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.
Whilst the news of the withdrawal of the planning application may seem like good news, there is no time for a breather. Although the current planning application may have been withdrawn, Arborfield Garrison is still adopted as a Strategic Development Location by Wokingham Borough Council, the army is still moving out in two years time, and Crest Nicholson and the rest of the consortium are intending to build exactly the same number of houses as before, it’s just that with a new planning application they’ll potentially be building them in slightly different places. Residents of the Garrison will have seen over the past few days that the developers are pressing on with a team of surveyors making a detailed topographical survey of the site whatever the weather.
As a result we are effectively back to square one. Until we’ve seen the developer presentation on Monday, we have little idea what new ideas the developers are going to bring to the table. What hints and rumours we have heard so far include:
Just to reiterate, the process begins again this coming Monday, 11th November, at 7pm, in the Henry Street Garden Centre, so it is very important that as many people as possible attend the forum. Whilst the developer consortia have attended all of the community forums so far, they have attended as observers. This is an opportunity to talk to them directly, and give them immediate feedback on their new ideas for our communities.
Following the news of the withdrawal by AGLC of their outline planning application yesterday we have been contacted by a number of local media organisations for comment. We have issued the following press release:
We were pleased to receive the press release below issued by Wokingham Borough Council this afternoon. It confirms that the Arborfield Garrison Landowners Consortium have done the correct thing and withdrawn their current outline planning application. This is something we have been arguing for them to do ever since the extent of the local objections became clear, with the amount of problems with their application it was obvious that it could not be tweaked sufficiently, and that in that case the only way it was going to get approval would be for the consortium to force it through over the objections of the local people. We are glad that they have seen sense and intend to work with local people to produce a development that is more acceptable to the local people surrounding and within the strategic development location.
Update: We have now received a press release from the Arborfield Garrison Landowners Consortium that we have added below.
One of the consistent factors for us as the affected local residents who live in and around the Garrison as this project slowly moves forward is that we all have to deal with meeting professionals working on the project at public meetings. We’ve had a lot with professional politicians, we have also had meetings with various professionals employed by the council, professionals working for the various members of the landowner consortia including the MoD. We know for many residents this can be a frustrating experience, and that often they feel that such meetings are just a box ticking exercise to meet some criteria for stakeholder consultation, or that those running the meetings are being evasive or misleading, or just don’t want to tell us the truth.
With that in mind it was interesting to come across a blog posted by Jane Northcote, an independent management consultant specialising in business change who lives in the Barbican in London.
As you may or may not know, there is currently a major project going on in London providing a major east/west railway line under the capital – the Crossrail Project. The majority of the line is underground, and currently a number of machines are digging the twin tunnels under the city, and those machines are due to go directly under the tower blocks of the Barbican where Jane lives. Not surprisingly the residents are concerned about what the effects might be, so Crossrail are running a series of meetings for residents to say what is going on. You can read what Jane said about the meeting she attended here.
What she presents is an eight point checklist of how to handle a meeting with stakeholders, with some key points that hopefully more people handling big projects will take on board:
They brought the real people: Bill Tucker, the Central Area Director, and Mike Black, Head of Geotechnics, together with other specialists. These are not PR people, they are real operational people who could answer our questions and take responsibility.
They gave us facts and figures. They did not disguise or play down the fact that there would be settlement. It will be less than 5mm in most places. They put these figures in context for us. A 5mm settlement possibly produces hairline cracks, no more.
They did not patronise us. The Head of Geotechnics used technical terms, which he explained. He showed us graphs, detailed maps, and measurements.
They showed us a lot of pictures, including pictures of the other parts of London under which the Tunnel Boring Machines have burrowed without incident. Some of these places are bricks-and-mortar churches in the West End. We are concrete. We could see we were going to be OK.
They took responsibility. This was quite remarkable. They did not belittle anyone’s concerns. They will do surveys of every flat, to see what cracks exist now. There are quite a few cracks in our flat. This is the baseline. Then we, and they, can know if the tunnelling has made a new crack. They undertake to repair all damage they make. They have a budget for this. They described the clear process for handling concerns and for taking action on reports of damage, noise or vibration.
They gave plain-language, unequivocal undertakings. The noise levels they produce are measured at the surface. These noise levels will not exceed 25DB. 25DB is the noise level you hear “on a Sunday in Hyde Park”. They explained the monitoring systems. They told us the number to call if we hear noise. They also explained that at 40m down, in London clay, it is most unlikely we will hear anything, and that nobody else had done so.
They answered every question directly. They answered the exact question as posed, unlike politicians. They were not at all defensive. Will monitoring devices be stuck to our listed buildings? Yes they will. Will the fastenings of the monitoring devices damage our listed buildings? Yes maybe, and Crossrail will restore our much-loved concrete to its former state afterwards.
They told us where to go to find more information. They also undertook to come back and see us again on a specific date. The entire event was videoed, and will be on our community website. Crossrail itself has a detailed website with updated information on progress, and descriptions of the project from a number of aspects.
As you may remember, the Garrison Post Office closed suddenly at the end of June, with ESS, the company contracted by the MoD to provide the shop and Post Office blaming a number of recent incidents at the shop. Over the summer we have continued to maintain a dialogue with ESS who maintain that the closure is permanent, and with the Post Office who insist that it is temporary. Whilst we certainly accept the points ESS have been making about staff safety, the level of incredulity from people running other local Post Offices that we have spoken to when we share with them the reasons ESS have given for the closure certainly seem to indicate that these are much more about giving excuses. They all suggest that the kind of low level crime experienced at the shop is common at convenience stores and local Post Offices, but that investment in simple security measures makes a difference, certainly the idea that a local Post Office on a military base, which supposedly has MoD security alongside the normal level of police coverage has to close due to security problems is seen as very strange. The suggestion we keep hearing, especially from people who regularly used the office is that the closure is as much about ESS and the MoD being unwilling to invest in the shop to improve security of their staff and in the Garrison community itself.
Having said that, one point that ESS continues to fail to address is why they have not followed the legally required closure procedure, which requires a six week consultation to be carried out with all stakeholders, not just meetings with the military commanders on the Garrison. Like it or not, the presence of the local shop and Post Office as part of the facilities available to civilian in addition to military personnel has been used in planning applications for many of the housing developments on ex-MoD land over the years, and the MoD has been quite happily selling off homes on their estate with that self same local shop highlighted as a local amenity. Having done that with the Garrison having now got a definite date for closure the MoD are no longer bothered. Whilst the plans for the new development might indicate that shops will be provided as part of the new development, the reality experienced by residents of other new developments such as those on Jennets Park is that promised shops sometimes don’t appear when they are supposed to…
Since we seem to have reached somewhat of a stalemate, we have now raised this up further and have written to Jo Swinton MP, the Minister responsible for Community Affairs, and ultimately responsible for Post Offices to ask her why the statutory six week consultation process has not been followed. We have also issued the following press release:
We are pleased to have received notification that Wokingham Borough Council have responded to criticism from our group and others and have scheduled the next Arborfield Community Forum for Monday November 11th, at 7pm, at the Henry Street Garden Centre.
A full agenda will be released in due course, but the announcement highlights that representatives of the Arborfield Garrison Landowners’ Consortium will be asked to provide an update on the planning application at this forum, so this is an important opportunity to come along and talk to the consortium about what changes they are making to their plans in response to the extensive criticisms of their application.
As far as we are aware, although Wokingham Borough Council have asked the consortium to withdraw the application no decision on whether they are going to do so has been made. As Cllr David Lee suggested at the previous forum the newly appointed Crest Nicholson are looking at significant changes to the design – the kind of changes that should require a new application, however the existing plan was put together during the consultation weekend that many people attended and contributed to back in January, and the older members of the consortium will have invested a good deal of time and money in putting this plan together. Whilst there may be a number of issues with the application, the plan has had a good deal of public consultation.
We would urge the AGLC to come to a decision sooner rather than later, and also if they choose to significantly change the plan this needs to be properly consulted on and not sneaked through under changes to an existing application.
The consultation period for the Arborfield
Bypass Relief Road is drawing to a close. If you haven’t already done so, please make your opinions known either by visiting the exhibition in the corner of the Henry Street Garden Centre Coffee Shop, or by registering your opinions online at http://consultations.wokingham.gov.uk/reliefroad_arborfield/reliefroad_arborfield.htm?ConsultationonArborfieldReliefRoad. Council officers will again be at Henry Street on Friday 25th October, 1.30pm to 5.30pm and Saturday 26th October, 09.30am to 1.30pm.
Opinion in Arborfield is very strongly in favour of route B, especially following the revelation that the favoured route A bulldozes straight through the middle of the villages only “Area of Special Character”, protected by Wokingham District Council in 1994 when the council stated that any proposals that would affect the area should be expected to respect the historical context of the area, and that the council would ensure that harmful changes do not occur. Needless to say in the eyes of many in the village cutting a road through the top of the hill and straight down the middle of the protected field didn’t seem like ensuring harmful changes did not occur.
Alongside the active Arborfield Action Group more informal posters have popped up such as this one that can be found alongside one of the public footpaths that would be cut by the proposed road.
Whilst we’re quite sure there wasn’t a deliberate policy on behalf of Wokingham Borough Council to hide the area of special character – the council were quick to update the information when the error was highlighted, it is another example of our local council missing important details. Given that these are the people representing our interests against well resourced housing developers, companies that have already got developments granted over objections from the council it is a concern that key details like this are missed.
Those of you who are registered on the Aborfield and Newlands Parish Council Mailing list, or who attended the crunch Parish Council meeting this last week will know that the Parish Council has now made a decision on which route to support based on the feed back from their recent survey. The council has released an extensive statement detailing the figures behind their choice. As expected given the opinions being expressed by villagers, the council does not favour route A, and instead favours route B.
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