Community Forum and Community Relations

With the Community Forum, announcements about the school, and the impending closure of the Garrison there is much to report this week.

Firstly there was the Community Forum, held as previously at Henry Street Garden Centre. Much of the evening was devoted to discussions around the school. Firstly the decision by the council to utilise their fallback position rather than build the school in two phases and try to complete the build with the first intake of students already occupying the first phase was reviewed. There was widespread agreement that given the quality of the existing buildings it was an obvious decision, making the school build easier for the construction company, and also giving the new students and their parents some certainty over the school buildings as they consider whether to choose the school in the coming weeks. Both the council and residents expressed a wish that all the legacy buildings can be retained for the longer term – under the Crest Nicholson plans only the gym is going to be retained – the other buildings the school will utilise are scheduled for demolition later on in the build schedule. There was no comment either way about whether Crest Nicholson would accommodate this request.

Whilst those members who have children about to go to secondary school are delighted at the news on the school, other AG-RAG members and residents have contacted us expressing concern as to how much extra the change in plan will cost, especially as this week the council is once again looking to make cutbacks to balance their strained budgets. As has been previously highlighted the school is being built ahead of when it was originally scheduled, and the school place predictions the council has presented on several occasions over the years show that there will still be free places in the council education system as a whole even if the new school in Arborfield weren’t to open in September 2016. The question was asked at the Community Forum this week and the council confirmed that they are expecting free places within the system this year even with the new school opening, but as they are predominantly in the north of the borough at Bulmershe school, and given that all the council schools operate a simple distance based tie breaker for oversubscription, not opening the school in the south would result in students here being unable to get into their catchment schools and the expense of students being bussed long distances to Bulmershe school daily, as has been highlighted many times previously. The council also highlighted that they are confident that the provision of a school at Arborfield will also attract back parents who would otherwise have sent their children to out of borough schools, in particular Yateley. In terms of costs the fall back position has always been in the budget, so no extra funding is needing to be found, however the decision to move the new school build to a single phase and not require the developer to work around the school on the same site would reduce construction costs. In addition the council is intending to make the buildings available for community use outside school hours, and even more once the school building itself opens in 2017 giving further value to council tax payers. How long they will be available is of course subject to whether Crest Nicholson can be persuaded not to demolish them!

Other resident concerns related to traffic – despite all the efforts to encourage walking and cycling to the school many see that the reality is that many children will be dropped off by car – where the council highlighted that the design included a large drop off area for students, and that a planning application will be going in shortly for the revised access arrangements needed for the fall back buildings. They are confident that school drop off can be accommodated within the new development and should not impact existing roads. We have also received a couple of questions relating to whether the council is intending to redirect children from other years to the school in order to fill it once completed, to which the answer is a definite no. The school will not be completely full until the September 2016 cohort finish at the school, so for those children in the early years of the school they will have much more space than other children at the established schools. This however is a much more efficient, and less disruptive way to build a new school rather than expand every year for the gradually increasing numbers.

Following the presentation on the school buildings, representatives of the Bohunt Educational Trust took questions on the school itself. The Educational Trust gave a generally assured performance discussing how they are going to build the community of the new school. The points where they had more of a bumpy ride was firstly when the question of school name came up – it is safe to say that Bohunt Wokingham is not a popular name, however when considering any of the other options a discussion similar to what happens when the name of the overall development comes up – Bohunt say that a final decision will be taken after consulting with the potential parents at the school open evening in a couple of weeks time. Bohunt also hit choppy waters when they were questioned about special needs provision. You may recall that back in January before the Education Provider was announced the council was questioned about special needs provision and said at that point that the school policy would be inclusive particularly for pupils on the autism spectrum or with challenging behaviour, but there was no plan at that point for a special unit for pupils with greater levels of need. When presented with the same question this week the Bohunt Educational Trust gave a rather different answer. Their basic line is that as with any other school they will consider what special needs provision to make once they see which children apply, this was greeted with some surprise by residents who on the basis that the Arborfield School has always been pushed as a community school, with some obvious feeder primary schools locally, it would seem that the trust could easily gather approximate numbers of special needs by looking at the students attending the local schools. Certainly the impression given to those concerned about special needs provision is that as the council will be providing specialist provision elsewhere Bohunt will do as much as they are required to for special needs students who are allocated to the school, but it didn’t seem to be a priority.

After the education trust had presented there was a traffic presentation in particular focusing on how students were going to get to the school. At this it was pleasing to see that with a lot of the areas of concern around the site by potential parents the council has taken on board and are trying to move forward, for example reductions in speed limits in particular on Nine Mile Ride which will be the main access route for students from Finchampstead. The council also made a commitment that if the access routes for students on foot and on bicycles were not complete when the school opened from Finchampstead they would provide a bus service for students. Similarly they will be providing a bus service for students coming from the Farley Hill direction as they have concluded that improvements to foot and cycle access from this direction are not possible.

The final presentation of the night was from Crest Nicholson, initially covering the latest progress on the various reserved matters planning applications, changes to the designs of the houses on the first phase following community feedback, and probably most emotive of all, the name of the development.

As feared the name discussion quickly degenerated with Barkham Parish Councillors especially pushing for the new development to be referred to as Barkham, even suggesting that the developer should attempt to get the Royal Mail to change the post code of the development from Arborfield to Barkham – Royal Mail has previously refused point blank when Arborfield tried to change from a Reading to a Wokingham postcode. The attitude of Barkham is perhaps most surprising since for many years they have fought development that might connect Barkham village with the Garrison, in particular the Barkham Square development. It seems counter productive to very publicly insist that the Garrison is not part of Barkham and campaign for a clear separation between the communities, and then change now to saying that it is part of Barkham after all, as saying that they are one community will only increase development pressure to connect the housing areas of Barkham together. Currently the new development when complete will have barely discernible gaps with Finchampstead and much of it has always been regarded as part of Arborfield, whilst there is a significant gap with Barkham. Developers are already looking at speculative developments towards the Garrison end of Nine Mile Ride on this basis, making a very public link with Barkham could very easily backfire causing a variation of the Barkham Square development to reappear as part of the next round of major housing development plans and ultimately resulting in one of the last significant gaps separating the housing here from the ever expanding boundaries of great Wokingham falling to the developers. The argument of the name, particularly for the school being in Barkham is on shaky ground anyway as Finchampstead has an equally strong claim as the part of the Garrison on which the school is to be built was historically part of Finchampstead, and has only comparatively recently been transferred to Barkham Parish to ensure that the whole of Rowcroft Barracks was in one parish – the historic boundary runs straight across Sheerlands Road across the Garrison to Park Lane unlike the current boundary that has a sharp turn south when it meets the edge of the Garrison and follows the fence around.

Anyway, Crest Nicholson are proposing the name of Allsebrook Village, their argument being that many of the names proposed were already similar to other towns and villages. Allsebrook would be distinctive whilst still having a local connection – unfortunately for the loud objections from Barkham that local connection is that the Allsebrook family were the last owners of Arborfield Hall. There seems to be a vain hope from Crest Nicholson that the councils will be able to work out something between them, but on the basis of the arguments at the Community Forum what may well happen is that Crest Nicholson will use the Allsebrook Village name for their marketing, the Marino Family will use Hogwood Garden Village for their marketing, and all the existing residents will continue to regard themselves as living in Arborfield or Finchampstead depending where they are located. In reality this may not end up as too much of a problem, there are numerous examples – Lower Earley and Woodley, Crowthorne and Wokingham Without being within a few miles – where the actual boundaries are now lost in wider communities without it causing too much of an issue.

Moving on, with the impending closure of the Garrison, a number of issues relating to the MoD decommissioning are coming up.

Previously we have mentioned the fence that appeared this week blocking access to the dog walking field. Long time residents will remember that something similar occurred when what became Penrose Park was sold off by the MoD a decade ago. Effectively the MoD put a new boundary fence around their remaining areas for security reasons, so in the same way they are fencing around the houses they are retaining, despite the fact that this cuts off access to the dog walking field for both their own personnel and the wider community.

A similar disregard for their personnel and the wider community is apparent with what is happening with the well used Garrison Community Centre. Whilst separately leased parts of the building such as the Poperinghe Pre-School are continuing the MoD has decided that the army services offered to the local military families are unnecessary following closure, this despite them retaining all of the military housing. As such they have decided to withdraw their support of the centre immediately the Garrison closes, initially by terminating the insurance the centre needs to continue letting the hall. Whilst businesses using the centre will be able to continue at least for the short term, those too may run into problems before the end of the year. The development plans have always been clear that the community centre would be passed over, so subject to alternative management and insurances being set up the centre can continue to serve the surrounding community. What will be more difficult to replace is the specialist support the centre gives to the military families.

The community in Arborfield has always valued and supported the service personnel and families living within our village, and we’re sure we will continue to do so, however it is sad that the higher reaches of the MoD are so concerned with extracting maximum revenue from building houses here that they are willing to abandon the personnel families that will be housed here in the medium to long term expecting them to travel many miles to Aldershot to gain access to the specialist support that has previously been available within walking distance on the base here.

There is currently a petition running calling on the MoD to change their minds, and we would encourage as many of you as possible to sign to ask the MoD to continue to support the personnel and their families that will continue to be stationed in Arborfield for many years to come.

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