Woking Borough Council
Earlier today I chaired a meeting of Woking Borough Council’s licensing sub-committee, which was called at the request of Surrey Police to review the premises license for the Every Day shop on Maybury Hill. Both the police and trading standards have expressed concern about a number of incidents at the shop, including the sale of alcohol to underage customers, selling alcohol to people who were already drunk, and selling bottles of spirits that were found to have been stolen from nearby supermarkets.
During the course of the hearing it became apparent that there was little, if any, training or record keeping at the store. The police also presented substantial evidence of criminal activity taking place at the shop, such as handling stolen goods. It was made very clear to the committee that the standards of behaviour at this premises fell far short of what we would expect from any license holder in the borough. We were also concerned that the shop owner did not inform the court upon his conviction that he was a license holder, as he was required to do, nor did he bring his conviction to the council’s attention.
Under these circumstances, it was felt we had no option but to agree with the police’s recommendation that Every Day should have its license revoked. This will hopefully send a strong signal that the council is determined to keep residents safe and that evidence of illegal activity or a serious breach in the licensing standards will be dealt with quickly and firmly.
As well as my questions about electoral fraud, footpath access at White Rose Lane and parking at Woking station, I also pressed the council last Thursday to do more about the problem of dangerous dogs. While most dog owners are responsible, there is a small minority who walk dangerous and aggressive breeds, such as Staffordshire bull terriers, off a lead. These dogs are temperamental and unpredictable, and have the ability to maim and kill.
A number of residents who use Woking’s amenities for cycling, jogging, playing with children or walking other dogs have complained that people walking their staffies off a lead leaves them feeling threatened and intimidated, and that it is only a matter of time before someone is seriously injured. There have been some worrying cases of people being attacked by staffies elsewhere in Surrey. Last October, two schoolchildren were taken to hospital with bite wounds after being attacked by a staffie in Caterham. In November, three people were bitten by an out of control staffie in Pewley Down Park in Guildford. Staffies have also been responsible for attacks on people and pets in Kingston and Sutton Green.
Sadly, too many staffie owners do not appreciate the danger that their breed poses to the public and are often blasé or unconcerned about the potential for their dogs to go out of control. I therefore asked Woking Borough Council to investigate whether it might be willing to use Public Space Protection Orders and introduce greater restrictions on staffies being walked without a lead in areas close to schools, children’s play areas or on green spaces such as Woking Park. In raising this question, I cited action taken by several other local authorities, such as Surrey Heath, Stoke on Trent and Cambridge.
Unfortunately, the council is not minded to take action on this issue for the moment. According to the answer given to me by Cllr Beryl Hunwicks, the council’s Portfolio Holder for Environment & Sustainability, the council believes that the number of reported dog attacks is relatively small, while the time and resources required to introduce Public Space Protection Orders would be disproportionate to the risk and scale of the problem. The council thinks that current measures, including promotion and education, talking to resident groups and regular patrols by the Animal Warden, are effective measures in helping to reduce incidents.
I disagree with the council’s approach for several reasons. First, while the number of reported attacks may be relatively small, these figures do not record the menace or unease that people feel when confronted by a staffie off a lead. Secondly, I do not believe that we should wait for a serious attack or tragic incident before taking introducing tighter restrictions. Finally, the amount of resources that would need to be devoted to introduce Public Space Protection Orders would in my view, and contrary to the answer given by Cllr Hunwicks, be relatively small.
However, I am encouraged by Cllr Hunwick’s comment that the council is willing to reconsider its position if it receives more complaints or information about particular trouble spots. I would therefore encourage any resident who has felt intimidated by someone walking their staffie off a lead to contact their councillor and let them know, even if they are not directly attacked. I will also continue to raise this issue if I am re-elected to the council after this May’s local elections.
My campaign for better footpath access at White Rose Lane took a step forward last week as Woking Borough Council confirmed to me that they are now prepared to consider the feasibility of improving pedestrian access around the White Rose Lane Nature Reserve.
In response to a question I asked last week at Full Council about whether the council would be willing to include plans for better footpath access at White Rose Lane as part of the planned flood alleviation work for the Hoe Stream and River Wey, Cllr Beryl Hunwicks confirmed that the council would look at this as part of a package of broader improvements around the Nature Reserve. A report is due to be presented to the Executive next month, and should the further design work be supported then it may be possible to include a footpath as part of this work.
This is still all very uncertain, and nothing has been promised other than an agreement to look again at the matter. However, I was grateful for Cllr Hunwick’s kind offer to meet and talk through this issue in more detail, and I have been in touch with residents to arrange such a meeting. I will also continue to keep residents updated on my discussions through this website.
At the meeting of Full Council on Thursday night, I questioned council officers on what costs Woking Borough Council had incurred as a result of the voter fraud in Maybury & Sheerwater, which saw a Liberal Democrat councillor disqualified from office in 2013 after it was revealed he had won his seat with the help of corrupt and illegal practices.
I have now discovered that this abuse has cost Woking taxpayers more than £202,000 over the last three years. In response to my question, the Leader of the Council disclosed that the council had to pay more than £175,000 in costs and staff time to deal with the election tribunal, while the Maybury & Sheerwater by-election to choose a replacement councillor cost taxpayers £27,000. Although the council has insurance cover which paid out £82,000 towards these costs, legal action is still underway to try and recoup the remainder of the expenses incurred in combating electoral fraud.
I am appalled that the disgraceful tactics used to elect a Liberal Democrat conucillor in Maybury & Sheerwater have left local taxpayers out of pocket by such a large amount. This is money that should have been used to fund essential services such as day care centres and helping to provide much needed housing in the borough. To put it into context, the figure of £202,000 is seven times the sum that the modest 2.2% increase in council tax will raise in 2016-17.
I am pleased that some of those responsible have now been held to account, and hope that everyone involved with such practices will question their conscious. The Conservative administration on the council has also taken steps to protect the integrity of the ballot in Woking, and introduced measures such as an increased police presence on polling day, a full mini-canvass for all properties in areas where electoral fraud is more likely, and a thorough analysis of all postal vote applications. This should help ensure that such an unethical and illegal way of engaging in local politics is not repeated in the future.
I can report that, thanks to the Conservative administration on the council, Woking Park is to benefit from greater CCTV coverage. There have been a number of distressing incidents in the park, most recently at the end of last year when a teenage girl was assaulted. While many people in south Woking use the park as cut through to get to and from the town centre or train station, the route can be intimidating and feel unsafe in the evening or late at night.
My colleague Cllr John Lawrence, the Conservative councillor for Old Woking, raised this at the meeting of Full Council last night. The council has agreed that CCTV coverage in the borough should be expanded. Starting from Easter, the area from Quarant Court on Guildford Road through to the Leisure Centre, including the car park, play area and skate facilities, will be monitored. The council has also said that, subject to a funding application, other parts of Mount Hermon could benefit from CCTV in the future, such as the concourse in front of Tesco and the New Central development where people have reported aggressive begging and other types of anti-social behaviour.
The new CCTV coverage should help people feel safer, while proposals are also being examined to improving lighting and visibility on the footpaths through the park. I think it’s encouraging that, on this point, the council has acted to address residents’ concerns.
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.
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.