I attended an interesting meeting a few days ago with local resident groups and Councillors to discuss the future housing numbers for Wokingham. The government is abolishing top down targets, regional plans and Whitehall inspired requirements. Wokingham can make its own decisions about how many homes to put into its forward plans.
The Council points out that it still needs to come to a sensible conclusion on how many homes are needed. The developers still want to build, and there will still be people wanting to buy new homes. Under planning law a Council will have to show it has taken all relevant matters into account when coming to a judgement about how many homes to allow.
I myself do not want to see an end to all development in Wokingham Borough. A community needs some new buildings, the local builders need some work, and people want some new homes, new shops and new offices. Nor do I wish to see us carry on with town cramming, overbuilding, and using up too many of our greenfields which act as important gaps between settlements, leisure areas and agricultural land.
I hope our Councillors start their review by looking at how much green space we need to keep to preserve greenbelt, areas of special environmental interest, good farming, and gaps between settlements. They should also rule out more building on floodplain, as the last government’s insistence on this has caused difficulties for many residents.
They have already decided to allow substantial new commercial development at Winnersh triangle, which I think makes sense. I suspect they would also allow more at other main business parks, as all of these parks from time to time need to expand the floorspace, improve and change the nature of the buildings on them. The Council wishes to see new commercial development in the Town Centre, and has advertised substantial opportunities. It would be possible to include apartments for new buyers at the same time.
The most contentious matter is how many additional homes should be allowed, and where. The Council says the response to its last consultation on this gave a clear message that a majority preferred the idea of concentrating new development in a given area, and ensuring this new housing had proper roads, schools and other facilities to cater for its needs. It is certainly true that a Council can do a better deal with a developer or a consortium of builders if they allow a substantial development in one place. They can obtain the money needed to provide some or all of the extra public service construction needed.
The Council identified four such large sites under the old government’s housing numbers. One approach might be to say the Council will start with just one of these sites, and seek a proper developer commitment to timely construction of new homes allied to proper contributions for the necessary supporting work on roads and other public facilities. Future housing need would be reviewed as the first site progressed in the light of the experience of that site. A large site could meet the five year supply of land at the chosen build rate of the Council in the first instance. The Council would then need to decide on a potential additional large site subsequently, or seek to amend the housing numbers down again. I would suggest the Arborfield Garrison site would be the best one to take to see how it works. The development should be within the wire of the current Garrison perimeter, and is of course dependent on a government decision to move the Garrison as part of the Defence Review.
If the government decides otherwise, Wokingham will need a thorough revision of its housing strategy anyway, as Arborfield was always a big part of the old plans. The Council needs to consider carefully how it can best judge housing need. If you send out a survey asking people if members of their family would like to be able to buy an affordable property in a good area near them they might tell you several members do feel that. That is not the same as those family members actually trying to do so. Grown up children often move away for a variety of reasons unconnected with local house prices.