While canvasing last week, I was disappointed to learn that some Liberal Democrat activists have been apparently been making unfounded claims about Woking Park in a bid to attract votes in Mount Hermon, such as falsely claiming that the Conservatives wish to promote house building in the park or sell parts of it off to developers. Needless to say, these claims are entirely unfounded and it is a shame that the opposition has seemingly had to resort to such scaremongering and dirty tricks to try and win an election, rather than standing on their record.
At the meeting of Full Council last week, I asked the Leader of the Council to set out what steps the Conservative administration has taken to protect and enhance Woking Park in recent years. He could point to an impressive list of improvements. The Hoe Valley flood defence work has meant that the old run down greenhouse area is now well laid out and landscape. The Hoe Valley community buildings also now allow a range of community groups to enjoy the park. There is the new grass and 3G football pitches, a new cricket pitch, the relocation and refurbishment of the bandstand, improved tennis courts, enhanced grounds maintenance, a dog-free area for bettr relaxation, new play facilities, and a modern, high quality fitness gym at the Leisure Centre.
It is clear that the Conservatives on the council have shown tremendous commitment to Woking Park and any suggestions to the contrary are entirely without foundation.
It has been announced that the Hoe Valley School is to remain in its current temporary location at Woking Park for a year longer than originally planned. Although Woking Borough Council and the Secretary of State have granted approval for a new school on Egley Road, delays in agreeing how the building will be funded has meant that the expected completion date of September 2017 has had to be pushed back, and it will therefore no longer be possible to remove the temporary until the end of 2018.
I apprciate that this will cause some frustration to residents living near the park, particularly in areas like Woodlands, Blackness Lane and Constitution Hill. However, the council is doing everything it can to to expedite the move to Egley Road as quickly as possible. It is also the case that fears about the impact of the school being housed temporarily in the park, such as increased noise disturbance and greater traffic flows, haven’t materialised to the extent that people thought they would. I have been impressed with the good work that is being done at the Hoe Valley School and by the governors’ willingness to proactively reach out to councillors and residents so they can address any problems before they arise.
The new Egley Road site will bring tremendous community benefits once it is complete, including an additional 840 places for pupils in south Woking as well as state of the art leisure facilities, a five-court sports hall and an eight-lane, all weather athletics track. We should all do what we can to press ahead with the project – even if that means keeping the temporary buildings in the park for the time being.
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.
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.