Woking Borough Council
I’ve received notification from Surrey County Council that they are to carry out roadworks to install drop kerbs at the junction with Guildford road and Constitution Hill for three days on the week of the 1st February. The work will be carried out from 7:30am until 5pm, but may be extended in the event of bad weather.
The work is part of the County Council’s Better Roads scheme and will be carried out by their contractors, Keir. I will monitor the situation carefully but if residents have any complaints then please do get in touch, or alternatively you can contact the highways authority directly on 0300 200 1003. More information can also be found on their website here.
Last night I chaired a meeting of Woking Borough Council’s Licensing Committee. The main subject on the agenda was improving the safety of passengers using taxis in Woking. There have been a number of incidents recently where people have reported that they felt uneasy in a taxi or thought a driver acted inappropriately. As the licensing authority I am keen that the council does more to improve the comfort and safety of people in Woking who might use taxis, particularly those coming home late at night or women travelling on their own.
At the meeting the committee agreed two sets of policies which introduce more stringent measures to prevent taxi drivers with convictions for violent offences or sexual assault from being able to tout for business. The council’s existing policy already states that drivers convicted of assault, robbery or other violent offences will not normally be considered for a taxi license. However, under the changes agreed last night, no person convicted of a sexual offence in the last ten years, such as rape, indecent assault or possession of illegal photographs, will be now allowed to pick up or transport passengers.
I am pleased that the committee also approved a paper I authored on the need for a more robust approach to incidents of child sexual exploitation. There has been a lot of work put in by the Government on how to tackle the trafficking of children for abuse, and my discussions with local charities suggests that this terrible phenomenon takes place in Woking as well as other parts of the country. As the body responsible for overseeing the conduct of taxi drivers, I believe the council needs to be aware of the role that taxis can play in both facilitating, and, at the same time, helping to combat incidents of abuse.
As a result of my paper being accepted by the committee, council officers will now draw up a draft safeguarding policy for taxi drivers with regards to vulnerable children. The council will also consult with the public on whether to introduce mandatory training in issues around exploitation as a requirement for holding a license. I think this is important since many taxi drivers in Woking come from diverse backgrounds. This means they may be unfamiliar with the law or the warning signs that may indicate when their service is being used to facilitate abuse, and could benefit from education about how they should respond or report any concerns.
The new requirements will now be subject to public consultation before being signed off and coming into force later in the spring. In the meantime, if you wish to make a complaint about a taxi journey in Woking or want to raise concerns about a particular driver, you can do so through the council’s website here.
I am pleased that following my comments and representations, the Planning Committee voted this week to reject an application for a 7 storey block of flats on York Road. While I strongly believe that we need to deliver more housing in Woking, and accept that Mount Hermon will have to take proportionately far more development than other parts of the borough given its proximately to the town centre, I felt this application was unsuitable for its location.
As I made clear in my comments to planning officers, I felt that the size of the building was out of keeping with other residential properties around York Road and Mount Hermon Road. Allowing this application would have created an unacceptable precedent that would have seen high rise development stretch further and further along these streets, while the suggested parking capacity was inappropriate for the number of units being delivered.
The owner of the site has used the local press to indicate that, regardless of whether approval was granted, he had no intention of going ahead with plans to develop the site. Whether this is the case, it is entirely possible that this location will see another planning application in the future. I will continue to listen to residents and ensure that their views are taken into consideration, and that the housing development which we do need is sustainable and appropriate for the area.
Following complaints from residents I have been round to look at the building work taking place at White Trees on White Rose Lane. It appears that the pavement has been damaged during the course of the work and, upon further inspection, planning enforcement officers have confirmed that the new access path and the building have been incorrectly located.
Planning officers have contacted the developer to arrange a site visit, and I have asked to be kept updated. Surrey Highways will also be carrying out an inspection of the damage to the pavement and the grass verge. I will report back to residents as soon as I have any further information.
Woking Borough Council has published the responses it received to its consultation on the Development Plan Document (DPD). The DPD is perhaps the most important consultation exercise that the council has carried out in the last decade. It sets out the key sites where the council believes it can meet the future housing requirements of the borough and where development is likely to take place over the next 20 years.
The consultation has been contentious due to its proposal for a modest adjustment to the green belt in order to deliver more housing in areas such as Hook Heath, Pyrford and Mayford. However, the DPD has a wider significance beyond the debate about the green belt. It is essentially a manifesto for how the council would like to see Woking develop and what we want our community to look like between now and 2027. Sites for residential and commercial development have been identified in every ward in the borough and you can read the full set of proposals here. Inclusion within the DPD does not indicate that a planning application is likely to come forward in the near future, but rather gives an indication about what is likely to be proposed and what kind of development the council thinks is most appropriate for that site.
The consultation identifies several locations for housing development within Mount Hermon. Some of these are relatively straightforward, such as the flats and shops along Guildford Road and opposite New Central. Other locations, such as the Aggregates Yard and the old St Dunstan’s site, will cause debate and there will need to be some consideration about what housing is likely to be acceptable. There are also proposals contained within the DPD to which I have strongly objected, such as the suggestion that the White Rose Lane post office or the Oriental Road car park could host high rise residential developments.
You can browse the responses that the council has received to the consultation here, and you can read my own submission here. The next step will be for council officers to review the representations that have been made and then submit a revised document for discussion. There will then be the opportunity for further comment on the revised version before the DPD is submitted to the Secretary of State later in the summer.
While out delivering my last newsletter, I spoke with a number of residents on York Road and Mount Hermon Road who complained to me about Surrey County Council employees parking inappropriately while visiting Quadrant Court. The problem has been exacerbated by the small number of parking spaces available on York Road and the fact that many commuters use the street to park when travelling to the train station. I understand that residents have complained directly to the County Council and that a survey has been set up to see whether a consensus can be reached on a potential solution.
I have written to Surrey County Council asking them to be more considerate and reminding them of their responsibility to be good neighbours and not inconvenience those living nearby. I’m also aware that there is a proposal being discussed which could see residents only parking bays installed on York Road, which would mean that local homeowners get first priority during the times of peak demand when people are travelling to Quadrant Court, and would certainly support this initiative.
At yesterday’s meeting of Full Council I requested an update on the scheduled improvements at the White Rose Lane Nature Reserve. Readers of this blog will remember that I first asked Woking Borough Council to carry out remedial work at the Nature Reserve in November last year. However, given the lack of progress in recent months, I questioned Cllr Beryl Hunwicks, Portfolio Holder for Environment and Sustainability, on when the work might be delivered, particularly the new signs, footpath and boardwalk, which were expected to be completed earlier this year.
In her response, Cllr Hunwicks said that shrub clearance and maintenance had taken place as planned, but further improvement works have been delayed while the council works with Surrey County Council, Surrey Wildlife Trust and the Environment Agency to design and cost flood protection work which will cover the Hoe Stream and River Wey. Cllr Hunwicks said that if a larger flood protection scheme is taken forward in this area, then the current timetable for improvements may be aborted or incorporated into a wider project.
While these delays are disappointing, in the longer term it will be of greater benefit to residents if the work can be taken forward as part of a bigger package of flood prevention measures. The Nature Reserve is an under-used asset and I will continue to press the council to make better use of the site and do more to support the volunteers who maintain it.
The Executive is expected to consider an update on the potential for flood alleviation works next June and, if re-elected next year, I will certainly attend the meeting and do what I can to ensure that the Nature Reserve receives its fair share of attention and resources.
I am often contacted by residents asking what the council intends to do about Victoria Arch and how we can create a more attractive entrance to the south of Woking. I first took up this issue back in 2005 when I was a local election candidate for the Mount Hermon West ward, and since being elected I’ve continued to press officers and my colleagues on the Executive on the need to find a solution.
A major obstacle has always been the unwillingness of Network Rail to work with the council and make a contribution to improving the railway arch. However, the council has recently received indications that Network Rail is willing to change its position. They have agreed to undertake a feasibility study for work which could potentially see a redesign of the arch, including increased road capacity, better pedestrian access, and a wider bridge. Such a scheme would also have the potential to support an increased number of rail services between Woking and London as part of broader changes planned for the station.
Even if the feasibility study shows that the project is viable, we are still a long way off work being commenced, with indications that the changes will not be delivered for at least another five years. Nonetheless, while progress is slow, residents should be assured that different options are being explored and the Conservatives on the council will not allow the investment that has been made in improving the borough to be undermined by what remains an ugly and unattractive gateway to the town centre.
One of the biggest issues facing residents in Mount Hermon is housing affordability. Property prices in Woking have increased substantially over the last few years and with the ongoing regeneration of the town centre, additional investment in rail capacity and our position as a commuter belt town within easy reach of London, this is unlikely to change unless there is a significant and sustained crash in the market. Woking has been highlighted in a recent study which suggests that the borough will be within the top ten parts of the country likely to see the greatest increases in house prices over the next 10 years.
I thought it would be helpful to set out some of the initiatives which have been taken forward by the council to deliver more affordable houses in the past few years. Recent initiatives by the Conservative administration include building 154 new homes as part of the Hoe Valley Scheme; bringing 250 street properties back into use with intermediate rent; and agreeing a strategy to put a further 880 empty homes onto the market.
The council agreed the Moor Lane Project in 2013, and work is underway to construct 371 new homes, with some of them coming onto the market earlier this year. We are also delivering 350 homes through Thamesway Housing; the conversion of an unused office block into 45 affordable apartments; and 34 low cast flats above the new fire station on Goldsworth road. The Sheerwater regeneration project – if approved – will provide a further 400 homes, while the Victoria Square development will see 392 new flats in the town centre.
Many of these new affordable homes have been bitterly opposed by the opposition on the council, with the Liberal Democrats coming out strongly against the Moor Lane project only at the last moment before an election in the area, and another Liberal Democrat councillor actively lobbying to remove any element of affordability from the Brookwood Farm development. It has been left to the Conservative administration to make mature and responsible decisions and to try and balance the conflicting interests of protecting the green belt while also making sure that we meet the housing needs of future generations.
While these developments are welcome, the fact that house price inflation is driven by national and global factors means they are unlikely to make much of an impact on affordability, and they instead represent an attempt by the council to keep up with demand. I have previously set out on this blog my view that the cost of accommodation is one of the greatest challenges for people in Woking, particularly those starting out in life or wishing to move away from their parents’ home and live independently. Even for those looking to rent, the costs can be prohibitive. It is not unusual to see one or two bedroom flats for rent in Mount Hermon for £1200 or £1300 per month. While this may be good for investors or those already well established on the property ladder, it is prohibitive for most people and breeds resentment and frustration.
The best thing the council can do is prioritise new housebuilding, particularly modest two and three bedroom houses as there is a gap in the market and very few options falling between studio and one bedroom town centre flats, and much larger four or five bedroom houses in our villages.
I was recently interviewed by Public Affairs News, the main publication for those working in the UK and EU lobbying industry. The feature was part of a series where the director of the Public Relations Consultants’ Association invites a senior communications professional to share their insights into politics and current affairs.
During my interview I argue that the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Opposition will make it extremely difficult for Labour to regain power in 2020; that the Liberal Democrats will continue to struggle for relevance; that the recent UKIP campaign was poorly executed and a wasted opportunity; and that Britain will vote to stay in the European Union in 2017.
You can read the interview here and, as always, I would be grateful for any comments or feedback.