Agenda item

Statement by the Leader of Council

To receive a statement from the Leader of Council.


The Leader of Council made the following statement:


The rate of new Covid cases within the Borough has been decreasing over half term but remains high. The current rate is 390 per 100,000. The rate within the Borough remains slightly above, but very much in line with, the rates across South-East England and England as a whole. Most cases continue to occur within our school age population and their parents, in line with the rest of the country. 


The current rate reflects the cases across the week 28th October to 3rd November, and therefore incorporates half term. We will continue to see a decrease in cases for another week or so but as school activities continue across this half  term, we expect the case rate to begin to increase once again. We will work closely with our head teachers and school communities through the Children’s Services Taskforce across the term to make schools as safe as possible.


Officers across the Council are working to maximise the effectiveness of the Government’s Plan A for our residents; ensuring people are getting tested when it is right for them to do so (rapid lateral flow testing routinely when someone has shown symptoms, and PCR testing when someone has symptoms or is a contact of a case) and encouraging subsequent isolation. We continue to work with health partners on the delivery of the vaccination programme across the Borough and are promoting the use of preventative measures such as ventilation and face coverings where appropriate.


The coming weeks will see many occasions and celebrations bringing people together in the run up to Christmas. We must remain cautious and continue to employ all measures we can to make these occasions as safe as possible and keep our rates as low as we can as we head into Winter.


Vaccination is the most important action to promote. Please encourage anyone and everyone who is eligible to have all the vaccinations that they are due.


It is that time again when we are required to produce by central Government an updated local plan which will supersede the previous one.  This one runs through to 2038 but will require updates along the way to ensure it remains current and delivers the housing numbers as dictated to the Council using the Government formula.


Local Plans are key documents which set out the strategy and associated policies for managing development. Not having a current local plan means that developers can successfully apply for planning permission anywhere. This speculative development occurs with little infrastructure and a greater housing requirement.


Today is only a consultation. Please respond to the consultation either online, by email or by post. We are seeking your views and want to hear what you want to say but please note extraneous actions and petitions do not form any part of the consultation. If you disagree with us, we are very interested in hearing your proposed alternatives.


There are councils near here who have refused the Local Plan process and have had one imposed by the Ministry of Housing and can in extreme cases of non-cooperation result in the loss of the local authority right to determine planning applications.


All English national parties set similar housing targets; Conservatives and Liberal Democrats both at 300,000pa.


Local Plans set out where development should go and the improvements to infrastructure that are required alongside, ensuring residents have access to facilities such as schools and green spaces.


Our current Local Plan, the Core Strategy, was designed to manage development to 2026. It has work well, with most of the development occurring in places where planned and being supported by millions of pounds of investment in infrastructure including new schools, roads, and green spaces.  More importantly, it has allowed the Council to refuse and win at appeals against developers proposing unsuitable sites.


Refreshing our Local Plan will mean our planning policies continue to be effective and will be difficult for developers to challenge with inappropriate alternative sites. Without a new plan, there will be less control over where development happens, and it will be much harder to try and improve the infrastructure alongside.


A local plan must enable land to come forward to meet development needs unless there are compelling reasons why this cannot be achieved.


For housing, the Government introduced a standard method which calculates the housing need for each local authority. For Wokingham Borough the housing need currently calculates as 768 new homes each year.


The Council have engaged the leading planning barrister in England and statistician to help understand whether we could progress a case for exceptional circumstances. The outcome was that there are no compelling reasons under the current Government framework to do so.


Whilst the housing need is challenging, the Government proposed revised to their standard method that would have more than doubled our annual requirement to over 1,600 dwellings a year. We campaigned hard and submitted robust technical challenges against the proposal, which was subsequently abandoned by the Government, thankfully.


To be clear, if we progress a local plan which does not enable this amount of housing expected by the Government, it will not pass examination in public, bringing all the negatives of loss of control.


We consulted on a Draft Local Plan in 2020. A central plank of that plan was the creation of a garden town at Grazeley. After agreeing the plan for consultation, a change in legislation resulted in the unexpected extension of the area where emergency plans must be in place around AWE Burghfield to incorporate for the first time both the area of Grazeley as well as the villages of Three Mile Cross and Spencer’s Wood.  The change means that the Grazeley garden town proposal, and therefore the strategy proposed by the plan, is no longer achievable.  This came very much as a surprise as the money for the exploratory work had come from a Government grant.


The clear benefits of refreshing the Local Plan remain. We have therefore been forced to go back and consider alternative approaches.


Central to our thinking on an alternative strategy has been the preference of our residents.


Residents have told us through earlier consultations their preference is for the need for new housing to be met through large scale development, where infrastructure can be provided alongside. They also wish to see use made of previously developed land know as brown field sites.


Large scale developments are often also the best technical solution for providing new housing in ways which respond to the challenge of climate change.


They offer the opportunity to design in sustainability from the outset, including measures to lessen the need to travel by private car, so reducing our carbon footprint and impact on the environment and air quality compared to dispersed development. Large developments also allow to plan for accessible green spaces, drainage management, biodiversity enhancements and renewable energy.


The recommended alternative strategy includes available suitable sites in our town centres for development and makes an allowance for development we can reasonably expect to come forward in our towns and villages. There is however simply not enough available previously developed land, i.e. brownfield land, to meet the housing the Government expects us to enable. It is not true to suggest there is; that solution simply does not exist and progressing a plan on such a hope would fail at examination.


The recommended strategy therefore recommends the allocation of a large new development on land between Shinfield, Arborfield and Sindlesham, referred to as Hall Farm / Loddon Valley.


This is the most deliverable and sustainable large development option.  Others were considered but our judgement is that this is the best opportunity.


It offers the opportunity to provide homes alongside jobs with the area in proximity to the Thames Valley Science and Innovation Park, Shinfield, a key location for economic and jobs growth, the M4 and with good transport links buses and rail.


The Hall Farm / Loddon Valley opportunity also allows the creation of a large publicly accessible green space or park along the River Loddon Valley, an area currently without public access. The river corridor provides a significant opportunity for comprehensive habitat management, restoration and enhancement, improving biodiversity.


The new community would be supported by a comprehensive package of infrastructure to incentivise sustainable behaviours and travel choices. This would include a framework to maximise opportunities for walking and cycling both within the new community and between the surrounding places, including a new connection over the M4 to Earley, primary schools and a secondary school and neighbourhood centres.


Whilst this provides for most new homes within the plan period, and beyond, there is need for development elsewhere across the Borough to meet the Government’s housing expectations.


This needs to be proportional and targeted to suitable locations. The new strategy identifies opportunities which are now available within and around our existing major developments, as well as a range of sites on the edge of other towns and villages.


Local Green Space is an options designation that allows communities to identify and protect green areas that are of particular importance to them.  The use of Local Green Space will not be suitable in all instances. Guidance is set out in national planning policies.


The Draft Local Plan included proposals for eight Local Green Spaces across the Borough with only a surprisingly small number of areas being nominated by communities.


As communities may not have recognised this opportunity, the Council wrote to all the parish and town councils, and amenity groups across the Borough inviting them to nominate further areas and to explain why they felt these areas were important. I am delighted to say the response was over 100 new areas were nominated.


Officers have reviewed each site against national planning policy and recommend proposing allocations of 71 out of the 100 nominated new Local Green Spaces.


To summarise this is a consultation. It is to discover your views and residents’ views and adopt the plan accordingly. We are both on the same side of delivering a target imposed elsewhere. We would like as many residents as possible to respond to this consultation so that we can get the next iteration right. Please respond online, or by letter or by email.  Other channels such as petitions will not be taken into account. We are very interested in what you have to say and if you disagree with us what your alternatives are.