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come away with a better deal than perhaps they were expecting after the first planning application for the site was withdrawn in October 2013.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.