Post Election Update

We’ve been fairly quiet during the election period. With the decisions over the future of the Garrison already made, and all the major parties committing to significant house building and agreeing the importance of providing suitable infrastructure alongside the houses there was a lot less to discuss. Certainly whilst the results have caused much discussion in the media we’re expecting business as usual without the controversies over housing numbers not being cut, and the significant uncertainty that the cancellation of the REME move to South Wales brought that followed the election in 2010. With the fully Conservative administration we’re very much in the housing model of the previous coalition government where there are no formal regional housing targets as favoured by Labour, but councils are strongly encouraged to build through the land supply rules and being offered a bonus for building new homes. Locally all the key players retained their seats or were not up for election this year, so the election period was merely a pause!

Things get going again very swiftly on Tuesday 19th May with the next Arborfield Community Forum held as usual at Henry Street Garden Centre in Arborfield from 7pm to 8:45pm. The main part of the meeting will be a presentation from Crest Nicholson on the first reserved matters planning application, and we expect this to be very similar to the presentation on the same subject that they gave to the Arborfield Parish Meeting a few weeks ago.

As those of you who were at the meeting will be aware the first development location is slightly unexpected in that they are choosing to develop over on the north eastern side of the Garrison adjacent to the lake, so in an area that is going to require demolition of some buildings before they can commence building houses. They are proposing to build their part of the Nine Mile Ride extension from close to the school site across to the A327, but they are not proposing to develop any of the areas alongside the road or around the proposed district centre until the new road is in place. This does of course mean that with the opening date of the school a fixed date in September next year that there will need to be some careful planning of development around the Nine Mile Ride extension and the district centre as if building in those areas doesn’t commence until the Nine Mile Ride extension is complete it will almost certainly be taking place once students are attending the school. The parental reference group set up by the council are of course well aware of this and we understand that their main focus is on ensuring that the developer and the council provide safe routes for the children to the school through the building site and the surrounding development areas as a first priority.

Responses at the Arborfield Parish Meeting to the proposals was generally positive, and certainly at this stage Crest Nicholson seem keen to keep a dialogue open with local residents. Perhaps the biggest reaction came to the answer to a question about whether there would be public fishing allowed in the lake when Crest Nicholson said they had been told that the MoD were going to remove all the fish from the lake as they were MoD property! Other points that came up at the Arborfield Parish Meeting which may well come up again this week were that even with the significant numbers of houses being built in Wokingham, Reading and surrounding boroughs we still do not have enough new houses to go over the threshold for a new hospital or even any sort of extension to the Royal Berkshire Hospital. There was also some discussion of the various road schemes, and it was highlighted that because the Arborfield Bypass is being funded by money obtained by the council rather than the developer we will not have to wait for the previous threshold of houses built before the road is provided. The council intends to keep moving forward and open the road as soon as possible. Whilst this won’t remove the trucks and vehicles associated with the development from travelling through Arborfield village altogether, they certainly will stop a lot sooner than if we had to wait for the developer to achieve a fixed threshold.

In other news, we have received a couple of enquiries about a large protected tree that was cut down and hedgerow removed between the MoD owned land and the service road for the houses along Sheerlands Road. The hedgerow and tree were replaced with a significant fence that now runs for part of the length of the hedgerow leaving a gap at the end. Whilst there have been cases previously where the developers have cut down trees, and parts of that hedgerow have previously appeared on plans as for removal, the most recent plans retained that hedgerow and all the trees following feedback from residents on that part of Sheerlands Road that wanted the significant green barrier between themselves and Sheerlands Road to remain. All the trees in and around the Garrison have had Tree Protection Orders applied to them as well, something which the developer is well aware of. At the time when concerns were raised with us we made enquiries via the council and were assured by the developer that they were not responsible. Speaking with Gary Cowan our borough councillor he has confirmed that it was not the developers and that the matter had been passed to planning enforcement.  However Gary did add that there were two gates in the removed hedgerow that were removed and not replaced, and which were used by pedestrians walking up and down Sheerlands Road, if you have used these gates at any time for getting to or from Sheerlands Road, can you get in contact with Gary, or contact us and we can pass on details, as although the gates weren’t an official right of way they have been in existence long enough to be regarded as permissive routes, however the council needs comments from residents who have used the gates to confirm that they have used them.

A Lot Can Happen in a Week

In the course of the last week a lot has changed with regards to the Arborfield Strategic Development Location. Firstly the extraordinary planning committee meeting on Wednesday unanimously approved the Crest Nicholson planning application, warts and all. Having done that it then unanimously approved the Arborfield School planning application. Finally on Thursday the Borough Council Executive approved the Arborfield and Newland Village Design Statement, and took a big step forward by approving route B for the Arborfield Bypass/Relief Road. If you were unable to attend the meetings they were all recorded on video, so you can watch part one of the Planning Committee meeting, part two of the Planning Committee meeting or the Executive Meeting on the Wokingham Borough Council YouTube channel.

Needless to say the council press office has kicked in to action presenting this as a great weeks work for the council, and glossing over the small print of what has actually been agreed.

Before looking at the small print, it is worth looking back over what has been achieved by the local community.

Firstly, barring any major disasters the communities of Finchampstead, Barkham and Arborfield will in September 2016 finally get the secondary school that has been being promised to residents by Wokingham Borough Council and their predecessors for over thirty years, bringing an end to the long established ritual for local children of taking the bus to a distant school every day.

Secondly, in a great example of people power, and whilst the council spin machine may suggest this wasn’t the case, after presenting route A as the chosen route to a packed meeting in 2013, and after one of the biggest consultation exercises in their history, Wokingham Borough Council are moving forward on route B for the Arborfield Bypass, the route preferred by the vast majority of local residents, and one that won’t permanently blight Arborfield village and destroy Lockey Farm.

Thirdly, whilst there are a number of issues with the adopted plan, we’re a long way from the high density development of 5,000 homes that Entec and Defence Estates proposed when the closure of the Garrison was first put forward.

So what are the problems? Fundamentally the council has not delivered on a number of promises that have been made over the years, essentially letting Crest Nicholson come away with a better deal than perhaps they were expecting after the first planning application for the site was withdrawn in October 2013. Although the press coverage is quoting big sounding figures for the amount the developer is putting forward for local infrastructure, if you get a calculator out and work out the amount per house, whilst it is still well in advance of the pretty pitiful amount Wokingham Borough has achieved previously, it is not at the level that had been promised by various politicians over the years in public meetings. Related to that whilst residents have been promised that the developer would have to prove nil detriment before the development was approved, they have been let off proving that as well. The reason for that is pretty simple, a number of the key traffic proposals have not been provided by the developer in their application, the most significant of which is the plans for California Crossroads.

Wokingham Borough Council and various local members will have you believe that this is the council “taking control” of the plans for California Crossroads, and certainly for local residents having the council responsible means that we will have a lot more accessible group as the plans progress, however settling for a contribution from the developers for such a critical junction is a definite council climb down from the previous promises that plans for all road improvements would be established before the development was approved. This is especially surprising given that the traffic figures accompanying the development show one of the largest percentage increases of any road in traffic along Nine Mile Ride – essentially because alongside the extra traffic to and from the development it will create a much more attractive route across to the A327 than the B3348 through Finchampstead village and down Fleet Hill.

The inevitable question then is what happened, why did we go from the withdrawal of the planning application in 2013 to a year later an application being presented that even months before determination a director of Crest Nicholson was confident enough to tell the local press that the application would go through on the nod?

To work that out it is worth going back to look at how our planning system works. At the heart of it is an ongoing negotiation going on between the developer and the council. On the one hand you have the developer whose primary goal is to generate the maximum profit on the development that they can. This could be by building large number of relatively cheap high density units, or fewer more attractive units on which they can charge premium prices, but a key part whatever their chosen route is that they want to minimise the amount of infrastructure, be that schools, roads, parks, flood control measures they provide as all of those cost money, generate no revenue, and take away from their bottom line. On the other side of the negotiation you have the council who is looking for almost the exact opposite, for the developer to provide as much infrastructure as possible, as anything they don’t provide the money for when the development is approved ends up being paid for by the council – and as we are regularly told, Wokingham Borough Council is the most poorly funded council in the country.

As with any other negotiation the positions can ebb and flow. Back in 2013 Wokingham Borough Council were in a pretty strong position. With the other three SDL’s moving forward, their land availability was looking good, so they could afford to ensure the contentious development at Arborfield was got right. The pressure was on Defence Estates who really needed to realise the value tied up in the land at Arborfield as quickly as possible to fund the significant new facilities being built in Wiltshire. As a result we had the initial application withdrawn and the developer commit to coming back with a better application. However things changed following the high profile announcement about the Arborfield school in spring 2014, or more specifically when it was decided within Wokingham Borough Council to pressure the developer into providing the land for the school in time for a September 2016 opening.

The school had always been part of the development at Arborfield, but the developer had always been clear that although it would be delivered towards the beginning of the phasing plan, realistically it would be 2018 or 2019 before the site would be ready. No wonder Scott Black and the team at Crest Nicholson were so confident come their presentation, as our freedom of information requests have established they’d told councillors and officers three times just in the August feasibility report for the school alone that in order to deliver the school to the schedule demanded by the council, their whole application would have to be approved this spring. From being in a relatively weak negotiating position the council had handed them a major bargaining chip in the negotiations, and it is quite clear from what was approved on Wednesday that they have used it to maximise the amount of money they will make off the development.

The passing off of responsibility for California Crossroads has been mentioned already, but similarly the thorny issue of the A327 through Eversley which at one point looked like it would derail the whole development has been disposed of with a similar allocation of a pot of money for unspecified improvements to the road. If you look at the affordable housing numbers, whilst the headline figure is still 35%, when you look in more detail only 20% of the affordable housing will be on the development, the remaining 15% is being “provided” in the form of a payment to Wokingham Borough Council. They’ve also managed to get the council to roll back the long argued over proposals for area B – they are one of several areas of the development where Crest Nicholson is being allowed to build outside the developable areas agreed by the council in the supplementary planning document. It is worth noting that even the original high density proposals from Entec didn’t propose building on the green space by the tennis courts and the Garrison Church car park, but the agreed plans do.

Local flooding experts expressed concern about the flood plan for the development at the planning meeting, but the plans were adopted none the less. To some extent the flooding issues from this development are a wider problem – the land here currently holds back a lot of water, if the water management proposals for the site are inadequate it will be the areas of the borough that already flood that will feel the effects as a greater volume of water will head downstream. After the floods last year Wokingham Borough Council have secured funding for flood alleviation works – hopefully they will cope with the increased water coming down from Arborfield once the development is built out.

Fundamentally there is nothing either we as residents or the council can do now, the council handed the developer an absolute gift when they decided to push for the school to be delivered early on Defence Estates land, and as experienced large scale housing developers Crest Nicholson took full opportunity to improve the profitability of their development, disposing of the whole thorny Nine Mile Ride/California Crossroads issue, and several other problem roads back to the council. We can at least be grateful that a number of elements of the development were already established and agreed before that happened, and we just hope that the amounts agreed as contributions for California Crossroads, Eversley Street and the rest are enough that the local councillors who have taken control and our poorly funded council can provide the solutions that residents in those areas deserve to mitigate the significant effects the now approved plans for Arborfield Garrison will bring. Hopefully whoever at the council decided to push for the school site earlier realises what they gave away by doing so, as the plans could have been a lot better for the current and future residents had the council not so significantly weakened their position last summer. As these houses get built and inevitably the discussions about where the housing in the borough will get built after 2026 starts to get discussed we hope lessons will be learned – remember under national policy Wokingham has to be building 600-700 houses a year up to now, and is required to do so up to 2026, and is likely to be expected to carry on doing so after 2026 so after this development is finished where are the new houses going to go?

Having said that, we as a community now need to start looking forward, for better or worse the application is agreed and there are 2,000 new houses coming starting later this year, bringing many new people to our borough and our villages. The details of what will be built will be will come through in a series of subsequent planning applications, and as before we as local residents have a vital role to play shaping those applications to try and create the best community we can both for ourselves and the future residents of the area.

Will They Approve? Do You Approve?

This week we reach a critical point in the Arborfield Strategic Development Location when the Crest Nicholson led Arborfield Garrison Landowners Consortium planning application along with the application for the school comes before the Wokingham Borough Council planning committee. If you have submitted comments to either application you should have received formal notification of the meeting, taking place at 7pm on Wednesday 25th March at the Council offices in Wokingham.

You will see from the notification that the recommendation from the officers for both applications is that they be approved.

This is an interesting recommendation when you look back over the comments, and the council promises. Right from the start one of the biggest concerns about the new development would be, that like so many other developments across the borough over the years, it would cause major traffic problems. You only need to try and drive anywhere in the borough at peak hours to realise that there are a number of long standing traffic issues especially around the large estate developments. The council has long established form in approving housing developments with ludicrously unrealistic under estimates of traffic generated, and wildly optimistic suggestions of how many residents will use public transport or get on a bike. Whenever those points are raised about this development, whether that be the A327 through Eversley, Barkham Bridge, Nine Mile Ride, California Crossroads or numerous other problem areas the assurances come back from our elected representatives that no, they have learnt from previous developments and they will ensure that the development will not be approved until everything is sorted out. They have said much the same thing in answer to questions at executive meetings, and even made the commitment on TV, as Cllr Angus Ross makes on the end of the South Today report from a few years ago.

Given these assurances over and over and over again, you’d expect that the developer has provided comprehensive plans for all the critical junctions? The simple fact is that they haven’t. They’ve done some, but on critical junctions such as California Crossroads there is no plan at all, the developer is providing a pile of money and a working group consisting of the same local councillors who have been promising for years that the traffic problems will be sorted before planning permission is granted has been set up, but they haven’t produced any plans. Similarly the developer has provided a pot of cash for improvements on the A327 through Eversley, without actually giving any indication what they might be. This is coupled once again with a wildly optimistic suggestion that residents will get on buses – without any detail of where these buses might run – or ride a bike or walk to the “nearby” railway services.

At every stage residents have been assured that the traffic and transport plans would be sorted before planning approval is granted. Here we are the week of the planning meeting, with the plans recommended for approval, despite leaving critical junctions unplanned, and sustainable transport plans based on fantasy and wishful thinking.

So what can you do about it? Most importantly, if you are available on Wednesday night you are entitled to attend the meeting. As affected local residents you are also entitled to speak at the meeting. If you feel your points about traffic have been ignored by the recommendation to adopt the plans you can tell the planning committee so – please let us know if you would like to speak and we will pass on details. Cllr Simon Weeks and Cllr John Kaiser who represent Finchampstead and Barkham respectively sit on the committee, so if you are in Finchampstead or Barkham contact them and let them know what you think of adopting the plans for housing development without the promised traffic mitigation being in place. It is also worth noting that in a few weeks time some of us will have another chance to express our opinion via the ballot box, as alongside the general election, residents in Barkham get to elect a new local councillor. However across all the parishes with a critical General Election local parties will be out knocking on doors too.

Although there will be another chance when the Marino application comes before the planning committee, this meeting on Wednesday is when a large part of the future of Arborfield, Barkham, Finchampstead and the surrounding area will get decided, and residents of Wokingham will be living with the results of that decision for many years to come.

We have issued a press release to all local news organisations highlighting the broken promises.

Arborfield Garrison Landowners Application Changes

At the beginning of this week, Wokingham Borough Council published a large number of addendum documents that they had received from the Crest Nicholson led consortium relating to their current application for the two thousand houses in the northern part of the Arborfield Strategic Development Location. Residents who commented on the initial application should have received a notification from the council advising them of the revised documents, and giving them notification of the consultation period on the changes – very short compared to the original consultation period in that comments have to be received by 12th February. The schedule is necessarily tight as any delay in this application will have a domino effect, in particular on the release of the land from the MoD to Crest Nicholson and onto Wokingham Borough Council for the Secondary School application that is running concurrently. Whilst it is expected that the well produced detailed application for the school will pass on time, the process for releasing the MoD land to Crest Nicholson will not take place until the planning application on the land is approved, as clearly land without planning is worthless to a developer such as Crest Nicholson. That will clearly affect the ability of Wokingham Borough Council to deliver the school, however it should be noted that Cllr Keith Baker stated at the recent school meeting that there is a contingency plan in place should the main application need further revision before approval.

The new documents cover the broad swathe of the application with changes and additions in details of the overall design, how heritage assets are treated, landscape and trees, open space and leisure, ecology and the SPA mitigation, retail, housing and probably most importantly to most people transport and highways. Thanks to Matt we have been given a digital copy of the documents which can be found in both an unpacked form and zipped into a single archive on this share along with a zipped copy of the original application documents for comparison.

There is a lot to take in, however some key headlines over areas we know were of concern:

  • The ongoing Area B debate has again resulted in some changes, and depending on which plan you look at area BB1 next to the tennis courts has now been changed to be an area of allotments. The other area of new housing in the area that currently includes the parking for the Garrison Church is still retained, however the plans do now include replacement parking to mitigate the loss of the parking area adjacent to the cricket pavilion, a new parking area off Whitehall Drive, and on street parking along the length of Whitehall Drive. Whilst the plan still diverges from the development limits set by Wokingham Borough Council, it now corresponds largely with the development areas proposed by JTP in 2013. There is a significant section of additional justification as to why the plans diverge from the Wokingham Borough Council developable areas in the design and access statement.
  • The internal road network has been tweaked slightly to take the main route through the development down Princess Marina Drive to the edge of the district centre rather than past the existing houses on Sheerlands Road. However it should be noted that the developers are still proposing that Sheerlands Road will be one of the main routes for construction traffic. The plans also consistently omit the access roads to any of the houses on Sheerlands Road, or around onto Tyler Drive – when we’ve raised that in the past the response has always been that it is a mistake and there are no proposed changes to these accesses, however this is not confirmed anywhere in the application.
  • People wanting a better idea of how the final development will look will want to look at the extensive Design Access Statement Addendum which defines the feature areas of the development with lots of pretty pictures and sketches. It’s still not exactly consistent for example in one place it suggests that the housing being put outside the developable boundaries on the open space at the corner of Baird Road and Sheerlands Road should be “sensitively nestled within the parkland fabric”, whilst two pages on suggests the housing should have a “strong frontage” defining the new edge of the parkland with the encroachment of the housing.
  • Some of the more controversial proposals for the roads, for example around the junction of Biggs Lane and Langley Common Road, and the Barkham Ride/Commonfield Lane junction have been changed. There is a significant discussion of why Commonfield Lane is going to remain much as it is. Instead there is a proposal to widen Barkham Bridge. Whilst the Langley Common Road proposals are better they’re still proposing to fill in the underpass without providing an alternative method for pedestrians from Arborfield Cross to cross.
  • For residents in White Horse Lane there is finally acknowledgement that the SDL will increase traffic flows along the lane, however along with California Crossroads the response is essentially to give the local community a lump of money and ask us to solve it through a working party that is being set up by the council. Considering that the developer is supposed to be able to show that their development is nil detriment, essentially handing one of the most complex problems to solve to local people seems to be primarily an effort to absolve themselves of any responsibility for actually fixing the significant effect their development will have at the crossroads.
  • The revised transport documents also include responses to the comments from Arborfield, Barkham, Swallowfield, Finchampstead and Eversley parish councils, plus a significant set of comments from Hampshire County Council. We suspect those councils are going to be less than pleased with the responses as in most cases the response is to justify the original proposals. As before the developers have no coherent public transport proposals aside from their ongoing negotiations with Reading Buses over the number 3, and seem to be hoping lots of the new residents are going to hop on a bike rather than doing what everybody with an ounce of common sense knows they will do and get in the car.

Even if you did not respond to the original application, you are able to submit a response to these revised documents. If you did submit a response originally, you can respond again to the updated documents, both commenting on whether or not these revised proposals addressed your initial concerns, and also making additional points on the new material. As before the planning application number for comments is O/2014/2280.

Arborfield School Meeting

The latest update meeting on the school planned as part of the development took place last night at Henry Street Garden Centre. There was a mixed group of attendees – many parents, plus representatives of all of the local parish councils and also prospective parliamentary candidates. The main content of the meeting gave a good view of where the council is in their plans for the new school, and a particular highlight of the meeting for many attendees was the presentation by the architect highlighting many of the features of the design, and in particular where they have changed from the base Department for Education designs councils are forced to work with now.

The BBC had also been in Arborfield all day, filming around the site on the Garrison and also interviewing Gill about the contents of our recent news release. The BBC and their reporter Joe Campbell attended the meeting talking to a number of attendees. A full video of the whole meeting was made and can be viewed below.

Cllr Keith Baker chaired the meeting, and also opened with a statement clarifying the position of the council. In broad terms Wokingham Borough Council and Crest Nicholson are now saying much the same thing which is that the main SDL applications and the school application are separate, and that they will be decided separately, but also that the two are intrinsically linked. Certainly there was a subtle shift in the tone from the council at the meeting that whilst they are still confident that they are on schedule, there wasn’t the kind of cast iron guarantee that the school would open and that there needed to be a contingency. Certainly looking at the kind of objections that have been put forward on the main Crest Nicholson planning application, primarily on transport issues, but also on flooding there is a large gap that needs to be closed for the Crest Nicholson application to go through smoothly, which is what is required if the concerned parents who attended the meeting last night are going to be happy.

Whilst the comment from reporter Joe Campbell on the end of his report on the meeting last night was pretty blunt, it is also sadly pretty accurate. We are currently in a position where the council has been promising and guaranteeing a school will open in September 2016 since last spring, seemingly confident that Crest Nicholson would deliver a planning application with the transport issues addressed. Now Crest Nicholson have delivered their application with issues all around the development, and quite clear in their position that they won’t release the land unless that gets approved, the council, and in particular the planning committee are left in a very difficult position. If Crest Nicholson don’t come forward with revisions to make the application acceptable addressing the numerous concerns over traffic mitigation do they approve the SDL despite the significant flaws in the transport aspects, or do they vote it down knowing that, in the words of Joe Campbell, that leaves the school plan in it’s current form “dead in the water”?

Whether it is down to the council, the developer, the MoD or whoever, the current situation is really just a mess that is polarising residents into groups. We know of nobody who doesn’t agree that a school is desperately needed in Arborfield, and has been for decades. However having guaranteed a school for September 2016 the council have now set up a situation where you have a group of parents desperate for a school to open in 2016 at all costs, whilst many other residents have significant concerns if the current plans for traffic are put in place, and don’t want to see our community landed with chronic traffic problems in a desperate bid to get the school by September 2016.

You can watch Joe Campbell’s report below: