AG-RAG supports a suitably sized development that maintains Arborfield’s rural nature, as long as that development is restricted to brownfield behind the existing garrison wire and doesn’t start until the MoD have actually left the site.

Bohunt School and the Missing Sixth Form

There has been a lot of discussion, and a good deal of anger lately over the issue of sixth form provision at Bohunt School, so as we were one of the groups that were pushing for a new school prior to the building of what became Bohunt School, we thought we’d post a primer on how we have ended up at this point.

Firstly it is worth saying that those of us who were involved in the campaign to launch a free school, one of the things that resulted in Wokingham bringing forward their school plan earlier are livid that what we were pushing for is not being delivered. However whilst we’ve disagreed with and campaigned against Wokingham Borough Council over a lot of things, they had a sound plan for the school, that had it been followed, would have delivered a full 11-18 school for our children.

Firstly, it is important to understand how schools are funded following the 2011 Education Act. As part of the governments move from local authority controlled schools to independent free schools and academies the 2011 Education Act contains what is known as the Free School Presumption. In simple terms what that means is that local authorities can no longer provide and run new schools directly.

Instead there are two routes to a new school, firstly if local authorities identify a need for additional school places they can build a presumptive free school, for which the council funds the capital costs, and then a competition is run to select the academy sponsor that will run the school. The school site is then signed over to the academy. After that the academy is free to run the school as they wish, including, and this is critical here, deciding on the size and make up of their intake. This is the route Wokingham Borough Council went with Bohunt.

The other route is for academy trusts or other groups to propose a free school. The requirements are different for these, so they can be approved even if there is not a shortage of places locally, so for example after Wokingham Borough Council close Ryeish Green school, a local group of parents successfully had it reopened via the free school route, despite Wokingham deeming there wasn’t a need. Free schools in this situation are funded direct from central government. Another example of a local free school is the second Maiden Erlegh site that was proposed by the school.

So what happened in Arborfield?

The account of how we came to get Bohunt School in the first place is documented elsewhere, however Wokingham came up with a three phase plan for the building allowing it to be expanded later..

Whilst there is some increased demand for school places in Wokingham from the new house building, another significant driver has been the baby boom that the country experienced. Wokingham had been forecasting the need for a new school for the borough for a number of years, but also that demand would keep on rising, so the plan with the Arborfield school was to expand to track the bulge in numbers coming up through the school. Their plan can be found in the initial planning application for the school.

The image is a little small, but the critical part is the numbers and for the three phases:

  • Phase 1: 210 pupils in Key Stage 1, and up to 100 sixth form students by September 2016
  • Phase 2: Expansion to accommodate up to 1200 students consisting of six form entry 11-16 years and 300 in the sixth form
  • Phase 3: Expansion to accommodate an additional 300 places consisting of eight form entry 11-16 years and 300 in the sixth form

Indicative dates in the introduction suggest that phase one was required by September 2016, phase two by September 2017, and potentially phase three to increase year 7 intake by September 2019.

With the councils predicted numbers the first two phases gave enough capacity for the current demand without leaving too many empty spaces in the system. This is important because schools are funded on a per student basis, so a school with empty spaces loses funding. With an increase in year seven numbers expected around 2019, phase three could be implemented to provide extra capacity.

That isn’t what happened. After taking 150 students in their first year of operation, Bohunt decided to increase this to 240 from the second year. As an independent free school they are entitled to decide on their own intake, whatever Wokingham initially specified. The maths for this is easy, 240 each year means that the phase two school for 1200 students is full with just 11-16, no space for a sixth form. Alongside that there isn’t the space for any additional year 7 students as planned, the space is for sixth form students. Whilst that did mean that the bulging year 7 were able to be accommodated, it only pushed the issue back a little, so the council still has an upcoming problem of accommodating year 7. They still need to provide school places for them, but what there isn’t is demand across the borough for is sixth form places, there are enough places across the borough, and we’re back to the same problem we had before Bohunt was built that the spaces are elsewhere in the borough, inconvenient for those in the south.

It is worth highlighting that the council has been well aware of the issue, indeed it is explicitly mentioned in their secondary school places strategy adopted in 2017. Bohunt is explicitly mentioned both in the Executive Summary, and also in this paragraph on page 22.

The details about funding later on are also important. The council is aware of the impending shortage of year 7 places in 2019, but also that council funding is under severe pressure, which has only got worse as time has gone on. The situation now is that they need to fund year 7 places, but their statutory requirement to provide sixth form places is being met across the borough – the sixth form capacity the phase 3 expansion at Bohunt would bring is not currently needed. They made a commitment to consider whether they could afford to fund the sixth form, not a promise to actually do it.

However there are other funding options available to academy trusts, but not available to the council. Maiden Erlegh got free school funding for their second site, why can’t Bohunt do the same for their sixth form? The answer is simple, in the current free school funding rounds the government is explicitly stating that new sixth form provision will not be funded if there is adequate sixth form places in the local area, unless the current provision is of a poor quality. Whilst parents may be concerned about their children having to travel further afield for sixth form, they all would agree that Wokingham is blessed with high quality sixth form provision across the borough.

So the question is, why did Bohunt take in more students than they were supposed to? If you look at the phasing they were intended to open with year 7, maybe year 8, and a sixth form, they opened only with year 7. They appear to have decided to use their sixth form numbers and take in the phase three intake, which because schools are funded on a per student basis would have brought them in more money annually benefiting the trust with a higher income. Maybe they assumed that they’d be able to get free school funding for the sixth form when the time came, or to find some rich benefactor? Maybe they naively thought that Wokingham Borough would be able to find the money in time – those of us who fought for a school for years could have told them that was unlikely, we got what we did in part from the developer contributions for Arborfield taking the largest housing development in the borough.

It is worth highlighting at this point that having these extra spaces in the system from Bohunt taking more students impacted other local schools with reduced funding, both Emmbrook and Forest schools have had a number of intakes of reduced size as families were attracted to the new facilities at Bohunt. You can get a hint of the feelings of those other schools by watching the episode of The Secret Teacher from Forest that Channel 4 aired recently. At one point the head teacher explicitly talks about the new school nearby, but for obvious reasons it isn’t named.

So what of the current situation. There is now a parent led petition calling on Wokingham Borough Council to fund the phase three expansion to provide a sixth form. However why should Wokingham, and the Wokingham tax payers across the borough fund a sixth form, where under the plans Wokingham submitted there should be one already? Why should we as tax payers bail out Bohunt Education Trust who took in more students than they were asked to, whilst promising parents a sixth form they didn’t have the capacity to accommodate? If Wokingham is going to fund a sixth form at Bohunt, what should they cut to pay for it?

Yes we’re livid that we’ve only got an 11-16 school when we thought we were getting a 11-18 school for our children in Arborfield, but Wokingham provided us with that, Bohunt caused the problem, Bohunt should sort it out.

Arborfield Community Forum

This week we had another Arborfield Community Forum, held this time in the old Arborfield Garrison Community Centre, now being managed as the Arborfield Green Community Centre by Crest Nicholson.

Unlike some community forums in the past there weren’t any new announcements, but it did provide a good way to see a lot of the players building the Arborfield Strategic Development Location together in one place, as so often they will present whatever new development or plan they are putting forward in isolation.

Crest of course were there, and for a number of people the main topic of conversation was the development going on on the public open space they had fenced off and sold on to Westbuild Homes where the church car park used to be. Particular concerns were the absolute eye sore the developers had created digging a balancing pond in what was supposed to be retained public open space, and also that the night before the site had not stopped working at 6pm as they were supposed to. Crest have already taken Westbuild Homes to task over the late working, ironically for one of the most controversial parts of the development the site had bitten back and the reason for the late working was their drilling rig had got stuck, indeed you could see the drill stuck in the same spot for several days this week. With regards to the balancing pond with the current hot weather we’re stuck with it looking a mess for a while at least as any attempt to turf it or seed it at this point wouldn’t take. Crest were also presenting the plans for more blocks of flats for the rental market on a site next to the Bohunt School access road.

Moving on to the other large developer on site, back in March Legal and General the new owners of the southern part of the development went out to consultation on changing the agreed design and layout, and they were at the Community Forum presenting these new plans again. Much as when Crest took over the northern part this is really just a rearrangement rather than any major changes, so the second primary school on the site has been relocated to a more central location, and the employment area has been moved too. There is also a change to the routing of the Nine Mile Ride extension which may well serve to lower its attractiveness as a cut through.

There was also representation from Millgate Homes who have bought the parcel of land on the Rowcroft Barracks Princess Marina Drive directly adjacent to the Community Centre and St Eligius Community Church. This is going to be a small development of houses, with a block of apartments.

From the council there were two displays, the first was for what has provisionally been named Arborfield Primary School – although I’m sure it has been pointed out that it is in Barkham! This will initially be a two form entry school with provision for it to subsequently expand to three form entry as Arborfield Green is built out and with the plans for the Barkham Square extension to the development. Site wise it will be based around what was the third rugby pitch behind the wire on Biggs Lane.

The other council display was about the upcoming Arborfield Relief Road – the plans for this have been pretty stable for a number of months, but the more interesting part was the ongoing discussion over speed limits. As you may be aware there is currently a temporary 40mph speed limit from the Poperinghe Way roundabout down to the Church Road turn up to Farley Hill. This was always planned to be made permanent, indeed the Nine Mile Ride Extension Roundabout was designed and built for traffic to take it at 40mph. However the map the council had on display highlighted that Thames Valley Police had objected to the speed limit being cut to 40mph, so the council had a new plan that once the Arborfield Relief Road is open regularises the speed limit along the length of the A327 from the edge of Finchampstead to the Shinfield Science Park to 50mph. This involves cutting the limit from 60mph in some places and raising the 40mph in others, most notably past Poperinghe Way and the current pedestrian crossing before the new relief road splits off. In general having a consistent limit seems like a good idea rather than the current limits that change up and down, however we do think the council needs to look carefully at the crossing by Poperinghe Way as we know people already have experience of traffic on the A327 not stopping at those lights, so much as with the new Relief Road where the footpath is being put on a bridge, an alternative to a road level crossing needs to be considered.

The other talking point locally is the very visible campaign by Barkham Parish Council petitioning against the Barkham Square development, which can be found here. What the council is actually petitioning for is to force a discussion in council over “unsustainable development in Barkham”. But that is all the petition is for – Wokingham Borough Council can quite happily have the discussion, and then do absolutely nothing. It’s worth highlighting that the same arguments about sustainability are being made by the campaigns against the other locations being talked about for the next phase of housing, which are development on green belt land around Twyford and Ruscombe, and the 10,000 home development on rural Grazeley near junction 11 of the M4. As we have said previously, Barkham Square is the least controversial site under discussion, as it is an expansion of the existing Arborfield Green development, but early enough that the schools and district centre can be build for 4,500 homes rather than the planned 3,500. The main argument against it is that it will bring the Arborfield Green boundary very close to Barkham Village, and this is a separate settlement from Arborfield Green, but Barkham have rather neutered their own argument by having now moved their parish council offices out of Barkham Village into Arborfield Green, and very prominently argued that the 1,800 houses of the 3,500 on Arborfield Green being built in Barkham are part of Barkham through school naming arguments, arguments over the name of Arborfield Green as a whole, and the new very obvious big green signs marking the boundary of Barkham.

Unfortunately, being realistic it is almost inevitable that we will get more houses around Arborfield Green. The pressure for houses is coming from Westminster, not Wokingham. The council uses two basic criteria for establishing development locations, firstly brownfield sites, which was the basis on which Arborfield Garrison was selected as the largest development last time around, or secondly expanding existing settlements which was the basis of the Wokingham North and South strategic development locations, and the South of M4 location. Arborfield Green now has become an established development that can be expanded, and is especially attractive because it will have a modern district centre, has a big secondary school and two large primary schools being built already, so it would need less infrastructure than a totally new development.

The national housing policy is for significant new housing development in growth areas like Wokingham Borough, so the houses have to be built somewhere. If the council refuses all developments the Westminster Government will approve them anyway, but without consultation with residents or much council involvement at all. The Barkham campaign has already been labelled as NIMBYism by other parts of the borough, and to some extent the borough council trades off small campaigns from each particular area campaigning against each other, Grazeley residents are as passionate about their rural village as are Barkham, and Ruscombe residents are as passionate about preserving their village as are Barkham too. Really what we as a borough residents need to do is stop arguing against each other with leaflets like the Barkham one which says houses can be built in “other places”, and sit down and be realistic as a borough and answer the question – the government says we need to build these houses, where are we going to put them?

As we did at Arborfield Green, if the houses are going to come anyway, the questions we as a community need to be asking are not how do we stop all housing development here as that is unrealistic, but what do we as a community need in place to allow us to support the housing we are being asked to take. Do they need to provide a Medical Centre to support the extra houses? Do our schools have enough places? Do we need more road improvements? Is there enough green space?

Arborfield Election 2018

It’s been a busy few weeks. Most long time Arborfield residents would not have experienced a full on campaign such as the one we have just had. In previous years Arborfield was a bit of a backwater in Wokingham Borough terms with local village candidates Gary Cowan and Steve Bacon arguing over their respective views of the future direction for the village. We’d get a couple of leaflets from each through the door, but as both were active around the village anyway people were pretty clear as to what each one believed.

That all changed in 2016 when Gary left the Conservative Party in a blaze of local publicity, and instead sat as an independent, and Steve Bacon retired to Wiltshire. That brought the prospect of a rather different election, and brought up the question of whether Gary had won all these years as a Conservative, or whether Gary was winning because he was a good councillor, and his party allegiance was largely irrelevant.

The Wokingham Conservatives were clear that it was the former when they parachuted in David Edmonds, their constituency party treasurer from Riseley, someone who had no experience as a local councillor, no previous association with Arborfield, no involvement in the extensive discussions over the school, no involvement with the Arborfield Bypass, no involvement in the regular Community Forums, no involvement in village events, and who prior to him and his wife knocking on every door in the ward multiple times in the last few weeks the vast majority of us had never met.

Many long time residents of Arborfield were pretty sure it was the latter. Like all of us they’d experienced first hand Gary’s assistance with a variety of issues over the past twenty-one years.

When the campaign kicked off we were hopeful of a positive campaign, with David Edmonds promoting the Conservative clean campaign pledge, and whilst he kept to that in print, sadly as we highlighted both here and here his campaign nosedived into the gutter and on the doorstep the Conservatives were becoming increasingly negative.

However, it is clear from the result how the people of Arborfield, people who have had twenty-one years of being represented by Gary reacted to a bunch of total strangers turning up on the doorstep and trying to paint Gary as some sort of waster who would get elected and swan off to his non-existent luxury pad in the South of France, we’d seen how hard he has worked over the years, and the picture didn’t fit. On an increased turnout Gary was returned with more than double the vote of his Conservative challenger, and more votes than he got last election. It was a great result in a borough that many claimed could never return an independent, and one that we’re sure has sent almost as many shockwaves through the local Conservatives as their loss of deputy leader David Lee in Norreys, and Executive Member for Children’s Services Mark Ashwell in Evendons, or the other Independent in the elections Jim Frewin coming second in Shinfield.

Put simply the Conservatives have forgotten what it means to be a hard working local councillor. Throughout the campaign whilst the Conservatives were putting out lots and lots of leaflets, Gary as always was active addressing residents issues. Right in the middle of the campaign there was an issue with an exercise class being stopped by over officious security guards on the Garrison playing fields, as always Gary got stuck in. He’d spent that evening at the Parish Council meeting and picked up the problem when he got home. He got in contact late night with Crest to sort it out and the next day Gary had an answer, confirmation from Crest that the class shouldn’t have been stopped and shared it online.

You don’t need to take our word for it, his active work for the community can be seen on the Arborfield Community and Arborfield Green Community groups on Facebook over and over and over again. Where was David Edmonds? Thanking people for their views but apparently not doing anything except taking selfies around the village and commenting on the weather on his personal Facebook page.

The election is over. Hopefully the Conservatives will now step back and consider why in what was regarded as a safe Conservative seat into which they poured hours and hours of time and significant resources they were so significantly beaten, whilst we as a village move forward.

Our simple advice to anyone from any party who is looking to follow Gary as Borough Councillor is you need to be visible and working for the village, the result is clear that Arborfield expects a hard working councillor who actively engages with its residents concerns over months and years, not one who just appears six weeks before the election with stacks of glossy leaflets. Use sites like Facebook to engage with the residents, not to show us how pretty our village is, or comment on the weather.

Don’t wait for the election, don’t wait to be told, come along to the community forums, come along to the parish meetings, come along to village events, find out the issues, find out what concerns residents, and get working for them.

What Comes Next?

Whatever happens in Arborfield tomorrow, we will still have the same Conservative administration in power, and their plans for the next phase of borough housing development which were revealed previously will continue to move forward as they have been behind the scenes during the election campaign.

Although the potential 15,000 houses at Grazeley and the development on the edge of the green belt around Twyford have attracted attention, the Arborfield Garrison SDL creep towards Barkham village on the Barkham Square will have the biggest impact for those of us in Arborfield.

Particular points to bear in mind is that the site in Barkham could take up to 1000 additional houses over and above the 3500 already planned for Arborfield Green. It’s also worth remembering that the route for all these new residents is likely to be straight out onto Langley Common Road, so most people going to Reading will more than likely be straight up School Road and down the Reading Road rather than driving in the wrong direction to get onto the bottom of the bypass which is very much positioned for traffic coming out of Arborfield Green via Nine Mile Ride Extension which won’t go anywhere near Barkham Square.

Our current councillor has already been involved in discussions over Barkham Square and has explicitly listed the SDL creep development as something he is opposing. The Labour candidate has said nothing about anything, and our Conservative candidate is opposing housing development in Arborfield but has been conspicuously not referring to the Barkham Square development which is potentially ten times the size of the one he actually opposed.

The next stage of plans will be up for consultation later in the year. Whoever we have as our councillor it will be important we as local residents have our say.

A Thought Experiment

We’ve heard a number of comments describing the clean, positive campaign being mounted by our Conservative candidate over the past few days on the doorstep. Putting aside the fact that their campaign seems to have degenerated into a protection racket trying to frighten voters – vote for David Edmonds or else we won’t fund anything for Arborfield – lets conduct a little thought experiment about what will happen if what they are saying is true.

First off, the council is not allowed to offer different treatment for services to either wards that vote for them, nor punish them by not repairing potholes, collecting fly tipping, or collecting rubbish at a different rate. The Labour leader of Rochdale council is quite rightly facing a standards probe for doing just that.

Moving on to the threat to vote down investment in Arborfield, just pause for a moment and think of where in Arborfield this investment will be. First we have Barkham Bridge – the clue here is in the name, it’s in Barkham, a ward that will still have exactly the same Conservative councillor on Friday morning as it’s not up for election. The new schools coming as part of the Arborfield Green development are similarly in Barkham and as academies will be funded from central government anyway. The whole of the District Centre on the Arborfield Green development is all in Barkham. The new Community Centre, in Barkham. Even the location for the medical facilities that we may or may not get is in Barkham ward. Is Cllr John Kaiser really childish enough to want to punish his residents for decisions made by Arborfield residents?

The only significant bit of infrastructure coming to Arborfield itself is the relief road, something that will have wide benefit for the borough as a whole. Think for a moment if the Conservatives don’t build the road because Arborfield didn’t vote for their candidate, are the residents of Wokingham, sat in the inevitable traffic jam through the village going to be begging Arborfield residents to do as they’re told by the Conservative party and vote for the Conservative candidate in future? What do you think?

Bluntly it’s depressing that the standard of elected politicians of as many years of experience as Cllr John Kaiser, and people who want to be our representative like David Edmonds has fallen so low that all they can come up with at this point in a campaign is behaving like school playground bullies, threatening Arborfield voters that they will be punished if they don’t vote as they’re told to.

Grow up.

Going for a Swim in Arborfield

You may have noticed if you read the big Conservative advertisement feature on the outside of last weeks Wokingham Paper that among their list of achievements they list a swimming pool at Arborfield. Now whilst we have lakes and ponds on the new development we weren’t aware of a pool.

The Council Executive voted unanimously to build a pool in 2014 so even if it hasn’t been built quite yet, maybe we can find out where it will be.

First stop the operators of the newly opened Arborfield Green Leisure Centre – not anything on their website, nothing about a great new swimming pool.

Maybe it’s going somewhere else? Let’s check out the District Centre consultation, surely Crest would be trumpeting a swimming pool. No, not anything there either.

Maybe they’re being ironic and by Arborfield Pool they mean one of the large potholes that are littering the roads around the village?

Or maybe the big hole they’re currently digging at the corner of Sheerlands Road and Baird Road is what they think is the Arborfield Pool?

Suffice to say, four years after they agreed it, the only place Arborfield Pool seems to exist is in the Wokingham Conservatives list of achievements.

One Week to Go

This time next week the local election will be all but over, and in much the same way as the politicians are recycling campaign pledges from the last election in these particular seats four years ago, we’re recycling the same grumble about how the politicians seem to get this collective madness at this time and start saying and publishing stupid things.

Residents in Finchampstead may have had a few leaflets through the door, and if they’re really lucky a knock on the door, Arborfield on the other hand as we highlighted earlier in the campaign is a key target seat for the Conservatives, with their candidate putting on the miles coming many evenings a most weekends across to Arborfield from his home in Riseley, and seems to have put a veritable forest of leaflets through doors telling us how much the Conservatives care about the people of Arborfield. He’s not been alone. Amongst other guest canvassers we’ve had Fraser McFarland, the Wokingham Constituency campaigns manager and even Charlotte Haitham-Taylor, leader of the Borough Council. With the critical final weekend of the campaign coming up we can expect the Conservatives to throw everything they’ve got at Arborfield to try and persuade residents how much they care.

So lets take a look back at the campaign so far. Things started positively with the local Conservatives signing up to the party clean campaign pledge.

However hearing reports from various encounters over the past couple of weeks, the no attacks on other candidates part seems to have gone a little off the rails under the pressure of the campaign. One that has come up several times is a classic bit of whataboutery where in response to a comment about their candidate they highlight something totally irrelevant about the opposition, in this case claiming that Gary Cowan spends half the year at his “house in the south of France”. Unfortunately that is a lie, but as always sprinkled with some half truths. Gary does visit France quite frequently, but that’s because he has family out there. The lie is also intended to suggest that his trips to France detract from his role as a councillor – luckily Wokingham Borough Council records meeting attendances and you can easily check them out online, this is the page for Gary where you can see that he’s only missed three meetings he was required to attend since they started recording in 2015. The page also highlights that over and above his expected attendances at council meetings Gary has attended a significant number of additional Executive and Planning Committee meetings during the period either to ask questions, or when items relating to Arborfield were up for discussion. Certainly our experience is that we have no complaints about Gary’s personal life interfering with his work as a councillor. Gary arranges visits to his family to ensure he is around for important meetings, and even when he is away is keeping up to date with emails and what is going on locally, and will respond pretty swiftly if we’ve raised any issues.

The other doorstep gem is that Gary “wasn’t good enough to be a Conservative”. That’s slightly rich considering he was the official Conservative candidate for two decades, but is perhaps a compliment considering he was deselected because he didn’t do what he was told by the party over Grazeley, and instead remaining committed to a promise on which he was elected. He is continuing to remain committed to the promise not to back development at Grazeley in his manifesto for this election too. Probably a question to consider is that if a good Conservative does what he is told by the party, what does that mean about priorities for any Conservative candidates?

Anyway, enough of the Conservative personal attacks on Gary.

In both Arborfield and Shinfield there are independents running, Gary Cowan in Arborfield and Jim Frewin in Shinfield. Both are highlighting concerns about the secrecy with which the Conservative administration at the council operates, and in both seats the Conservative campaign is trying to highlight their apparent inside access to the secrecy of the Conservative administration as an advantage.

Probably the first thing to be aware of is that wards can’t be punished for voting for an opposition or independent candidate, nor can wards get special treatment as a reward for voting for the controlling party, indeed a council leader in Rochdale is facing a standards probe for suggesting that council might cut roads funding to wards that didn’t elect a Labour councillor. All the services such as fixing potholes, fly tipping and rubbish collection are consistent across the whole borough, Conservative wards get a weekly bin collection, so do the wards currently held by Liberal Democrats, Labour or Independent. Similarly the council officers all act impartially whatever the affiliation of the councillor they’re dealing with.

The Conservative candidates are selling their exclusive access into the secretive workings of the governing party, but of course we don’t really know what goes on inside the party, indeed we only found out about Grazeley as a result of Gary breaking ranks and leaving the party. The entire Grazeley bid was kept secret and only published online once the story had leaked out. In terms of asking public questions, the Conservative group is of such a size that they ration out questions, so any Conservative councillor would have to ask permission from the party to ask a question in public. An independent on the other hand is entitled to ask whatever questions he or she likes. The key point with the public questions to council meetings is the answers get minuted. Where do private meetings within the Conservative group get minuted? If we have a pressing issue in Arborfield, would a party affiliated councillor be able to ask the question in public, or highlight the issue to the local paper, or would they be restricted by party governance? An independent can table a question and go to the local paper or social media and highlight it immediately. Compare how much coverage Arborfield issues have had in the Wokingham Paper since Gary became independent, compared with when he was one of forty-five Conservative councillors.

Moving on, we have written separately about the medical centre, but the real problem with the campaign is that the CCG who would be responsible for providing the staff for it, have been consistent about it not being viable, and consistent about their policy of providing a smaller number of larger practices and closing or merging the small practices, and consistent about not being willing to fund it. It’s also consistent with the changes in general practice across the country of increasing the services GP practices provide such that there are simply not currently the numbers on Arborfield Green to justify a whole new practice given that Finchampstead Surgery is less than two miles away. The only way it would be viable is if the local area took a hundreds of extra houses such that existing Finchampstead and Swallowfield surgeries became too large. The CCG figures are that between Finchampstead, Swallowfield and Shinfied an additional 22,900 people can be accommodated before a new surgery is needed.

That brings us onto the perennial issue of housing numbers.

It’s fair to say that every single election for years and years the Conservatives have run on a plan to reduce housing numbers, most notably in 2010 when in the run up to the election they promised that if we elected a Conservative government and a Conservative council the imposed Labour housing numbers could be dropped and the housing numbers cut. In 2010 the Conservatives were elected locally, a Conservative led government elected at Westminster, the Westminster government abolished the top down housing targets, and Wokingham Borough Council then voted through exactly the same number of houses as the previous Labour government had mandated.

Similarly at a borough level this year they are running on a similar promise to cut housing numbers, but the question is whether this year will be any different from all the other promises that came to nothing. The government is still pushing councils across the area to build lots and lots of houses, and are offering financial rewards to those who do. In reality unless there is a significant change of direction nationally, whoever is in power in Westminster there will be a drive to build more houses, especially in popular areas such as the south-east of England.

More locally, both the Conservative candidate and Gary Cowan our Independent are talking about opposing housing development. There are differences though, in particular David Edmonds is explicit on his five point plan of opposing “housing development in Arborfield”, whereas Gary lists a number of other developments outside Arborfield but that will directly impact us.

An important point to remember here is that what most people think of as Arborfield and what is Arborfield in council ward terms are somewhat different. In council terms there has been no significant housing development in Arborfield since Poperinghe Way was built – all of what is known as Arborfield Green is either in Barkham or Finchampstead ward, even the twelve houses going in on the corner of Sheerlands Road. The significant numbers of additional houses expanding the Arborfield Green development still further are also not in Arborfield, they are in Barkham, so Edmonds can quite happily promise to oppose housing development in Arborfield, whilst the Conservative administration pushed forward with Barkham Square and Grazeley. Edmonds can quite happily go on opposing opportunist proposals like School Road because he knows Grazeley and Barkham Square alongside the existing build out of Arborfield Green will be supplying hundreds of additional houses for years to come. Maybe it’s local developments like Barkham Square and the additional residents those houses will bring that make Edmonds so confident he can get a medical centre?

Finally, the campaign this time has been conducted a lot more on social media. Over in Finchampstead there has been a good deal of discussion over local issues, in particular over the lack of progress on California Crossroads, and the failure to deliver the safe cycleway along Nine Mile Ride to Bohunt School, both issues we have campaigned on over the past few years. Unlike Arborfield candidates from all of the parties have been active in those discussions. Gary Cowan has been visible on many of the local pages and groups as he has been over the last few years as councillor, however David Edmonds has been primarily keeping himself on his private Facebook page where he can control the comments that are left – both the Arborfield page and ourselves have offered David an opportunity to participate, but he has unfortunately kept himself to his own page.

There have been a couple of quite entertaining discussions with “residents” over issues on David Edmonds private page though, although it doesn’t take much to discover that many of the supposed residents he’s discussing with are actually Conservative supporters from elsewhere in the borough. The “discovery” of the Neighbourhood Action Group and inviting residents along was also another entertaining moment – the Arborfield page which he has largely ignored has promoted a number of the public NAG meetings in recent months (it’s official name is the Fields Community Forum), and anybody signed up to the Thames Valley Police neighbourhood alert scheme would also get notifications, so it’s not exactly some big secret, indeed the Fields Community Forum is the same NAG that covers his own home village of Riseley.

The other slightly bizarre thing about his page is that he classified it as a personal blog rather than the more usual Politician or Political Candidate options. This has led to a number of people contacting us about the shocking sites his page links to. Whilst there are Conservatives with pretty shocking content on their pages we’re pleased that David Edmonds isn’t one of them. Whilst clicking on the link marked “personal blog” in the about box on his page does go to a list of links with some pretty surprising content, as you can see here, that is actually Facebook showing you other pages classified as personal blogs, not ones Edmonds himself has selected. Put it down to inexperience with social media rather than anything more worrying. If his campaign had correctly categorised the page, you’d be looking at a list of other politicians pages rather than all of these!

So who will be elected? As always it is up to you the electorate. As the Wokingham Paper editorial today said, vote for the vision of Wokingham, Arborfield or Finchampstead you believe in.

Recap of the Arborfield Medical Centre Saga

The Arborfield Medical Centre has become a topic of conversation again, so for those new to the area, a recap of the whole story is probably worthwhile.

The whole Arborfield Medical Centre saga goes right back to the planning stages for the currently building strategic development locations. As with what is now Bohunt Secondary School for school places, in the initial stages it was worked out that with the building of over 13,000 houses in the borough it was thought probable that a new medical practice would be needed, and that as the largest of the SDLs it made sense for that to be put at Arborfield, and the then Berkshire West Primary Care Trust in principle agreed.

Roll on to 2013 and as the results of the Conservative governments controversial NHS reorganisation were pushed through, Berkshire West Primary Care Trust was abolished and Arborfield came under the newly formed Wokingham Clinical Commissioning Group who had rather different ideas. Essentially our Clinical Commissioning Group, like others across the country was being pushed to introduce efficiency savings, and one effective way to do that is to move towards a smaller number of larger medical centres. As a result they calculated that by expanding the Wokingham and Woosehill GP practices they could meet the increased demand of the two Wokingham Strategic Development Locations, and meet Arborfield and South of M4 by expanding Shinfield, Swallowfield and Finchampstead GP practices. Anyone who is with Finchampstead Surgery will be well aware of the significant work that has gone on at the surgery over the past couple of years to expand the facilities, and the merger with and closure of the much smaller Cedar House GP surgery that used to be on Nine Mile Ride.

Needless to say this went down like the proverbial lead balloon with residents in Arborfield. We were told at a Community Forum, when the representative of the CCG gave us the news and swiftly left without answering questions. Their position was reiterated at the Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee last year which confirmed that the CCG had calculated that there was capacity for an additional 22,900 patients between Shinfield, Swallowfield and Finchampstead, and again at the meeting of the Wokingham CCG Governing Board where it was stated that a new facility at Arborfield Garrison would not be viable. The minutes of both meetings are available using those links.

That’s not to say that the developers are ignoring health requirements, indeed if you look at the exhibition boards for the district centre consultation that took place a little while ago, the community zone does explicitly include health facilities. The question of course is what will be there – health facilities could describe a variety of options.

The local Clinical Commissioning Group is independent of the borough council, indeed following a four way merger our group now extends way beyond the boundaries of Wokingham. Wokingham Borough can require developers to provide space for health care, but ultimately they can’t force the CCG to provide anything there.

So what might happen? In much the same way as we already have an Arborfield Surgery as a satellite from the Swallowfield practice, there is nothing to stop either Swallowfield or Finchampstead providing a similar facility in the community facilities in the new district centre. This may well be what our candidates are suggesting.

The basic facts however are this, whatever the local politicians are saying, whoever they meet with, or write to, all they can do is put pressure on the CCG to think again, they can’t force them to create a new practice here, all they can do is provide space in the plan, and this is what has already happened. The CCG however have been clear and consistent that they see the future of healthcare in our area being based on larger practices able to offer a more comprehensive range of services, and that a new practice here is not viable.

Short of somebody finding a magic money tree, or a significant number of extra houses being built locally to push the local practices over the threshold, it seems unlikely the CCG is going to change their decision.

Election Protocol

We’re aware not everybody is on Twitter, so following a discussion with David Edmonds the Conservative candidate for the upcoming Arborfield election we thought we would reiterate our election protocol.

As you may be aware David has been trying to line up private chats with all the influential people in the village, and that includes us. When we pointed out earlier today that his public tweet suggesting that he had been influencing members of the council and was confident they would reject the applications either side of School Road could be a material consideration were the developer to appeal a rejection a discussion ensued in which he once again several times asked for a private meeting to discuss Arborfield and “the strategy for Arborfield moving forwards”.

Just to be clear, we will not be sitting down for private chats with any of the candidates in the run up to an election. If there is a strategy for Arborfield moving forwards share it publicly, so everybody in Arborfield can discuss it openly.

A campaign conducted in private chats and deleting comments you don’t like does not benefit anybody who is interested in a free and open discussion of the issues facing Arborfield.

Who has Your Vote?

It’s that time of year again, borough election day is Thursday 3rd May.

As usual only a third of Wokingham Borough Council is being re-elected on a four year term so in particular for one seat wards like Arborfield, this is an important vote for how you want to be represented until 2022. Key issues that will be addressed over that period are that by 2022 a lot more of the Arborfield Garrison SDL will be built out, but more importantly the council will have to determine where the tens of thousands of more houses the borough is planning to build after the current strategic development locations are completed will go – Grazeley, Barkham Square, Hall Farm?

This election in Arborfield is also a bit different.

For the last few elections, although we’ve had the odd candidate from UKIP or Labour, the election in Arborfield has always been a straight fight between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Steve Bacon, a long time Arborfield resident had been our Liberal Democrat councillor, but in 1997 narrowly lost to Gary Cowan, another Arborfield resident standing for the Conservatives in part over a Liberal Democrat plan to create a strategic development location at Grazeley. The Conservatives were elected across the borough on a promise to minimise house building, and most significantly they canned the Grazeley plan, John Redwood our MP even planted a tree in Grazeley promising the area would be preserved.

Roll forward to November 2016, and Gary was the first of a number of long standing councillors to quit the Conservatives, after revealing that the Conservative group had in secret been planning a significant new development of 15,000 houses at Grazeley – almost ten times the numbers proposed by the Liberal Democrats twenty years earlier. As highlighted in the press coverage at the time, after disagreeing over Grazeley, Gary was initially just deselected as Conservative candidate for Arborfield, and would have been allowed to serve the remainder of his term as a Conservative councillor on the understanding he wouldn’t run this time, he instead chose to resign, and has been an independent ever since.

It’s fair to say that Gary has always been pretty independent even before he resigned, most notably was a heated council meeting which many local residents attended and will remember when the Arborfield Garrison SDL was finally adopted. At that point Gary was a member of the Executive, and the meeting was actually stopped for a period when Gary said that he couldn’t vote for the plan because the concerns of Arborfield residents had not been properly taken on board. After stopping the meeting the entire executive disappeared into a side room, and came back with Gary looking ashen faced. When the meeting was restarted Gary still didn’t vote in favour, and lost his executive role and was sent to the back benches shortly afterwards. He also backed local residents over the routing of the Arborfield Relief Road when Wokingham Borough wanted a cheaper route that ran directly behind Chamberlain Gardens and sliced through Lockey Farm, and continues to fight for the medical centre on Arborfield Green that was dropped by the local clinical commissioning group.

This highlights one of the difficulties of being a local councillor backed by a political party, you serve two masters. On the one hand you are answerable to your electorate, to the people of your ward, on the other you are answerable to your party. The difficulty comes when your political party is asking you to do something that is not in the best interests of your residents.

Currently one of the main ways that Wokingham Borough Council is financing new infrastructure like roads and schools is by building houses, each new house built brings in extra money. Agreeing to take a development like Grazeley brings in even more money, as by taking those houses the council gets extra money from the government. Whilst most local residents understand that there needs to be some building, equally most of the existing residents moved to places like Arborfield because they are villages, and want proportionate development that retains the character of the communities. With Arborfield we currently have the largest strategic development location in the borough, and it’s no secret that the new infrastructure being built here can easily accommodate many more houses close by.

If you take a look at the map of areas under consideration for new housing in our part of the borough, Grazeley is obvious, but less talked about is the significant areas of land around Arborfield. At the most recent Community Forum Crest were already including Barkham Square as an area they’d secured for development, and the council is already in early planning consultation for what infrastructure will be needed. Barkham Square was highlighted in the press last autumn, and again here. There are also significant areas, some of which are already getting planning applications put forward around the south side of Arborfield Cross either side of School Road and around to the A327 and beyond that would fill the gap between Arborfield Cross and Arborfield Green. However the biggest area by far is around Arborfield itself which is Hall Farm, the land owned by the University. This site extends as far as Sindlesham and the M4 in the north and the A327 in the south. It’s certainly not on the table in the same way as Barkham Square is, but the University has made significant money over the last few years selling land around Shinfield for housing for the South of M4 SDL, and Hall Farm would represent a significant amount of additional money should it be developed.

So that brings us to the election. This time we have three candidates, Gary Cowan is standing as an independent, the Conservatives have nominated David Edmonds, and Chris Everett is standing for the Labour Party. There is no Liberal Democrat candidate this time, with the leader of Wokingham Liberal Democrats backing Gary instead. Of the three Gary is the only one who actually lives in Arborfield. David Edmonds is a long time resident of Riseley, and Chris Everett lives in Wokingham.

A Labour party candidate in Arborfield is comparatively rare. Chris Everett has been an active campaigner for Labour across the borough and has run for the council before, for example he ran as the Labour party candidate in the Emmbrook by-election last year getting 79 votes. As yet we really haven’t heard anything from Chris around here and it certainly seems likely he is a paper candidate.

Moving on to David Edmonds, if you’re on local social media you’ll certainly have noticed him, and he has been active leafleting around the ward, sharing how great it is in Arborfield, and what great facilities we have thanks to the Conservatives – so great he lives in Riseley…

It’s safe to say that the Conservatives desperately want to win Arborfield back. Given what happened with Gary, they’re obviously wanting a party loyalist – David is treasurer of Wokingham Conservatives. He also runs his own accountancy firm, which is coincidentally based in Grazeley, skills that he highlighted in early campaign material would be beneficial in helping the council use their limited resources wisely. Unlike the Labour candidate he has been trying to be seen to engage with local concerns. So he is apparently against the gravel extraction on Farley Farms – although he didn’t object at the time. He’s also against the new housing developments on School Road, although it wasn’t until it was pointed out that he hadn’t objected to those either, that on the last day of objections he actually put in two objections to the developments, and his wife duly highlighted the fact on social media. He is also apparently fighting for a new medical centre in Arborfield, although once again he only has taken an interest in the run up to the election.

These of course are clearly not much more than the usual publicity stunts for the period of higher scrutiny in the run up to the election. Before either David or Chris were selected you won’t have seen them involved in village life, or attending the Arborfield Community Forums. You won’t have seen them on the local social media, nor seen letters from them in the local paper, or writing in the Arborfield News. Indeed even after having been selected neither of them bothered to show up to the annual Arborfield Parish Meeting a few weeks back to take the opportunity to meet local electors. For local Conservatives, Arborfield has always been considered a safe seat, a shoe in to get a useful pair of hands like David Edmonds and his financial expertise onto the council. The complication for them is that independent to the last, Gary hasn’t done what the Conservatives wanted and stood aside as they told him to.

So that brings us on to Gary. If you look at the other Conservative councillors who left the party at around the same time as he did in 2016, one switched to the Liberal Democrats, and the other resigned altogether, only Gary continued to serve out the remainder of his term as an independent. Independents have historically had difficulty getting elected in Wokingham, but we were glad to find him putting his hat into the ring again this time to continue to serve Arborfield. Gary we’re sure will highlight his long record of successes over the years he has served Arborfield. Prior to resigning the party whip Gary would be limited by the party in what he could say, but having resigned he has been active in putting forward the views of Arborfield residents in council and attending relevant meetings such as the many community forums and planning meetings. Other councillors refer to him as “Mr Arborfield”, and if the primary role of a local councillor is to consistently represent his constituents, he has done that admirably.

Certainly whatever May 3rd brings, we will always be grateful for the support he has shown our group over the years in order to ensure that the concerns of Arborfield residents were highlighted as we accommodated the biggest strategic development location in the borough. We have no idea what went on in that side room when the SDL was adopted, but Gary showed on that night and since then that he’d put Arborfield over party orders, and ultimately the party paid him back by trying to force him out. We also can’t fail to acknowledge his integrity in going against party orders over the resurrection of Grazeley because he’d stood on a ticket of no housing at Grazeley when he was first elected.

So there you have it, on May 3rd will you pick candidate number one, Gary Cowan, described by many of his fellow councillors as “Mr Arborfield”. Candidate number two David Edmonds, the social media savvy accountant from Riseley, who thinks Arborfield is great, but just doesn’t want to live here, and just happens to be Wokingham Conservatives treasurer. Or will you pick candidate number three, Chris Everett, the Labour Party activist from Wokingham who nobody has seen and who is hoping that Arborfield will give him more than 79 votes.

The decision is yours.