Discussing the Nine Mile Ride Cycleway with councillors, discussions have always tended to go the same way.
If you take a look at the recommendations for shared use footpath and cycleways suggests a minimum width of 3m (9ft 10in in old money), with a minimum width of 2m (6ft 6in) being acceptable on less important links in rural areas, provided there are no side constraints. Even from a car it is pretty obvious that there isn’t 2m of space on either side of Nine Mile Ride along a lot of its length, even if you shift the line of the road and take the verge off the other side, let alone the recommended 3m. Needless to say residents when told that the council was going to build a cycleway, if they knew the rural end of Nine Mile Ride well questioned whether there was space, and were assured by councillors that officers had confirmed that there was space.
It even became an issue in the most recent local election campaign with Jim May, a parish councillor who was running as the Liberal Democrat candidate questioning whether there was the space, and being roundly criticised by the Conservative candidate who once again assured residents and parents that the cycleway would be provided.
At the beginning of this year, the council finally sent surveyors along Nine Mile Ride as the first stage of delivering the cycleway in time for September. Then things went a bit quiet.
It all exploded this week when local councillor Ian Pittock, who has been a long time advocate of providing a school in the south of Wokingham, even to the point of saying he would resign if it wasn’t delivered, and has regularly assured parents and potential parents that a safe cycleway would be provided, posted an angry note to the Bohunt Parent Forum. His note said that he had been informed that the Wokingham Borough Executive had decided that plans for the safe cycleway along Nine Mile Ride had been abandoned.
That needless to say produced a lot of angry parents, and clearly Cllr Pittock feels thoroughly let down by his fellow councillors on the executive who knowing full well he has been assuring parents that the cycleway would be delivered for years, have left him well and truly in the firing line, and apparently gave him no warning of the decision.
It is also an embarrassment for the council as a whole, as it isn’t just Ian who has been giving assurances, but now suddenly the plan is abandoned. A key part of providing a safe route to their high profile new school dropped in favour of an isolated and indirect rural back route that most parents consider totally unsuitable as a route for their children to cycle. A big reason for building a school in the south was to avoid the long standing Finchampstead school bus routine familiar to generations of parents and children. If a safe route to Bohunt School is not provided, that long standing tradition will continue, albeit on the regular Reading Buses Leopard service.
The official line seems to be some vague comments about some protected trees and hedgerows and Cllr Pittock suggested on his original post to the parent forum that there were a small number of places on Nine Mile Ride where properties have encroached onto highways land. However even before the surveyors going out it was clear there would be a few problems, and the road would need to be realigned, all stuff that would have been budgeted for. How can it be suddenly so much more expensive to build the cycleway?
To work out why you really need to do what the surveyors did, and set out on foot along Nine Mile Ride, remembering that the cycleway needs 2–3m or 6–10ft of space. The officers have been assuring people like Cllr Pittock for years that their plans show enough space, so it should be there.
If you look at the widest parts of the northern pavement there is a paved part directly next to the road, then the combined power line and phone poles, then a wide grass verge, and on those parts there probably is the acceptable width, and a smaller verge on the southerns side. But in others front hedges are further forward, indeed in others the power poles are surrounded by hedge, and still more have walls and fences close behind the power lines. It is pretty clear that there are more than “a few” properties that if the Wokingham Borough plans suggested there was space for a 2m cycleway let alone 3m, are encroaching onto highways land. Could it be that the bean counters at Wokingham Borough Council totalled up how much it would cost to issue enforcement notices on dozens of properties along Nine Mile Ride, and the associated legal costs of a number of those residents fighting the enforcement and decided it would be better to take the anger of the school parents than fight the action?
The council is needless to say playing their cards close for the moment, although they said to the Wokingham Paper that they are still exploring options. As a result we don’t know how many properties are actually affected. It’s also quite likely that many of those affected properties will have been bought and sold in good faith, and the current owners aren’t responsible for the encroachment. Wokingham Borough Council and their predecessors have been failing to enforce and protect their highways land for decades, and it’s only now they need the land that the problem has come to light.
Whichever way this eventually works out, the whole issue is turning into a nightmare for all involved. On the one hand you have parents who thought their children would have a safe route to walk and cycle to the new school from September, on the other you have residents of Nine Mile Ride who if the cycleway is to be built are going to find themselves in a legal wrangle with the borough council over long unenforced property boundaries.
Suffice to say with the anger of local parents, and a front page story on the local paper about the cycleway, this isn’t the end of the story.