I’m delighted to have been formally adopted to stand for re-election as the Conservative candidate for the combined ward of Mount Hermon at the Woking Borough Council elections to be held on Thursday 5th May. The election will be the first under the new boundaries, which have seen the separate seats of Mount Hermon East and Mount Hermon West abolished and replaced with a single three member ward. The boundary review was part of a plan by the Conservative administration to reduce the cost of local government and is expected to save taxpayers around £60,000 per year.
It’s been immensely rewarding to have represented Mount Hermon East for the last six years. Whether it’s been helping to secure better parking enforcement around the station, working with Surrey County Council to deliver traffic calming measures in areas like Park Road and Old Woking Road, working to protect the character of areas like White Rose Lane or the Hockering, or using my position as Chairman of the Licensing Committee to steer through a tougher stance on shops and licensed premises promoting anti-social behaviour, I feel I’ve made a positive impact during my time as a councillor. A particular highlight was successfully campaigning for Second World War veterans of the Arctic Convoys living in the borough to be presented with the prestigious Ushakov Medal in a special ceremony at the civic offices.
Looking ahead, there are a number of important decisions coming up and I would like to continue my good work ensuring that residents’ interests are well represented. I hope to be able to see through improvements and footpath access at the White Rose Lane Nature Reserve, an issue I have been campaigning on for some time. I have also pressed the council and Network Rail to smarten Victoria Arch and am pleased that after years of pressure there is now progress to report. There are further works in the pipeline to improve Woking town centre through the Victoria Square project, and a planned redesign of Woking station to facilitate more frequent commuter services in and out of London. There will also be contentious debates about the level of affordable housing we need in the borough, about how the new Hoe Valley School is to be funded, and whether to go ahead with the redevelopment of Sheerwater.
Under the Conservatives, Woking has been transformed, with new shops, restaurants, job opportunities and school provision. It would be an honour if Mount Hermon residents felt able to reward this record and my own hard work by allowing me the privilege of continuing to represent them on the council.
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.
At the meeting of full council on Thursday, councillors debated the budget for the financial year 2014-15. The budget includes a modest but unavoidable increase in council tax of 1.9%, which is equivalent to an extra £4 per year or 8p a week for a Band D property and is under the current 2.1% CPI rate of inflation.
We should be under no illusions that we are likely to receive significant financial support from central government in the forthcoming years. Our grant has already been cut by 40% since 2010-11, and projections suggest that we can expect to see further reductions from £4m this year to £3.4m in 2014-15 and £3.2m in 2015-16. Our financial strategy is predicated on the view that local authorities will receive no central support by 2018 and hence it is up to us to become self-sufficient and identify our own income streams.
However, despite these pressures the council has achieved a great deal in difficult times. Hidden inside the budget papers are some impressive figures. The council has delivered efficiency savings, cost reductions and additional revenue of £2m for the next financial year. The council’s reserves have also been maintained at £3m. We run a balanced budget and our additional funding requirements are proportionally much lower than both Surrey County Council and Surrey Police – we should remember that Woking Borough Council only receives only around 12% of all council tax collected.
Some people have asked why Woking did not accept the Government’s offer of a grant this year to freeze council tax. The Executive has taken the view that it is not in the interests of residents for us to do so. The grant of £85,000 is only available for two years and will then cease, giving the council a further savings requirement on top of the funding that the Government has already signaled it will withdraw. A modest increase in council tax under the CPI rate of inflation generates some £156,000 of additional revenue per annum which is added to our base. The current model for incentivising council tax freezes is not sustainable and during the debate comparison was drawn with Runnymede Borough Council, which has accepted the grant for a number of years and is now seeking much larger, above inflation council tax increases to make up the lost revenue.
During his budget speech, the Leader of the Council set out how the Executive has maintained and improved services and kept the borough’s finances sound despite the ongoing economic challenges. In particular, he highlighted the 224 affordable homes and 163 family houses being delivered through the Moor Lane project, the sale of the Hoe Valley housing site for 150 new homes, and an anticipated further 75 affordable and 222 family homes through the sale of Brookwood Farm as progress in meeting our housing targets. He also pointed to the improvements in Jubilee Square, the beginning of the refurbishment works in Commercial Way, the opening of the Bedser Bridge, construction of New Central on Guildford Road, the opening of the WWF headquarters in Brewery Road, the new Asda in Sheerwater, the anticipated completion of the upgraded Woking market in July, the launch of the Victoria Square project, and the diverse range of new retailers in Wolsey Place and the Peacock Centre as highlights of the municipal year.
I was therefore pleased to support the budget and believe that Woking residents will show their support for the Executive’s record in this year’s local elections.
During this week’s meeting of the Town Centre Oversight Panel councillors were given a preview of the next round of display materials that will be used to inform residents about the progress of the Victoria Square project. The exhibition stands should be available for viewing in Wolsey Place next weekend. The Victoria Square proposals entail a drastic change to the town centre, stretching from Victoria Arch to Bandstand Square and incorporating the former Post Office and Woking Fire Station, which is to be relocated.
The proposals for the site have been evolving for a number of years and have developed to combine retail, hotel and leisure use with almost 400 new one and two bedroom flats and expanded town centre parking provision. The project will deliver a major new Marks & Spencer store, including a foodhall and cafe; seven additional retail units including a bigger Boots store; a 190-bedroom four star hotel including a spa, gym, conference facilities; several restaurants, an additional 380 new parking spaces; and a medical centre.
A planning application is due to be submitted by the council and will be considered later in spring. I am fully supportive of this project and am keen to see it come to fruition. My only hesitation is in the size of the new buildings. At 34 storeys, one of the four towers will be the tallest building in Woking and around a third bigger than New Central. I have raised concerns about height during the oversight process and will make representations when this comes to planning committee. At the same time, I hope residents will agree that this is an exciting project that has the potential to take Woking to the next level by redeveloping the current rather tired marketplace and providing us with more job opportunities and a much great variety of retail, housing and leisure options.
Several residents have asked when the cobblestones underneath the station canopy will be repaired. The council has temporary laid down black tarmac to cover areas where there has been cracking and dislodging of the cobblestones, apparently as a result of a chemical reaction to the materials that were used to lay the surface. I agree that the tarmac is unsightly and detracts from what is supposed to be a modernised and improved entrance to the town from Albion Square.
At a meeting of the Town Centre Oversight Panel last night I was able to quiz council officers on the reasons for the delay in making the necessary repairs. I am told there are currently contractual issues between the suppliers and the maintenance company which need to be resolved, and the intention is to carry out the work as part of the wider redevelopment of the town centre that will be carried out through construction of the Victoria Square project. This means that the cobblestones are not likely to be replaced for some time yet, and probably not for several years.
While this is a disappointing reply, I appreciate that there is merit in waiting until the repairs can be carried alongside the much bigger development work planned for the town centre. At last night’s meeting we were given a preview of the latest display materials which will be used as part of the public consultation and engagement campaign to inform residents about plans for Victoria Square. This project has the potential to substantially transform the town centre for the better and increase the quality and diversity of shops, restaurants and public services in the borough.