Over the past few days you may have noticed tree surgeons at work across the garrison area. As part of the process of moving forward the Strategic Development Location, Wokingham Borough Council has placed tree protection orders on large numbers of trees across the garrison area to try to ensure there is not a repeat of the large scale tree felling that occurred before previous developments commenced, and the understanding was that the MoD and Arborfield Garrison Landowners Consortium would honour those tree protection orders, even though on crown land the orders cannot be easily enforced (a TPO can only be enforced on crown land with the permission of the organisation responsible, so the council needs to ask permission from the MoD to prosecute the MoD for violating a TPO – ludicrous…).
Unfortunately it seems that the presence of TPO’s on a number of trees did not get passed on to those responsible for looking after the garrison grounds, so this is what is left of a TPO’d tree near the corner of Tyler Drive and Sheerlands Road. The council knew nothing about this tree being felled until it was reported, whereas any work on a tree under a TPO needs to be agreed with the council.
The justification for the work is the old “health and safety” chestnut – some of the branches were lost in the high winds this winter which meant that the tree was leaning, and therefore needed to be felled. Of course as any of you who know the tree in question would be able to point out, the tree has always leant slightly. Certainly given that a number of previous plans have suggested opening this part of Sheerlands Road up to through traffic and busses, reopening the old line of the A327 through the development, and removing this tree would make widening easier, there is a good deal of suspicion as to why the tree was removed.
The council are currently in consultation with the tree surgeons who cut down the tree, and with the MoD and AGLC. They will also ask for the tree to be replaced.
If you are aware of any other trees on the garrison that were felled over the past few days, can you pass on details to [email protected] or call on 0118 9746503 (manned 10am-3pm), copying details to ourselves. They have a complete plan of all the trees under TPO’s and will be able to take appropriate action to ensure any trees felled illegally are replaced.
Moving on, there have been significant changes over the school situation. Last week at the Secondary School meeting with parents, Rob Stanton and Charlotte Hatham-Taylor committed to having a new school open for residents of Arborfield, Finchampstead and Barkham in September 2016. This prompted a good deal of discussion amongst parents who had been pushing for a free school, and the decision was taken to halt the campaign. The reason for this is that in order to make it through the free school selection process the group has to show significant demand, and with parents from 2016 onwards now having been offered a council sponsored academy, only the 2015 parents were actively supporting the bid, the majority of the other parents were happy to opt for the council sponsored academy.
There remain question marks over the location, as the council is quite clear that the school will not open on a temporary site, however the most recent phasing plans showed the current school site in phase 1b between 2017 and 2019. We will continue to press the council for clarity on the school location, as if the school is not going to be in the currently planned location it is important to know where it will be, and what will be in place of the previous location.
Finally, the council executive meeting this week includes the next stage of the process for the Arborfield Bypass/Relief Road. Our colleagues on the Arborfield Action Group are intending to attend the meeting and ask a number of questions as the executive decides whether to allocate additional funding for the refinement of the chose route B that was favoured by 71% of respondents to the recent consultation. The meeting commences at 7:30pm on Thursday, 27th March, at the council offices in Wokingham.
Last night was the next in the regular series of Arborfield Community Forums held once again at the Henry Street Garden Centre in Arborfield.
There were perhaps two key items on the agenda for many residents, the first being an update from Roger Bullworthy on the Marino Family development plans, and the second being a more detailed review of the Arborfield Bypass/Relief Road consultation and details of the next steps. Alongside this the meeting also included more general updates on the development, an update on the ongoing secondary school consultation process, and details of the My Journey and Green Ways projects that are aiming to reduce car use across the borough.
Going through the agenda in order, the meeting started with Wokingham Principal Planning Officer, Matt Melville updating the meeting on current progress. Effectively this is that they still expect the planning application from the Arborfield Garrison Landowners Consortium for their 2,000 houses (of the total 3,500) in the autumn, and that there is a significant amount of work being done by the consortium to ensure a much better application is made this time around. Matt also highlighted the regular steering group meetings on which we are represented, and as mentioned by Matt we are happy to take any particular concerns residents may have to those meetings and report back.
Moving on, next to speak was Roger Bullworthy.
If you’ve attended a number of forum meetings, or the community planning weekend last year, Roger may well have been familiar to you, as although he hasn’t spoken publicly up to now he has been a regular attendee at the majority of the meetings relating to the development.
Roger highlighted firstly that the Marino Family are local, having lived in Finchampstead for a number of years, and intend to continue to live here once the development is completed, as such they are concerned to get the development right as just the same as other local residents they will have to live with the consequences of a badly designed development. In terms of design and layout they are intending to follow the modified version of the master plan as set out during the feedback from the community planning weekend last year.
Roger committed to the Marino Family delivering the Nine Mile Ride extension immediately development commences – this is of course important from the point of view of access to the district centre from the Finchampstead side. Another key point he made is that they are not going to be selling their land holding to a developer in one go, but will instead release land parcels over the whole development period, and whilst the individual developers who buy these parcels will specify their own house types, Roger assured the meeting that the Marino Family would sell the parcels such that anything that was built would conform to the overall master plan.
With regards to questions, the first questioner highlighted a common confusion that surrounds the SDL development in that he hadn’t realised that the Marino family land would hold an additional 1,500 houses. This is a point we have made on a number of occasions particularly to local media, the 2,000 houses on the MoD land are part of a total development of 3,500 – many local residents fail to realise that there are two separate land holdings and assume the reported 2,000 is the total!
Another key question that was raised was over the expanded Hogwood Lane Industrial Estate, and the extra traffic that would be generated. Roger took this to be concern that the expansion would include office blocks, and stated that the expanded industrial estate would all be classified as B2 General Industrial. However we are aware that a concern for many residents is the existing access to the site for HGV’s, some of which attempt to drive up Park Lane rather than come in on one of the slight less unsuitable roads such as Biggs Lane. As we have highlighted on a number of occasions, the industrial estate is really on the wrong side of the development and should really have direct access from the A327 – all HGV traffic for the estate currently has to go around on Biggs Lane, and once the Nine Mile Ride extension is complete will probably come in on that road, straight through the middle of the new housing development. The industrial estate expansion is being placed where it is because that is where the industrial estate is already, not because it is a good place on the overall development to put an industrial estate!
Moving on, next to present was Piers Brunning who updated the meeting on the ongoing consultation process with local parents on provision of a school in the South of the Borough. He also highlighted the next meeting specifically focusing on planning for the new school that takes place tomorrow night, Wednesday 19th March, at 7:30pm at the Finchampstead Baptist Centre. We understand that Wokingham Borough Council may be making some more announcements with respect to the school at the meeting tomorrow, and will report back anything that affects the SDL development.
After Piers had spoken, Steve Bailey gave a presentation on the My Journey and the Green Ways projects. Of most interest will probably be the Green Ways project that is looking to create a network of cycle, footpaths and bridleways away from major roads across the borough, connecting the new strategic development locations with other areas of the borough. The routes will make use of existing footpaths and byways where available, and in others will put in new paths.
We understand that there was some concern with the maps presented, as in a number of places they showed new paths going across land where the council has yet to speak to the affected landowners. There are other places where what are now simple footpaths are to be widened and upgraded to take cycle traffic and horses, again the landowners have yet to be consulted. As was noted in the questions from the floor, the planned network connects together the SDL’s, but misses key connections such as Wokingham Station, and secondary schools – connections that are key if we’re wanting to encourage students to cycle or walk. We’re certainly keen to see such a network come to fruition, however as with the initial stages of the bypass/relief road consultation it causes a good deal of concern from landowners if the first they hear of changes on their land is at a large public meeting such as the forum, and would urge the council to talk to the landowners before such announcements in future.
The final major item on the agenda was a more detailed review of the consultation results on the Arborfield Bypass/Relief Road.
The first and most important point is that thanks to the overwhelming response during the consultation period, the council is now actively pursuing route B. Steve presented a more detailed breakdown of the figures that indicated that route B was the overwhelming choice with everybody apart from respondents from the Farley Hill area. Given the level of response, this has pushed back the schedule for the building of the road, as the council is now going into an additional period of design work that is expected to be signed off at the next council executive meeting when route B is formally adopted as the preferred route. We must congratulate our colleagues on the Arborfield Action Group and our friends at Lockey Farm for the excellent campaign they launched which was highlighted by Steve Bailey as being key in mobilising responses and changing the council plan.
In response to questioning Steve highlighted that any plans would also show what changes would be made to the existing road through Arborfield and Arborfield Cross once traffic had been diverted away.
One particular point that was raised, which wasn’t adequately addressed was whether the developers would still be restricted to less than 750 houses until the road opened. The less than satisfactory answer was that currently this wasn’t going to be the case as the road would be built later as a result of the extra design time needed – as a result we could be looking at over 1,000 houses or more being built before the road would be finished assuming the current timings for planning are met. This led to a discussion about where the lorries to and from the SDL site would be routed, to which the answer is that they will probably come up and down the A327 either through Eversley or Arborfield. Little comfort for those who live on the road.
One bit of good news that was confirmed during the question and answer is that whilst the planned Arborfield Bypass doesn’t meet the new Shinfield relief road, leaving the stretch of road across the River Loddon exactly as it is currently, as a result of the major flooding that occurred this winter and the resultant closures of the A327, that stretch of road has been prioritised for flood alleviation measures, paid for by central government so we should get an improved road over the whole stretch of the A327 after all.
Whilst we are pleased that progress is being made on the A327, we continue to be concerned that this is not the only problem area, chief among the unaddressed areas is the next section of the A327 through Finchampstead and over the bridge into Eversley. Although it hasn’t been closed for long periods over the winter, the chaos caused by one set of temporary traffic lights and the resultant gridlocked traffic at peak times shows that this is a problem that needs to be addressed with more than just a change to the junction with the A30.
The next forum is on Thursday June 5th, at 7pm, again at Henry Street Garden Centre. We would also urge anyone with an interest in the school provision to attend the meeting tomorrow at 7:30pm at FBC.
As you may be aware the date of the next Arborfield Community Forum has been changed, and the meeting will now take place on Monday March 17th, at 7pm, at the Henry Street Garden Centre.
We understand from Wokingham Borough Council that following on from the last forum the main item on the agenda will be a presentation from the representatives of the Marino Family Trust who control the remaining land in the SDL. This makes it a particularly important meeting to attend, as up to now whilst we have heard much from Crest Nicholson and the Arborfield Garrison Landowners Consortium, the Marino Family Trust have remained largely in the background.
The Marino Family Trust plans are important as alongside the balance of the proposed housing their land will include:
This means that there are a number of important questions that they will need to address, in particular how they will handle the significant increase in vehicles, in particular HGV’s that their proposed doubling of the Hogwood Lane Industrial Estate will bring. As anybody who lives along Park Lane will confirm access to the estate is already difficult, and quite regularly large lorries ignore the width limit on the bottom end of Park Lane and attempt to access the industrial estate direct from the A327 rather than going around via Biggs Lane. Having said that Biggs Lane is not ideal for HGV traffic either.
The Nine Mile Ride Extension is also of much concern to residents along Nine Mile Ride, with well founded fears that putting a direct link from Nine Mile Ride across the SDL will attract more traffic along Nine Mile Ride as a whole turning it into even more of a rat run that it already is. If the current rather circuitous route around the Garrison is replaced with a much more direct route straight onto the A327, and with a new bypass around Arborfield and another around Shinfield, Nine Mile Ride could quickly become a quick route for residents of Finchampstead, Crowthorne and beyond to get to destinations on this side of Reading without having to drive through the congested roads in the middle of Wokingham and Winnersh.
Alongside the news of the next Community Forum, we’d also like to highlight a consultation that Wokingham Borough Council is running into the Community Infrastructure Levy. This is the replacement for Section 106 money, and specifies in much more simple terms how much a developer needs to pay to the council as a contribution to cover local infrastructure around their developments – items such as community facilities, parks and new roads. The full details of the consolation are at http://www.wokingham.gov.uk/consultation/current/cilchargingschedule/ with the documents to support the consultation at http://www.wokingham.gov.uk/planning/developers/cil/ and the council is proposing to set the borough wide rate at £365 per square metre for residential development. The other three strategic development locations are being offered at reduced rates (£300 for South of M4, £320 for South Wokingham and £340 for North Wokingham) however the proposal is that Arborfield will be set at the borough wide rate. We are pleased that the council has chosen to do that, reflecting the significant additional infrastructure that a viable development at Arborfield would require, however we would encourage as many people as possible to participate in the consultation and support this rate as the evidence from the previous consultation stage is that housing developers feel that the rate should be reduced and so are quite likely to make representations like this again, as such a strong response from local residents supporting setting the Arborfield SDL at the highest rate is needed. Details of the consultation are at http://www.wokingham.gov.uk/consultation/current/cilchargingschedule/
Although we’ve already issued an update this weekend, the arrival of the latest Arborfield News, which includes an item from the Parish Council talking about school provision has meant another update.
Firstly, we’d like to echo the message from that item, that it is vitally important for local parents to get involved, the new secondary school when it comes, by whatever route, will be for young people from a number of parishes, and it is important that the views of parents in all of those areas are adequately represented. As the Arborfield News article suggests at the most recent meeting parents in Finchampstead were largely unimpressed with the site being pushed by Wokingham Borough Council and the Parish Councils, nor to be fair the option of West Court that the South of Wokingham Free School analysis favoured. Both sites would require potential students from Finchampstead to be travelling up and down Nine Mile Ride, and Finchampstead parents seemed unconvinced that adequate improvements could be made to Nine Mile Ride to make it safe for their children to use on a daily basis, especially given the increased traffic that would be directed down the road.
However, one of the big take away messages from the meeting that the article in the Arborfield News fails to mention is that parents, from whichever parish, are angry that having been demanding a local school for over a decade, we have now reached the point where school places will run out, and the council will not be able to provide a school for a number of years after the places have run out – council officers were quite clear at the meeting that as a fallback they will be asking the existing local schools to squeeze in the excess students whilst they wait for the preferred site on the garrison to become available, and the council has enough money together to start building. Whilst in the Arborfield News the parish council criticises West Court as not being available and needing conversion, the parish council preferred site is also in one of the last parts of the garrison to be occupied, on a site that will need to be cleared before a brand new school can be built.
What is clear is that by encouraging a free school bid, whilst not fully understanding the way such a bid works, Wokingham Borough Council and the Parish Councils have opened the proverbial Pandora’s Box. There seems to have been a naive expectation from our elected representatives that a parent led bid would dutifully follow along and agree with their choice of location, and essentially provide exactly the school laid down in the plans, just a few years earlier.
But that hasn’t happened.
Instead, local parents have taken up the challenge, and having spoken to local parents, spoken directly to the Department for Education, and consulted with experts in the field such as the New Schools Network, following through on the advice they have received, they have not come to the same conclusions that are being pushed by our councillors. One of the key drivers behind the free school policy is to give parents control, and take control away from local councils, as we have said several times before the Government is not above using Westminster power to push through free school bids against local planning, as has happened with the Slough Sikh School.
From the point of view of getting a clear path forward, perhaps it would have been better had the box not been opened, but that is where we are. It seems clear that the parish councils have some serious work to do in selling their vision of a school built on the SDL to local parents, so perhaps it would be better if rather than slinging criticisms at other proposed sites that can very easily be levelled at their own idea, they need to start putting forward convincing arguments otherwise they may well find that the Department for Education will go with the free school bid and leave local residents with a great big school shaped hole in development plans, something that most people living on the garrison believe will be filled with even more houses – something that nobody wants.
Time for another short update.
The council has arranged another two meetings for anybody interested in discussing plans for a new school. The first is this Wednesday, 19th February, at 7:30pm at the Finchampstead Baptist Centre. The second is a month later on Wednesday, 19th March, at 7:30pm also at the Finchampstead Baptist Centre. Please see this page on the council website for contact details to book a place at the meeting.
The other hot topic currently is flooding. Biggs Lane and Park Lane in the Garrison are have both flooded on several occasions so far this winter, alongside this there have been several periods when the village has been all but cut off from Reading thanks to the A327 being closed.
Phiala Mehring of the Loddon Valley Residents Association, who has spent a lot of time campaigning on flooding issues in other parts of the borough has recently had a meeting with representatives of the Arborfield Garrison Landowners Consortium over their plans for minimising flooding in and around the development and a further meeting has been arranged. As part of this she is looking to gather as many pictures as possible of the flooding this winter in and around the Garrison to highlight to the developers what the hotspots are that any flooding plan they present will need to address. So if you have any pictures, please send them to us and we will pass them on, alternatively if you are out and about over the next few days please snap pictures of any local flooding, in particular if anyone has pictures of the water sitting on the fields near Hogwood Lane, or the current flooding on Park Lane please pass them on.
We’re now a couple of weeks into 2014, and as always things are moving on.
Firstly, the timetable for the new planning application is starting to become a bit clearer. Currently it looks as if the first planning application may not be submitted until the autumn, with a decision by the council not until early 2015. We also understand from the planning team at Wokingham Borough Council that they are having frequent meetings with the consortium team, and that the consortium is proposing to talk to neighbouring authorities such as Hampshire County Council and Bracknell Forest Borough Council about the effects of the development.
We see all of this as positive news. Those of you who live in and around the Garrison will have seen quite a lot of the consortium surveyor team, who have been tasked with producing an up to date topographic map of the whole site, this along with the longer timescales seems to be showing much more of a commitment to getting the plans right first time. We also must commend the continuing efforts of Tracey, Matt and the team at Wokingham in keeping in close contact with the consortium to ensure we get a good, coherent and properly thought out application this time around. We’re particularly pleased to hear that the consortium will be talking to neighbouring authorities as our friends in Eversley Matters were decidedly unimpressed by the “not our problem” response most of them got from consortium representatives at the exhibition of the previous plans last year when they asked about traffic mitigation through Eversley village.
The other area where matters are moving on is in relation to the school provision.
Before dealing with what has been happening, it is really important to clarify the AG-RAG position on the school, in particular in relation to the South of Wokingham Free School Group as there seems to have been some confusion of late.
Whilst the South of Wokingham Free School Group was started by members of AG-RAG, it is not part of AG-RAG and never has been. Although we have highlighted, and will continue to highlight the issues around schools, and for some of our members with children it is a critical issue, other members have had concerns about the effect of introducing a free school into the equation, especially given that the Department for Education seems to favour converting existing buildings for free schools, and the lack of control other free school groups seem to have over school placement – the Slough Sikh school for example that the DfE has forced into Stoke Poges over the objections of local residents in a different county from where the need exists! The membership of the free school group includes a number of people who have no involvement at all with AG-RAG, and similarly there many members of AG-RAG for whom schools are not a major concern, and for whom the disruptive prospect of the DfE placing the school somewhere else is much more of an issue. As such the members keen on the free school idea were asked to set up a separate group. We have highlighted what they are doing, but this has primarily been because what they are proposing affects the wider development – AG-RAG is, and always has been about highlighting what is going on to local residents, and making sure their voice gets heard.
As far as AG-RAG is concerned, the implication from Wokingham Borough Council and others that a parent led free school group could essentially deliver the same school plan built into the SDL plans ahead of when Wokingham Borough could, and drawing on a different pot of money is highly misleading, and shows a worrying lack of comprehension of how the free school process actually works and the different pressures that a parent led free school compared to a council commissioned academy would face. For anyone interested in more detail, the book How To Set Up a Free School by Toby Young gives an excellent overview, and we would highly recommend talking to the New Schools Network about the process, or to the groups behind the Oakbank and Evendons free schools that have been approved locally, all of whom would be happy to explain the trials and tribulations of creating a brand new school via the free school route.
As we highlighted in our newsletter at the end of 2013, going the free school route is inherently risky. However thanks to the many slips in the date on which a site for a school might be available, and the continual failure over many, many years by Wokingham Borough Council to actually address the issue of a school in the south of the borough with action rather than discussion, it is a very real issue. For those parents whose children will be transferring to secondary school over the next few years the lack of a local school is going to increasingly lead to their children being placed in distant schools as their children get excluded by the distance based tie breaker from their chosen schools. As such those parents feel they have no choice but to push forward with a school for the benefit of their children. AG-RAG will continue to highlight both the free school group progress, and the official council meetings, but will also be highlighting the inherent risks of encouraging provision of a school through the free school route whilst trying to produce a coherently planned vision for the future of the whole garrison site.
Having said all that, the council has organised another parent meeting for this Thursday, 23rd January, between 7:30pm and 9:30pm at the Finchampstead Baptist Centre, to discuss the issues around school provision. It is an open meeting, however the council are asking attendees to book a place at the meeting by emailing [email protected] or calling (0118) 974 6105. The council has made a major effort to get word about this meeting out, with flyers being issued at all the affected primary schools in the area, and also issuing details via parish councils and online. We would encourage any parents to attend this meeting and put forward your views on how you want your children educated, and where.
The South of Wokingham Free School Group now have their own website with details of their current plans, although we can obviously pass on any contacts or questions about the free school from the various AG-RAG communication channels, we would recommend contacting them directly with any questions or concerns. As highlighted in this weeks Wokingham Times, and on local radio, the group has issued a detailed forty page framework document which was sent to all stakeholders before Christmas, and has now been published more widely through their Facebook group. Again we would encourage any affected parents to join this group and engage with the free school group.
At the end of 2012 we’d just had a Community Forum where we’d been introduced to new personnel on the Arborfield Garrison Landowners Consortium Team, and they had done a presentation suggesting that they were going to make changes to the previous master plans based on local feedback, but with little detail. They said that the detail would be forthcoming following a period of consultation in the new year.
However, at the end of 2013 we’ve just had a Community Forum where we’ve been introduced to new personnel on the Arborfield Garrison Landowners Consortium Team, and they had done a presentation suggesting that they are going to make changes to the previous master plans based on local feedback, but with little detail. They say that the detail will be forthcoming following a period of consultation in the new year.
Of course a lot has gone on in 2013, we did get a lot more detailed consultation through the community planning weekend last January, which led to a revised plan incorporating a lot of the comments that local residents who attended the weekend put forward. However the consortium then rushed through with putting in an outline planning application, resulting in a pretty slapdash set of documents with inconsistencies that were easy to spot, and a ludicrous transport assessment that at best could be described as unrealistic, and seemed to mainly consist of putting “intelligent” traffic lights at numerous junctions across the district. As anybody who has experienced the results of the “intelligent” traffic lights recently installed at Sonning Bridge and the Winnersh Crossroads will know, the effects of putting these in multiple locations would set the borough on a fast track to total gridlock.
Needless to say rather than the masterplan being welcomed by local residents, the slapdash nature of it and poor transport assessment resulted in large numbers of respondents putting forward well founded criticism, and after much discussion with Wokingham Borough Council the application was withdrawn.
However it wasn’t only the developer consortium that was moving forward.
One of the biggest concerns of residents of Arborfield and Arborfield Cross over the Garrison SDL has always been the effect on the A327 through the village. Although a number of years ago the Garrison itself was bypassed (the original A327 is now Sheerlands Road, Whitehall Drive and Bramshill Close) and the plan was to bypass Arborfield Cross as well, only half the job was ever done, and the sweeping wide curve of the bypass drops down to the original road through the village, and not surprisingly jams frequently. Whilst in recent years developer money has paid for the Arborfield Cross roundabout, the fundamental problem of syphoning increasing volumes of traffic through the centre of the village has never been addressed. As such for the residents of Arborfiled Cross and Arborfield Village a bypass has always been top of the agenda.
So it was with much excitement and expectation that villagers went along to the Henry Street Garden Centre to see the council present not a bypass, but a relief road that whilst it went around Arborfield Cross itself, sliced the popular Lockey Farm in two, drove the road straight through the middle of the only area of special character in the village, and did absolutely nothing for those villagers who lived in Arborfield Village. Villagers in Arborfield Cross and Arborfield Village quickly mobilised and that initial pressure resulted in the consultation on the route of the road including the other route options that the council had previously rejected. This also benefited residents in North Wokingham, Emmbrook and Winnersh as they also were given a wider consultation on the route of their road as a result of the change of plan for the road here. The council staged an unprecedented series of exhibitions resulting in a large level of interest and ultimately an overwhelming response in favour of an alternative route for the road, one that did actually bypass Arborfield and Arborfield Cross.
The other area of progress was with regards to secondary school provision.
As long time residents will know, the lack of a secondary school in the south of the borough has been an issue for decades. Large numbers of houses were built around the California Crossroads in what is now North Finchampstead, but with no secondary school provision, resulting in children being bussed to schools both in the centre of Wokingham, and also taken out of the borough down to Yateley School in Hampshire. Although it is clearly a situation that is unsustainable, and local councillors will often highlight it is an important issue on doorsteps, Wokingham Borough Council has singularly failed to actually fix the problem.
For a long while they have been fixated on moving Emmbrook School to the south of the borough, as the sale of the Emmbrook site, along with the closure and sale of the school at Ryeish Green would provide enough money to build a new larger school elsewhere. Whilst on paper this seems like an excellent plan, what it ignored is that Emmbrook residents really rather like having a secondary school on their doorstep, and didn’t want to end up having to have their children bussed in the other direction every day to a relocated school. By effectively playing one set of voters off against another the whole process stalled.
What changed things was the election of a new Conservative led government that had been inspired by the free schools set up in Sweeden, and introduced the ideas to this country. Although Wokingham Borough Council went ahead with the closure of Ryeish Green, it only remained closed for a year before local parents who also resented Wokingham Borough Council now bussing their children across the borough reopened it as the Oakbank Free School. It became quickly apparent to the team responsible for Education Policy at Shute End that with the loss of the money from the sale of the Ryeish Green site, along with the very real possibility that if they closed Emmbrook local parents would reopen it as a free school that their whole plan was in tatters, and they decided that a new, additional school as part of the Arborfield SDL was the way forward, and called a meeting of interested local residents to explain what needed to happen.
The bottom line is that Wokingham Borough Council still doesn’t have the money for a new school, and with the removal of the ability to generate money from the sale of existing school sites they are left with even more limited options for generating it. Whilst the new housing developments across the borough will generate some extra funds, this won’t be enough, and the Wokingham Borough Council officials have been quite clear on this on a number of occasions – “there is no war chest”. However it does get quite interesting when you listen to some of the local councillors who despite what their officers are saying about the availability of money are still promising that Wokingham Borough will deliver a school, and that it will be above the minimum school standards set down by the government by utilising money from some as yet unspecified source. Given that as expected the Wokingham Borough block grant has been cut again it’s hard to see where Wokingham Borough Council, who have failed for decades to get a school built in the south, are going to get the money from, however much local councillors may promise it.
Of course if you look at how Wokingham Borough Council handled the crisis in primary school places – for a number of years they tried to dodge the problem by expanding existing schools with bulge classes, before rushing through plans for three new primary schools in under a year, schools that in some cases didn’t open, or didn’t fill – it is pretty obvious that with a lack of money for a new school, trying to get the existing local schools to take in additional students to postpone the problem is a way they could go, pushing back the date residents in the South might get a new school even further.
One option that was pushed quite strongly by council officers for getting a school here sooner was the option of a Free School.
A Free School is not without risk, but it would potentially get a local school ahead of when the government would allow Wokingham Borough Council to build a school themselves. The main advantage other than getting a school in the south earlier is that it gives access to a separate pot of money, a pot of money that Wokingham Borough Council cannot access. However for a new build school, that pot of money will still only cover the minimum standard for a school, which is why the Department for Education often look towards a cheaper conversion of existing buildings to provide a home for a free school. As continuing rows over the Sikh Free School for Slough that the DfE has put in Stoke Poges, the fight for the Elvian School site by the West Reading Education Network and the concerns when the Royal Berkshire Hospital building was suggested as a free school site show sites will always be contentious.
The situation will be much the same here. By starting a free school early the proposed site for the school on the Garrison won’t be available as the Army will still be using it, but it would require a new build based on current plans. Looking for potential conversion opportunities there is the nearby Sandhurst Block, but that would throw the whole plan for that part of the SDL into disarray, there is also West Court which hasn’t really been allocated for anything after the army departs but could end up as a hotel, conference centre or flats. As the situation in Stoke Poges indicates the DfE is not above putting a free school somewhere totally out of an area it’s supposed to be serving – free schools are outside local authority control and are built and funded directly from central government.
The other point to remember about a free school is that they stand and fall on their own, so the strong advice from experts such as the New Schools Network is to start small and grow – it’s a lot easier to secure funding for a 600 student school and then increase that as required than to get funding for a 1000 student school and try to shrink it if the places aren’t filled.
Looking at all the options several AG-RAG members whose children were at the critical age where they would fall into the period where there would be increasing difficulty getting their children into local secondary schools, but in which the council was not able to build a school themselves came to the conclusion that a free school was the only option, and have been working hard coming up with plans.
So that is where we find ourselves at the end of 2013. Thanks as always for the support of local residents, the process of building a development such as the Garrison SDL is long and drawn out, but it needs all of us to engage at every opportunity – the developers and the Borough Council I’m sure would much prefer it if residents all sat quietly, accepted their proposed road routes, housing layouts and school locations – but ultimately the developers will move on and it’s those of us left here that will live with the results. Remember there is only one local councillor who actually lives in the Garrison SDL. There will be at least one new outline planning application this year, and probably several consultation exercises before that which will need a strong local response, and of course there are the parallel issues of the Arborfield Bypass that will move forward, plus the ongoing discussions over a school.
It’s not over yet, but with the government having signed the deal to build the new home for the base here at Arborfield, the MoD need to get the money to pay for that, so the process will move forward, and we need to be as engaged as ever to ensure we get the best deal for those of us left behind when they move in two years time.
The two pronged process for bringing forward a new secondary school in the area alongside the development of the SDL has been steadily moving forward. As previously discussed, the current processes laid down by the government are complex and confusing.
In essence the council cannot build a school themselves, but can commission the building of an independent academy, however they cannot commission such an academy until there is a proven need, which is that the number of available secondary school places across the whole borough is below a certain threshold. Given the current arrangement of secondary schools in the Wokingham Borough and that distance from the school is used as the oversubscription criteria this will leave parents in Arborfield, Barkham and Finchampstead in an increasingly difficult position and unlikely to get their first choices of secondary school, most likely finding their children allocated to schools elsewhere in the borough with spaces.
The alternative is for local parents to bring forward plans for a free school. The key difference with a free school is that an application need only prove demand not need. What this means is that if parents can show a demand for a local school in the area of Arborfield, Barkham and Finchampstead, the Department of Education would consider it and provide funding, even though Wokingham Borough Council would not be allowed to commission and academy because the need threshold has not been met.
The council is hosting a meeting with a view to forming a Local Secondary School Development Working Party, the meeting will be held on 11th December, at 7:30pm, at the Royal British Legion Club in Arborfield. All are welcome to attend, to confirm attendance at the meeting please contact [email protected]. The meeting will be looking at all the issues surrounding the provision of a new secondary school, issues that are important to consider whether it is a Wokingham Borough Council commissioned academy, or a government approved free school group that ultimately provides the school.
Some members of AG-RAG who are parents of children who will be affected if we have to wait for Wokingham Borough Council to be allowed to commission an academy have formed the South of Wokingham Free School group, and in advance of the meeting have issued the following press release and presentation to local stakeholders. For more details of the group and to join in please contact the group through their Facebook group.
For those people unable to attend the most recent Arborfield Community Forum held last month, at which the Arborfield Garrison Landowners Consortium made a presentation and answered questions, Wokingham Borough Council has now published their notes of the meeting including all of the questions asked at the meeting and answers given. The notes and presentations can be found on the Wokingham Borough web site.
The Crest Nicholson presentation can be seen below:
Firstly, thanks to everybody who took the time to come along to the community forum last night. The developers were speaking a lot about community partnership throughout their presentation, so the more people they have an opportunity to meet, and from the widest cross-section, the better the picture we can give them of the things that are important to us as a community.
Similarly thanks to everybody who participated in the Arborfield
Bypass Relief Road consultation. As Cllr Keith Baker highlighted the council put a lot of effort into publicising the consultation, and in providing staff to answer questions across the period at a number of exhibition locations across the borough. We have previously been critical of Wokingham Borough council doing little to inform residents of important consultations, however this consultation shows that when it is highlighted people participate, and a clear message has been given, that people across the borough prefer route B as opposed to the council favoured option A by a significant margin – 74% favoured route B compared to 16% for route A. Cllr Baker and Cllr Cowan both indicated that with such a clear mandate the council would move forward with route B instead.
Moving on, the main event of the evening was a presentation followed by a question and answer session with representatives of the Arborfield Garrison Landowners Consortium, who are responsible for the northern part of the development, 86% of which is the MoD land that is currently occupied by the garrison, and the remaining 14% being two parcels of land, one owned by Robert Kenyon, the other by the Aegean Trust. The Marino Family Trust who own the remainder of the develop-able land in the SDL were represented at the forum meeting, but did not speak publicly.
The main speaker at the forum was Scott Black who is Crest Nicholson New Business Director. We see this as a positive move, with the developer putting forward senior staff to talk directly to residents, rather than sending someone more junior, or a third-party company to engage with the community. As a number of residents found, Scott and his colleagues were happy to engage on a one-to-one basis after the end of the formal meeting.
In terms of the actual presentation, as would be expected at this point it was a bit light on tangible details. A lot of the broad principles we’d heard before, and as was highlighted in the questioning there were a couple of confusion points such as the change to quoting densities in houses per acre whilst previous presentations quoted in houses per hectare. Just to be clear the new reduced density figures that were being quoted were as the question asked at the meeting suggested are about 35 houses per hectare – by way of comparison Cllr Baker highlighted at the meeting that Penrose Park is built at a density of 30 houses per hectare.
Scott suggested that since the number of houses was unchanged the reduction in density would be achieved by some “tweaking”, suggesting that the configuration of roads on the development could help. Considering the significant interest that the team of surveyors who have been busy across the site all week, were showing in the contentious area B and the existing playing fields we would like to remind the developers that those areas have been a matter of great concern for existing residents throughout many of the previous consultations. The Arborfield Garrison SDL is unique amongst the Wokingham Strategic Development Locations in that it has a significant number of residents already living within the boundary, residents who were provided with existing green space and community facilities by being given access to garrison facilities such as the playing fields and the existing community centre. Therefore if the plans take away those facilities they need to be replaced.
Another part of the presentation highlighted previous Crest Nicholson developments, and Scott urged residents to look at other developments to get an idea of what they provide. The main example used in the presentation was the Monksmoor Farm development in Daventry. Whilst it allowed Scott to show some key principles, it is worth considering some of the differences. Scott himself highlighted the size – Monksmoor Farm is significantly smaller – however another key point is the location. If you look at a map of Daventry, Monksmoor Farm sits to the North East of Daventry town centre, alongside existing estates, and fronting directly onto the existing A425 distributor road around the centre of the town. The town centre is easily walkable from the new development, the M1 and mainline railway are close by – essentially Monksmoor Farm is an urban extension development, that has a lot in common with the north and south of Wokingham SDL’s around here.
As an example it doesn’t give any real indication of how Crest Nicholson might solve the transport issues that are critical to the success of the development at Arborfield. Here it is unrealistic to suggest that people could walk into Wokingham town centre, almost five miles away. Daventry has a variety of local buses serving the estates and further afield, Arborfield has one bus service that meanders through a number of other local villages to get to Wokingham and Reading. Looking at the results of the parish council consultation very few people use the existing bus service, and would consider using it. As Cllr Simon Weeks and a number of others highlighted, building a significant development at Arborfield means properly addressing car usage and the roads – the laugh that went up from the community forum at the suggestion of significantly increasing bus and cycle usage shows that producing a transport plan that doesn’t acknowledge extensive car use is just a naive fantasy. The members of the consortium continue to talk about creating a great place to live, but it’s much harder to do that in a semi-rural new town development like Arborfield than in an urban extension project like Daventry, and it will cost a lot more money to do it.
So in conclusion, we certainly saw the forum as positive, and a step forward. Since Wokingham Borough Council chose not to cut housing numbers when they had the opportunity, as Scott highlighted, the houses are coming. We look forward to ongoing consultations, and commitment from Crest Nicholson and the rest of the developers to put in the money and resources needed to make this development work both within itself, and with the surrounding existing communities of Arborfield, Barkham, Finchampstead, Eversley and Farley Hill.
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