Woking Borough Council
At last week’s meeting of Full Council, I asked a question about homelessness in Woking. The question was prompted by a number of representations from residents who have highlighted the increase in rough sleepers underneath the canopy on Albion Square and in the tunnel underneath the railway station. Some of the people camped out have been begging aggressively around the station and along Guildford Road, creating a nuisance and intimidating atmosphere for residents and commuters.
In my question, a copy of which can be found here, I asked whether vulnerable people in Woking were slipping through the cracks and not getting the help and support they needed to avoid being made homeless.
I received an answer from Cllr Colin Kemp, the Portfolio Holder for Housing, who explained that the council was working closely with the York Road Project, which receives funding to support those facing or experiencing homelessness in the borough. Cllr Kemp explained that the York Road Project engages in active outreach to ascertain the reasons why people are sleeping on the streets, so it can get them the assistance they require. He also confirmed that rough sleepers able to sustain a tenancy are eligible to go on the housing register and can receive financial help through a bond scheme to help them find a place to stay. Those who are not sleeping rough but are concerned they could become homeless as a result of personal circumstances can go to the council for short term support and if necessary can be placed in emergency accommodation.
As a supplementary question I asked how the council was dealing with the issue of aggressive begging. Cllr Kemp noted that the police will speak to those responsible when complaints are received. However, he said that the council had received intelligence that those responsible were often from outside the borough, with the fact Woking is quite prosperous meaning the town is seen as a magnet for professional beggars from London and elsewhere.
I am pleased that the Executive is taking this issue seriously and that those facing homelessness are not being left to slip through the cracks.
I have today written to Woking Borough Council to express my opposition to the inclusion of the Oriental Road car park in the council’s Development Plan Document (DPD). This document, which can be read here, sets out how the council intends to meet its target of building another 4,964 homes in Woking between now and 2027. The council has suggested that the car park could be used to build a high density tower block with aroud 220 new flats to help meet Woking’s housing needs.
While I agree that, with the demand we have for new homes in Woking, we need to look at whether we can meet our needs through brownfield land and sites which are already developed, and I accept that the bulk of new houses and flats in the borough will be built in the town centre, I believe Oriental Road is not a suitable location for the kind of high rise flats which we have seen elsewhere on Guildford Road and around the station. The houses along Oriental Road are small and suburban in character and a big flatted development would be totally out of keeping with the surroundings. Should the council decide that the car park is fit for a large scale housing development, it would go against a previous promise that Oriental Road should retain its distinct and peaceful character with one or two storey family homes rather than high density buildings.
I am also concerned that removing capacity at Oriental Road car park and replacing it with further housing could exacerbate problems with traffic and parking around the station. Woking station is extremely busy and can be gridlocked in the mornings and afternoons. Removing the car park without first putting in alternative provision would be a recipe for chaos.
Although no planning application is expected to come forward for the site within the next 11 to 15 years, and the land is not currently available for residental development, it is important that residents in Oriental Road make their views known if we are to protect the character of the area in the future. I’d encourage everyone, not just in Oriental Road, but all over the borough, to engage with the consultation and have their say.
The deadline for responses to the consultation is 5pm on Friday 31 July and residents can view the draft DPD at www.woking2027.info.
Residents living near the old St Dunstan’s church off White Rose Lane will have received a letter from the council in the last few days advising them of a new planning application on the site. A plan has been submitted for landscaping and beautification changes to accompany the proposal for a residential development of 91 flats with retail units and amenity space, which was approved by the Planning Committee in 2012.
There is a long history of contentious planning applications on the St Dunstan’s site, which remains an under-used brownfield site that would benefit from some form of house building. I have always felt that any development at this location needs to be in keeping with the local area and similar to neighbouring properties on White Rose Lane and around from the post office on the corner of Oriental Road. My colleagues and I successfully defeated a proposal for a 23 storey building in 2010, and were able to negotiate with the developer over the height of the currently approved planning consent, securing a reduction from 17 storeys to a much more acceptable range of between 7 and 11 storeys.
The current application does not represent a material change to the plans that were agreed a few years ago and so it will be dealt with under delegated powers rather than going to a full Planning Committee. However, residents are still able to make representations and can have their say through the council’s public access planning portal, or by contacting the planning department by post or email. The deadline for responses is Wednesday 22nd Juy and any comments received will help inform officers’ decision on whether to recommend that the application be granted and on what conditions to attach to the approval if it does go through.
Last weekend I went to see residents in Park Road who had an unusual complaint. Foxes have been dragging bin bags into their garden from a neighbouring property, ripping them open and scattering the contents across their gardens. Unfortunately, in this instance, the rubbish bags contain not just household waste, but medical or clinical waste such as used catheters, soiled items of clothing and blood or urine soaked cotton wool. This is obviously quite distressing for residents who have to clean up such materials as well as being extremely unhygienic.
I’ve taken the issue up with the council’s environmental health department, who are aware of the problem. We have agreed that the best way forward is to send a letter to all the neighbouring properties, outlining the situation and asking them to ensure that their rubbish is properly secured and that any clinical waste or soiled clothingis is disposed of appropriately and not simply left out in a black sack. This letter has gone out to over 40 properties and hopefully once the person responsible realises the impact of their actions, they will take steps to stop foxes from disturbing their bin bags.
If the council receives further complaints then we will look at doing some site visits to try and establish where the waste has come from. From looking at the council’s records, there are several properties around Park Road which have clinical waste collections, but it may be that some residents receive their supplies from hospitals or have been putting their waste into normal rubbish collections. If you live in the immediate area and have a similar problem, please do let me know.
I’ve just been sent a report by Surrey County Council which gives a breakdown of all the funding agreed by the Joint Committee in our respective areas. Each borough in Surrey has an allocated budget for expenditure such as highway maintenance, while county councillors have an allocation which they can use to fund projects or work such as traffic calming measures or vehicle activated road signs in their ward.
The report includes some of the improvements that my colleagues and I have delivered for Mount Hermon. It highlights the trees which were planted at my instigation along Oriental Road and across from Heathside Crescent. It also mentions the new traffic calming measures on Pembroke Road and the resurfacing of Onslow Crescent.
Over the next few months I intend to raise further items for consideration including the need for new streetlights, for old road signs to be replaced, and for further traffic calming measures where appropriate. If you are aware of any local causes or projects which need financing in Mount Hermon, please do let me know and I would be happy to discuss it with my County Council colleagues or raise it at the Joint Committee.
Shortly before the election I held a meeting with people who live in the properties at the bottom end of White Rose Lane towards the junction with Old Woking Road. Residents have been campaigning for additional measures to reduce the speed of traffic coming into Woking from the east of the borough. Although White Rose Lane already has a number of speed reduction features built in, the numerous blind curves, the narrowness of the road and the lack of a proper footpath beyond the Jack & Jill steps makes it a particularly treacherous route for pedestrians.
Earlier in the year residents submitted a petition to Surrey County Council calling for the introduction of a 20mph speed limit. Unfortunately, that proposal was not accepted on the grounds that very few roads in Woking have such a low limit.
My County Council colleague Liz Bowes and I are currently working with officers to explore what could be done to install a footpath which would run from Toad Hall in White Rose Lane to the corner of Old Woking Road. There are, however, a number of obstacles which need to be looked at carefully. There are uncertain land ownership issues, with part of the highway and pavement being owned by Woking Borough Council, other parts being owned by Surrey County Council, and others being privately owned by residents. There is also the lack of a consensus in favour of a footpath, with some residents being strongly opposed. The fact that this part of White Rose Lane is so narrow also presents logistical difficulties, and, even if a solution can be found, there are a lot of demands on the highways budget and the project will need to compete with other areas which are also looking for funding.
As a first step, Councillor Bowes and I have arranged a meeting between White Rose Lane residents Surrey County Council officers Alan Milne and Keith Patching, to take place on Tuesday 16th June. The purpose of this meeting will be to identify ownership of the land running along White Rose Lane and to discuss ways in which we can either reduce speeding along the road or make pedestrian access safer. Separately to this, I have also contacted Serco and asked them to carry out remedial work on the shrubbery between Toad Hall and the White Rose Lane Nature Reserve so the road can be made easier to navigate for those walking along this route.
Once this meeting with highway officers has been held we will be able to decide the next best steps. I will continue to keep residents updated and ensure they are a part of the discussion.
At last week’s meeting of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee, councillors received a report from the Safer Woking Partnership on their Community Safety Plan for the borough. The Community Safety Plan is a strategy drawn up by the police, local authorities and other interested organisations with the aim of identifying priorities for combating crime and disorder over the next three years.
The strategy highlighted four areas where the police will be focusing their attention. The first priority is anti-social behaviour. The second is violent crime and burglary, which includes domestic abuse and child sexual exploitation. The third area is drugs and alcohol abuse, and more will be done to provide awareness sessions and counselling, as well as concentrating on issues around the night time economy. The fourth strand of the strategy relates to a broader goal of reducing re-offending by placing greater attention on the most prolific offenders, as well as providing targeted assistance where necessary.
During the meeting I asked a number of questions, including how the partnership intends to work with the Licensing Committee, which has responsibility for regulating night time entertainment in the borough and can take action against premises found to be contributing to crime and disorder. I also asked whether the focus on child sexual exploitation was driven by the national attention on high profile cases in towns like Bradford and Rotherham, or whether it was the result of intelligence about local activity. Finally I asked about whether there needed to be a focus on other aspects of the strategy such as preventing violent extremism, highlighting that early intervention was often the best way of countering radicalisation before it develops into criminal activity.
I was impressed with the evidence by the representatives from Surrey Police and the Safer Woking Partnership and felt that a lot of thought and consultation had gone into producing the strategy. Residents who want more information about policing in their area, including the latest crime statistics, can find out more information on the Woking Police website.
Last night I chaired the first meeting of the task group set up to review Woking’s town twinning arrangements. The task group was set up following a meeting of the Executive in December, where I proposed that the council should examine what benefits there would be in establishing a formal partnership with a similar sized town or borough in a developing country such as Brazil, Russia, India, China or South Africa.
As part of our inquiry we invited Marlie Roes and Chris Sansom from the Woking Town Twinning Association to give evidence about the work they are doing in promoting the relationship between Woking and our current twin towns, Amsteleveen in the Netherlands, Le Plessis-Robinson in France and Rastatt in Germany. They gave an informative presentation highlighting some of the school, sports and commercial exchanges that have taken place between Woking and our twin towns over the last year, and which helped us understand the limited financial constraints the association operates under and how little resources are available for town twinning activities.
Amongst the conclusions our group drew from its first meeting was that any new town twinning arrangement must deliver a clear economic benefit to the borough in terms of job creation or inward investment, and what the project should be cost neutral so the taxpayer does not bear a greater financial burden for town twinning activity than at present.
Over the next few months the task group will be taking forward a public consultation where we will be seeking views from businesses in Woking about what sort of international civic and commercial links they would like to see between Woking and the developing world. We hope to complete our work and prepare a recommendation to the Executive by the end of the year.
At the Overview & Scrutiny Committee meeting on Monday, councillors discussed the Sheerwater redevelopment project. This was a poorly organised and bad-tempered meeting which I feel did not do credit to the seriousness of the issues raised about the consultation process, nor did it do anything to reassure those residents who were in attendance and face having their homes compulsory purchased and demolished to make way for the new development.
In my contribution to the debate I set out my position, which is that I dislike the principle of compulsory purchase of people’s homes by local authorities. On the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, it seems most unfair that the state can force a private individual to sell their house, even if they do not wish to do so. Where compulsory purchase Is used on one or two properties to make way for essential infrastructure changes, there is an argument to be made on the balance of proportionality. Where it is proposed to use compulsory purchase on almost 100 properties to benefit a major project on which there is not yet a clear consensus, it is essential that there is full and proper consultation and people are appropriately reimbursed for the disruption to their lives and loss of a property in which they may have invested significant time and resources.
During the meeting I asked what assistance would be given to those who might not be able to afford a replacement home in the borough even after receiving the suggested uplift in the value of their existing property. I also sought a guarantee that anyone who wished to remain in Sheerwater would be able to do so. Given the oft-repeated comments by Sheerwater residents that the consultation thus far has been insufficient, I questioned officers on whether they believed the council was reaching out to the right people, and if they could provide an example of how the engagement process has helped shaped the plans in their current form.
Unfortunately I did not receive answers to my questions. However, I have been told that the details of these issues will be worked out as part of the current consultation exercise and examined in depth by the Sheerwater Oversight Panel. In the meantime, the best way forward is for officers, councillors and residents to work together constructively to find a way forward on all these tricky points. Some of the language that has been used has been emotive and unhelpful, and a calmer and more measured approach from residents will also assist in ensuring their concerns are given proper consideration.
At last night’s meeting of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee I presented a short report on voter fraud in Woking. The background to this was the electoral petition in 2013 which revealed that the former Liberal Democrat councillor Mohammed Bashir won his Maybury & Sheerwater seat thanks to corrupt and fraudulent practices such as registering false voters, forging voters’ signatures and harvesting the votes of residents without their knowledge or consent.
People in Woking were rightly outraged at this blatant manipulation of the democratic process and sought reassurances that such abuse will never be allowed to happen again. The remit of my report was to consider whether the Overview & Scrutiny Committee should hold an inquiry session and examine the steps that the council has taken to safeguard the integrity of elections in the borough. It was also suggested that such a review would be a good opportunity to scrutinise the move towards the new ‘individual registration’ system which came into effect last year and will apply to voters registering for the General Election.
I met with the Chief Executive at the end of last year to discuss the issues raised in the scrutiny topic review. One aspect of our discussion was the timetable for publication of the report of the Elections and Electoral Registration Review Panel, which is independently chaired and produces an annual report into the conduct of the previous year’s elections. The Review Panel will be meeting this month and will submit its report to the next meeting of Full Council. This report will include details on work carried out in the lead up to the Borough and European elections in 2014, including the processes put in place after the electoral petition and court judgement on the conduct of Mr Bashir. As a result of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee’s request, the Review Panel will also examine the work carried out to introduce individual registration and the impact this should have on the conduct of future elections.
On the basis that Full Council will have the opportunity to review and debate the report of the Review Panel, I am satisfied that at this stage there was no need for the Overview & Scrutiny Committee to hold a separate session and call in officers or Executive members for a more formal hearing. However, the committee did take the opportunity to hold a short discussion on issues around voter fraud and electoral manipulation at last night’s meeting, which will help inform a broader debate when the subject comes before Full Council next month.