For many years my electors have told me that they like living in the Wokingham area, but they think development has been too fast. We have seen many new houses built. The last government did not send our Council money for new roads, railway lines, schools and surgeries to go with all the development. I took up the cause on behalf of local people, but was rebuffed by Labour Ministers determined to drive through housing without the supporting facilities.
I persuaded the Conservatives – along with some other like minded MPs – to adopt a policy of allowing Councils to make their own local decisions about how much housing and other development. I was therefore delighted to see the Coalition government move rapidly to implement this policy once they took over in May. The first important act of the new Secretary of State for Communities was to announce the end of regional targets and regional plans. Following discussions with MPs and Councils he repeated the statement he made in a letter making it crystal clear that Councils now have new freedoms.
The question now turns to Wokingham Borough Council. How should they use this new freedom? My job is done – as MP I am responsible with colleagues for the national policy and legal framework. This now allows Councillors to do as they and our electors wish. It is not for me to tell them how to do their job, if for no other reason than they would not welcome that. The Councillors are sitting down with their planning officers to review what is desirable in the new climate. Speed is of the essence. Because they put through a Core Strategy that conformed with the outgoing government’s top down planning policy, they need to announce promptly their intention to change that policy and in general terms how they are going to change it if they wish to do so. Then they do not have to grant all the planning applications that will now be accelerated by developers fearing the climate for permissions is about to deteriorate for them.
One national policy issue which remains to be resolved is the future of Arborfield Garrison. I have written to Ministers and talked to Ministers about this. They cannot reach a decision before October, as the future of Arborfield is part of a much wider defence review which I agree does need to be carried out. However, the good news is this does not have to delay any new planning policy by WBC. The Council should come up with two housing figures, one for the redevelopment of the Garrison if the site becomes available and one for the rest of the Borough. They are free to do so in the new more liberal regime.
Nor need the five year supply of land be a constraint. The requirement to keep a five year supply is based on the housing target. If they lower the housing target then they of course automatically lower the land required for a five year supply. Under the new regime if they want to stop some of the old Core Strategy sites or scale any back, they can do so.
Some Councillors say they are worried that a cut in the housing target would lead to a cut in the amount of money they can obtain from developers to pay for new facilities. That may well be true. However, the money for the new facilities usually only buys, at best, the facilities we need for all the extra people. Developer contributions normally fail to provide the extra investments we need to catch up with all the housing we already have.
My suggestion is that the Council set out a new planning policy based on the views of our community. I think we want proper green gaps between settlements, the defence of Green Belt, the protection of high grade agricultural land and important natural sites, lower densities of development than in the last decade, an end to town cramming and back garden development in many places, and an end to building on flood plain. Once planners have shown on a map all the land that needs to be protected from development to meet these objectives, then they can see what is left and how many homes it would be sensible to accommodate. They would be wise to add that in future they will only allow developments of more than a few homes where the developer contribution is tied up in advance and linked to the necessary projects that the extra people require. The building industry still has plenty of opportunities in the District from the large investment at Winnersh triangle, and the big plans for redevelopment in Wokingham, including more residential in the town centre.