carbon zero target by 2030 by 72.67 ktCO2e. This figure has been balanced by accounting for renewable energy generation estimate of -52.8 ktCO2e and the increase of carbon sequestration estimated to be -4.5 ktCO2e.”

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.