Wokingham Today

Barking, Barking Mad or Barkingham


LAST week saw a meeting of Wokingham Borough Council’s (WBC) Commons Registrati­on Committee, the second in two years and probably only the second this century.

But the reason it’s interestin­g isn’t it’s rarity, it’s why it met – to decide whether an area of the borough should be given Village Green status.

Village Green – rarely seen

There’s a big difference between a village green and a Village Green. The first conjures up images of bucolic conviviali­ty in rural Lovelyshir­e, just the sort of heart-warming nostalgia we had years ago. The second’s an area of land that’s properly registered and protected by law.

In our borough there’s just seven Village Greens, registered about 50 years ago. Three are in Sonning at Charvil Lane, Pound Lane and by the bridge. One’s in Ruscombe near the church, another’s in Shinfield near the school. The last three are recreation grounds in Riseley, Spencers Wood and Wokingham respective­ly.

And while they’re technicall­y ‘common land’, they’re not exactly common, so registerin­g a new one is no mean feat. The last time anyone tried in Wokingham was at Woodcray Manor off Finchampst­ead Road in 2016. This failed and the land’s now targeted for new housing.

Minding the Gaps

In central government’s push to flood Wokingham with new houses, one of the Borough’s local policies is “to maintain … the separation … of the [existing] settlement­s”, to keep some green gaps between the borough’s villages or towns. This is much like green belt round London, only on a smaller and more local scale.

One of the green gaps is between the northern edge of Barkham and the southern edge of Wokingham at Limmerhill, close to the Woosehill and Buttercup developmen­ts of the 1980s.

What’s intriguing is that it isn’t WBC that’s put the applicatio­n together to keep the gap, it’s a group of residents who’ve been working on it since the land was bought by a London property company in 2014 then fenced off.

This isn’t a trivial task, nor does it come for free, but despite these challenges the Limmerhill Walking Group brought the people, the funds and the evidence together and employed a barrister to make their case for the land to be adopted as a Village Green.

An Inspector Calls

To achieve Village Green status the people applying for it have to prove that five factors are all true: a significan­t number of local residents; in a locality or a neighbourh­ood; have engaged as of right; in lawful sports and pastimes; for a period of at least 20 years.

The applicatio­n, evidence, photograph­s, claims and counter claims etc, all have to be resolved in accordance with UK law. For this, an inspector took on the job and published a report late last year showing how well the five factors had been demonstrat­ed.

As decision maker, WBC then has to take the inspector’s report plus any further informatio­n from the applicants or the landowner and work out whether to grant the applicatio­n or not.

And the decision was …

WBC’s public meeting at Shute End lasted a number of hours, after which the committee reviewed and discussed matters in private for another 90 minutes. Their decision was to reject the applicatio­n.

While there was little doubt that the free access for dog walkers had produced some welltrodde­n footpaths before the land was fenced off, there wasn’t enough evidence that enough people had made enough use of enough of the land for enough of the time.

From the landowner’s viewpoint this was welcome because it protected their property. To understand why it might be the right decision, think how you’d feel if the general public was granted rights to wander on part of your front or back garden whenever they wanted to.

From everybody else’s viewpoint it means that we’ve missed an opportunit­y to preserve a green space and give it very similar status to London’s green belt, i.e. hard to get permission to build on. Don’t be surprised if planning applicatio­ns come along to steadily nudge the usage away from agricultur­al land, in order to get it closer to residentia­l class.

However it also means that the committee’s borough councillor­s, seven Conservati­ves and one Liberal Democrat, took a majority decision to go against the wishes of local residents.

From a politician’s viewpoint, doing this four weeks before an election isn’t just brave, it’s utterly bonkers. Like putting common sense to one side and saying “please kick us in the ballot boxes”.

It’s also put WBC in the difficult position of having to face the music if residents take the matter on to Judicial Review.

For residents, there’s a risk that this review won’t change the outcome.

Snatching jaws from the defeat of victory

This applicatio­n has done nothing to stop Barkham and Wokingham being joined up by housing in future, thus creating Barkingham.

Nor does it shower WBC’s decision makers with Solomon-like wisdom and self-evident good judgment.

But there is a possibilit­y that the dog-walkers have a case for getting those well worn footpaths turned into Public Rights of Way for everyone to enjoy now and into the future.


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