Woking Borough Council
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.
As readers of this blog will know, I have been pressing Surrey County Council to take better care of the grass verges along Oriental Road. Residents have been complaining for some time about the state of the grass, which was dug up during roadworks back in 2013. While the grass was re-planted once the work was complete, it has not been able to grow back due to a small minority of motorists parking illegally and inconsiderately across the verges.
In response to these complaints, Surrey County Council planted trees at the top end of Oriental Road at the beginning of the year and also recently agreed to place two bollards on one particularly troublesome patch of grass to prevent it from being used to park vehicles.
I have now been told that both bollards were dug up and stolen over the weekend, less than a day after being installed. While I appreciate that some drivers will have become used to leaving their vehicles on the grass and paid little attention to reminders that this is public land which should not be used to park cars, I find it astonishing that someone would go to the trouble of digging up and removing council owned bollards. This shows a serious disregard for other people and public property. It is also a financial loss to the taxpayer as the bollards will need to be replaced and further work carried out to secure them and ensure they can’t be removed.
I am liaising with Surrey Highways to see what can be done and in the meantime I would encourage anyone who has information about the removal of the bollards to contact Surrey County Council directly.
Today I was honoured to take part in my sixth Remembrance Sunday civic ceremony since being elected as a councillor in 2010. During the First World War, over 760 people who lived in what is now the borough of Woking lost their lives in combat action, while around 800 Second World War deaths are recorded in the book of remembrance held at Woking library. Woking has strong links with the armed forces through the nearby Army Training Centre at Pirbright and the Brookwood Military Cemetery, which is the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the country and contains 1,601 burials from the First World War and 3,476 from the Second World War.
I thought the service was particularly poingant at a time when we recently marked the centenary of the outbreak of hostilities last year and when there has been renewed interest in the causes of the war and experiences of those who answered the call to serve their country. I was pleased to see so many members of the public attend to pay their respects, and was impressed by the discipline and good behaviour shown by the younger members of local organisations such as the Woking Sea Cadets, the Scouts, Guides and Boys’ Brigade, and the St Johns Ambulance Cadets.
With threats and instability in places as far away as Ukraine, Syria and Iraq, it is right that we remember those who have fallen in past conflicts and their contribution to creating a safer world for us all, while also ensuring that we treat the prospect of renewed war or military intervention with the seriousness it deserves.
Last night I chaired a meeting of Woking Borough Council’s Licensing Committee. The main item on the agenda was a review of the council’s licensing policy framework, which regulates how the local authority handles applications for alcohol, hot food and premises licenses as well as requests for new nightclubs, adult entertainment venues and live music events. The review of the council’s policy in this area is a statutory requirement, and the rules agreed by the committee will stay in force for the next five years before being reviewed agan in 2021.
One issue the Licensing Committee was keen to address was that of underage drinking. Surrey Police carried out a number of test purchases earlier in the summer and found that several venues were selling alcohol to those under the legal age limit, including the Tesco Express on Guildford Road, Sanway Store in Byfleet, and Harry’s in Walton Road. Over the course of two test purchase operations, the first involving five premises and the second involving six, all but two of the shops inspected failed to follow the correct procedure.
The policy agreed yesterday commits the council to supporting the National Proof of Age Standards Scheme, which is endorsed by the British Retail Consortium and the Trading Standards Institute. It includes a requirement for councils to encourage the use of reliable proof of age measures such as holographic ID cards. Additionally, the Licensing Committee has agreed to write to Surrey Police to request that they increase the number and frequency of unannounced inspections and test purchases, to discourage those shops that continue to flout the rules and sell to underage customers.
The Conservatives have won another seat on Woking Borough Council and narrowly missed out on picking up a second following yesterday’s local council by-elections in Goldsworth Park. Chitra Rana won the usually safe Liberal Democrat seat of Goldsworth West by a margin of 18 votes, while Sonia Elbaraka came very close in Goldsworth East but fell 32 votes short of securing victory. Both seats were declared vacant earlier in the summer when the sitting Liberal Democrat councillors resigned and moved abroad after a period of questionable attendance at important meetings.
The results are a mixed bag for both parties. The Conservatives had hoped to win the third Goldsworth East seat given that this is a ward which already has two Tory councillors and has seen a significant change in voting behaviour over the last five years. Credit is due to the newly elected councillor James Sanderson who fought a tough and effective campaign. The Liberal Democrats will be pleased that they have stalled the Conservative advance in this seat and have continued a trend which has seen their vote hold up relatively well in council by-elections since the General Election. At the same time, they will be bitterly disappointed to have lost Goldsworth West which has long been one of their safest seats on the council. While they will be celebrating the fact that they held on to Goldsworth East, the reality is that the Liberal Democrats are a further seat down in Woking and have failed to arrest the terminal decline in their vote and support in the borough.
I would like to congratulate both of the newly elected councillors and hope that they will be effective champions for their communities. All eyes will be on the combined Goldsworth Park ward, which will be one of the most marginal seats in the borough once the changes to local government boundaries come into effect next year.
During the meeting of Full Council earlier this week I asked what estimate the council has made of the success of the various outdoor music and entertainment events that were held in Woking Park this summer. While most of the events that took place over the last few months have been small concerts involving local schools and community groups, positive feedback has been received about two larger events, Party in the Park and the Big Gig.
Party in the Park was run by council officers and had over 15,000 visitors throughout the course of the day, double the number of visitors in previous years. Satisfaction surveys were completed by visitors and the average score received for the event was 9 out of 10. The Big Gig was organised by the Phoenix Cultural Centre and they too had a great day with very enthusiastic feedback.
As a supplementary I also asked what steps the council takes to let residents in areas adjacent to the park know when such events are happening and what measures are put in place to ensure they are not overly disruptive. I was told the council does appreciate the high impact these events have on neighbouring residents and they try to use early notification and advertising so people know when they will be taking place.
The council tries to encourage the use of public transport for people getting events in the park as this helps to minimise disruption from traffic. For some events the council has people on site to monitor noise levels to ensure that they are not creating a nuisance.
Apart from the fireworks in November, most of the events hosted in the park take place during the day in the summer months, and such concerts are relatively rare, so I feel the right balance has been struck between getting the most out of this important amenity and public space and also making such that residents in Mount Hermon, who benefit from the park all year round, are not excessively disrupted.
At last night’s meeting of Full Council I asked a question to the Executive seeking assurances on the protection of personal information held about residents by Woking Borough Council. My question was motivated by recent high profile cases involving computer hacking or data leaks, as well as a report by the civil liberties think-tank Big Brother Watch which shows that local authorities in the UK have reported 4,236 data breaches over the last three years. I asked the council how many data breaches had been reported in Woking over a three year period, and what measures were in place to ensure that residents’ records are kept secure and only accessed by those authorised to do so.
I received a response from the portfolio holder, Cllr Gary Elson, who confirmed that there had been no reported breaches of data or personal information by the council over the last three years. Cllr Elson went on to explain that there were stringent controls in place to protect the data held digitally, and that these are assessed annually for compliance with the requirements of the Public Services Network. Safeguards include the use of complex passwords and two factor authentication for remote access; use of security software; the ability to remotely wipe devices; and restrictions on the use of removable storage devices. The council also uses security pass access control within the secure areas of the civic offices, provides training for new staff and also has policies in place providing guidance to staff dealing with sensitive information in order to protect the security of data held in a physical format.
I hope residents will be reassured by Cllr Elson’s answer that the council takes the protection of sensitive and personal information seriously, and hope it will keep this under constant review and continue its good record.
Following the statement from the Prime Minister last week that Britain will take in a greater number of Syrian refugees through the Vulnerable Person Resettlement Scheme, my Conservative colleagues have put together proposals to be debated at tomorrow’s Executive meeting which set out how Woking Borough Council intends to meet its responsibility to grant a safe haven for those fleeing the war-torn Middle East.
The war in Syria has by recent international standards been extraordinarily brutal, with ethnic cleansing, chemical and biological weapon attacks and the indiscriminate bombing and targeting of civilians, with entire cities being destroyed. While all sides in the conflict have engaged in human rights abuses, it has become clear over the past few years that the Assad regime is guilty of horrendous crimes. Although there is an understandable reluctance for the UK to enter into another Middle East conflict, there is nonetheless a clear moral imperative for the international community to provide humanitarian assistance to do everything it can to end the suffering.
The suggestion is that Woking could provide accommodation and support for 12 Syrian families a year over the next five years, with the scheme to be reviewed annually to check it is still appropriate. Those eligible for settlement will be identified and security checked by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and be brought to the country directly from camps in Syria, rather than those who have crossed into Europe illegally. Special priority will be given to the most vulnerable and deserving cases, such as victims of torture or unaccompanied women and children.
All local authorities have a duty to set out how they will contribute to the effort to support an increased number of refugees. In my view, the plans set out by the Executive strike the right balance between showing generosity and compassion while also ensuring that we do not put a strain on infrastructure or exacerbate waiting lists for housing and other local government services.
Many people have contacted the council to ask what they can do to be of assistance, such as offering a spare room or volunteering to foster orphans. I would urge anyone who wishes to host a refugee family to contact Surrey County Council as they will be able to provide more information about what can be done to help.
Some residents have contacted me to express their opposition to an application to demolish the two storey house next to Consort Court on York Road and replace it with a large tower block with 47 flats and 30 parking spaces.
I have three concerns about this application. The first is that the size of the proposal is out of keeping with similar properties in York Road. Although the New Central flats are just around the corner, properties on York Road are smaller with more unique features and we generally do not have kind of larger developments such as those seen around the station at this location. I would like to see the distinct character of both York Road and Mount Hermon Road maintained and would not wish this application to set a precedent for more tower blocks on these streets in the future.
Secondly, there is an issue with loss of amenity due to such an overbearing development. Residents at Consort Court have stated that he new building comes very close to their boundary and wlil leave them feeling ‘hemmed in’. Ideally I would like to see the number of floors on the new building reduced so that it is consistent with other properties at the top end of York Road.
Finally, I believe that there is a lack of sufficient parking space for the number of dwellings proposed. The developer may anticipate that many of the new residents will use the train to commute to work and so will not require a car, and the council does wish to encourage people to use other means of transport, but realistically we have to accept that people own cars and will want to drive them. I am also concerned that the addition of so many additional homes at quite this narrow part of York Road will exacerbate problems with congestion and traffic flows.
I have made representations to council officers and let them know my views, and very much hope they will listen to residents’ concerns. I will also take a close interest in this matter when it comes before the Planning Committee later in the autumn.