2017 – news and views
The year opened with the Regeneration Company wishing all readers a Happy New Wokingham, reminding everyone that the Peach Place works were to ‘start on Monday’.
Meanwhile the town council were reported to be ‘looking into holes in Market Place’ and warned that work could ‘cause some disruption’.
We learned that the 15,000 home Grazeley development hadn’t won any Government grant and shortly after this a senior Tory councillor first quit the whip and then the party, warning that the council is run by a secret regime. Meanwhile, John Redwood, Wokingham constituency’s MP warned that Grazeley plans “could backfire”.
Controversy continued as the Lib Dems were accused of “political point scoring” by claiming that the DIY waste charges by Re3 were illegal. Wokingham Borough Council (WBC) denied the claim at the time. But rubbish wasn’t the only issue in January as the scale of the cash crisis in Wokingham’s Education funding was revealed at the same time as a second Tory resigned his seat, forcing a by-election in Emmbrook.
The election campaign got off to a lively note as the Conservative candidate made a pledge that “Emmbrook is full, so let’s build houses elsewhere in the borough”.
The month closed with the announcement of a review of the allowances system for Councillors, a subject which had led to the resignation of the Independent Review Panel the previous November. The controversy was fanned by a Labour councillor commenting that the Tories were trying ‘to save themselves political embarrassment’. He then urged residents ‘to make their contempt for this fiddle clear’.
The year was barely a month old but the precedents were already set for a year of political turbulence and upsets.
Talk about rubbish continued in the news pages, as did the gulf between the political parties over the housing numbers. The letters page started growing as your contributions expanded this feature from under half a page to more than four times that size in 2017. Clearly as readers, you were expressing your views about the way in which the borough was being run.
Over in Earley, the town council rejected plans to expand Aldryngton Primary School after listening to representations from parents. Meanwhile, Wokingham’s only local bookshop – Bookends – announced that it was shutting down.
The month closed with not one but two surprises. Firstly that Lib Dems had won the Emmbrook byelection then, perhaps as a foretaste of things to come, Forest School headteacher, Mary Sandell, resigned over mounting funding pressures. Was the borough failing its teachers or had successive government ‘initiatives’ driven the very role of headteacher to the brink of commercial irresponsibility?
With around 2,000 signatures, the fairer funding for Wokingham schools petition was handed in at Shute End. Campaigners prepared to visit Westminster with Rob Wilson, Reading East’s MP, to make the case for better funding and teacher retention plans for our borough.
Amid mounting financial pressures, news broke of the impending axing of school crossing staff and the introduction of fortnightly bin collections. Despite these pressures, WBC managed to hire a temp at just twice the pay of its own chief executive.
Meanwhile, on the steps of Shute End, the longevity of WBC councillors saw the current mayor and six still-living former mayors celebrating the Borough’s 10th birthday.
But the celebration was short lived as a second head, Jaqui Kearney of All Saints primary school, tendered her resignation.
And in a distinctly odd headline, the next phase of the A329M cycleway was due to start. Had our onelane motorway become so broken that only a cycle lane could fix it???
Meanwhile expansion plans, for the Emmbrook scout hut and for Aldryngton Primary school were halted by Wokingham Borough Council, but news that weekly bin collections would be maintained was greeted with relief.
Reports of Beano shortages and rainbow bin bags were met with scepticism, as was a third Conservative councillor resigning the whip to join the Liberal Democrats.
In a move that seemed to surprise many, including the plan’s authors, a proposal to relocate the Wokingham Library from its current site to an annex of the redevelopment around Carnival Pool were announced. At the same time, plans to develop the former Hewden yard in Emmbrook were approved, despite opposition by local residents, councillors and former candidates.
More development plans, threatening to destroy the character of the pretty village of Riseley, were submitted for planning approval to neighbouring
Hart Borough Council. One wondered who’d end up footing the bill for providing infrastructure and services in years to come, as most of the village lies in our borough. A WBC Executive member commented that Wokingham wasn’t the determining planning authority.
Meanwhile, the Shinfield East Relief Road was suffering further setbacks and wouldn’t be opening soon while reports indicated that Wargrave fire station would be closing soon.
But the biggest local surprises of the month came towards the end when, weeks after the previous refurbishment programme had ended, WBC announced that the Carnival Pool itself would be demolished. Marks & Spencer announced that their Wokingham branch would close at the end of summer.
Nationally, we learned that there would be a General Election in June.
The school funding debate continued to hold everyone’s attention and planning permission was granted for the new homes in Riseley.
Realising that, as a statutory consultee it had done almost nothing to prevent the village from virtually doubling in size, an eleventh hour plea by WBC’s Executive Member for Planning and Regeneration had also failed to make a difference.
And as Wokingham’s town centre regeneration ground on and on, WBC’s Conservatives ran a leadership election, after which Charlotte Haitham Taylor was welcomed as the new leader of the council.
The same week saw Wokingham Borough’s CEO, Andy Couldrick, announce that he would be departing to take up a new role as head of the outsourced Children’s Services in Birmingham.
Suddenly it was all change at the top.
The new leader’s executive team saw a big shakeup in the established order. David Lee returned to the front bench to take on the Local Plan Update.
Husband and wife, aka “team Jorgensen” were swapped and given new roles.
At the same time, four new faces were promoted from the back benches. Cllr Munro took on Business and Regeneration, recently elected Cllr Whittle took on Finance, Cllr Weeks took on Planning and
Cllr Bowring was given Highways & Transport. Cllr Ashwell moved to Children’s Services and Cllr MGheeSumner took on Adults’ Services.
Meanwhile, a third headteacher confirmed that they were resigning, as Emma Reynolds announced her plans to leave Bulmershe School at the end of the summer term.
As the early summer warmth saw temperatures rising amid plenty of summer fetes, festivals derbies, plus a carnival and a bikeathon, the political temperature started rising as hustings were held locally for the General Election.
WBC’s 2017 Mayor, Cllr Rob Stanton proudly delivered the first keys to resident Emma Jones as the Phoenix Court development started delivering new homes in Wokingham’s Norreys ward.
The General Election saw the sitting members for Maidenhead, Bracknell and Wokingham returned to parliament, but a big shock came in Reading East constituency, part of which includes Woodley and Earley.
Veteran MP of 12 years, Rob Wilson, was ousted by Matt Rodda as a 6,500 vote Conservative lead suddenly became a 3,700 Labour majority.
In the same week, the new multi-story car park at Carnival Pool opened and an accident with a digger on the Matthewsgreen development resulted in raw sewage pouring into the Emm Brook – as photographed by local residents and newly elected Emmbrook Borough Councillor Imogen Shepherd duBey. Developer Linden Homes said that their engineers had found no evidence of contamination of the Emm Brook.
Meanwhile Woodley-based charity First Days were among the first to respond to the Grenfell Tower disaster. This saw the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council apparently unable to do anything for the families made homeless by the fire.
Clothes and other items provided by First Days were hugely welcomed when they arrived near Grenfell Tower around 3pm the same day as the fire had started.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
I hope that you’ve found these commentaries on art, politics, philosophy and economics as entertaining to read as they’ve been to write. As there was ‘lots of news’ in 2017, the commentary on the year’s events continues in the next edition, so stay tuned!
It only remains to wish you all a happy Christmas and a restful holiday break. firstname.lastname@example.org