2 Sep 2023

In last week's Wokingham Today, I gave you three examples of how Wokingham Borough Council, under its new political leadership, is trying to prepare the ground for a better future.  I discussed the expansion of provision for pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), the addition of school places generally, and partnerships as a new way to work in a world of limited financial resources.   I emphasised the benefits that these initiatives would bring to those immediately affected by them (especially the extra school places for SEND and mainstream pupils), but also the ways they would help the council either to save public money or use it more effectively to produce better outcomes for residents.


This week, I want to provide three more examples of the way in which the council is seeking to plan ahead and secure improvements in the years to come.


The first is the Covid Memorial Wood, which we are planting on Rook's Nest Farm, a council-owned site that our predecessors proposed to sell to a developer to build up to 270 new houses.  The Covid Memorial Wood, as its name suggests, looks back to the dark years of the pandemic and will provide a place of quiet contemplation for the families who lost loved ones, as well as an opportunity for enjoying woodland walks for everyone.  But if the Covid Memorial Wood commemorates a tragic episode nature helping to meet our climate and ecological emergency responsibilities.


The second example also relates to the climate emergency.  Back in 2019, under our predecessors, the council approved the declaration of a climate emergency and started work on a Climate Emergency Action Plan.  But despite the general consensus at that point that the climate emergency was a matter of the utmost importance, the Conservatives in office made little progress in embedding this into the way the council operates. 


Since May 2022, we have sought to reset the dial, giving climate emergency considerations a bigger place in all decision making - from planning (where we are going to use the new local plan to require higher environmental standards of developers in the delivery of new homes), and our own housing (where we are trying to build new social rental properties to the highest energy efficiency levels and have secured government funding for improving our existing housing stock) to contracts and procurement (where we are giving more weight to environmental standards).  


My third example is congestion.  Congestion on our roads frustrates drivers, damages the local economy (by delaying deliveries and reducing working hours) and adds to atmospheric pollution.  We are working to reduce congestion partly by engineering solutions, including traffic-light upgrades and phasing and by encouraging those who are able to make their journeys by other means - by public transport or, for shorter distances, by active travel alternatives, that is, cycling or walking.  


We have guaranteed bus subsidies until August 2026 on services that need them (we inherited a budget in which there was no provision for bus subsidies beyond September 2022). We have successfully secured government funding to develop new active travel routes.  We have also sought to make active travel more enjoyable by insisting on connecting these routes in new developments and providing more information on the borough's footpaths and rights of way.


By providing more opportunities for public transport, and more cycling and walking, we have increased the choice of how we move about the area.  The more people who travel by bus or train, or chose to cycle or walk, the fewer cars there are competing for road space. Those who find driving the only option therefore experience less congestion.  Our environment is also helped, as emissions are cut as more people are transported by bus or train, and those who walk or cycle not only reduce emissions but also enjoy the health benefits of regular exercise and save money. 


These three examples - the Covid Memorial Wood, climate emergency work, and measures to reduce congestion on our roads - all illustrate the council's commitment, even in cash-strapped times, to looking to the future.  Investing now will bring great benefits - and financial savings - in the years ahead.


Too often, politicians - at all levels - have put short-term considerations above long-term thinking.  The current administration at Wokingham is determined to be more forward-looking, and work now for the better future that we, our children and our grandchildren deserve.



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