The State of Planning

The plans for Brookwood Farm have been passed. Rightly or wrongly many residents feel abused by ‘the system’ and feel that the council has not performed their duties as well as they should have. This article is more of a collection of thoughts than a narrative of failings so any official reading through should not take overt offence but do feel free to leave comment.

Housing targets

We all know the government has set planning targets for each and every council in the land; these targets have to be met which requires new homes to be built. In the south east the demands are great – it’s a desireable place to live and housing costs are high but the landscape is pretty built up already. What green space there is is normally hard to get permission for building on and decent sized brownfield sites are hard to come by. People may disagree with the targets set both by government and borough councils but they are here to remain. There is a whole other argument as to the rationale behind the targets but that is for another time and place.

Where to build?

This is one of the key questions; the crux of the matter really. Building a huge number of homes piecemeal is not cost effective and will not make up the numbers adequately. To build in numbers you either build flats upwards or you build houses outwards and it’s the latter that really grabs the landscape. This is why whenever you see new proposals there are usually a number of flats thrown in – it sweetens the deal by making up numbers that the council need desperately.

So what of locations and where to build? Woking is simply short of them and that is why plans such as those for Brookwood are passed. There is no single place where a lot of houses can be built and not upset the residents, and I believe the residents understand, although maybe not agree with, that.

Soon to be up is Moor Lane and I guarantee a similar situation is occurring as we in Knaphill have experienced. A similar situation was shown on BBC’s ‘The Planners’ on 30th January – large swathes of land given over to developers.

Many people mention money in respect of these developments. It’s true that the councils will make money, or at least in the case of Brookwood Farm they will but not being an accountant I can’t comment on huge debt versus submitted plans.

Planning capability

Understanding of planning regulations and the local differences up and down the country is a thankless job. No-one loves a council planner but they deal with what they’re told to deal with and do so with what they’re told to use. Recently, Woking Borough Council were recruiting a proportionately large number of staff, to my mind something resembling the whole department in number. Whether this had any bearing on the Brookwood decision is anyone’s guess but it won’t have helped and the reasons for needing so many new planning office staff at once raised a few eyebrows.

The biggest wonder is exactly what the procedures the council follow actually state as the documents appear not to allow for any amount of community or residential response to be taken into account. WBCs housing strategy 2011-2016 has a couple of stated aims of creating a strong community spirit… and a clean, healthy and safe environment. The planning process abjectly fails to do this and seems to act against it.

How can the planning process help build community when the process itself does not engage with the community as a part of the plan? Speaking of my own experience of dealing with the Brookwood plans – from conception the developer had 3 meetings with the public (only 1 of 3 were widely publicised); at these there were no actual plans to discuss, only concepts. The staff were provided by the developer and had no understanding of the area, demographic or planning in general. In fact the most useful and knowledgable member there was the landscaper! From the point of plans being submitted (i.e. when the planning process kicked in) it was statements all the way from WBC; letters announcing plans had been receieved, amended and finally going to the committee. Documents found online did not appear to give the entire view and some key documents were witheld from the public prior to the committee meeting, ‘awaiting decomposition’. Although the last letter from WBC invited everyone to speak, in fact only ONE person is allowed to have their say (presumably on everyones behalf) for a maximum 3 minutes. Hardly enough time to cough and say hello. The point here is that there is no real intent at community engagement, only getting the plans through the process. Mentions of ‘community’ have been just that, mentions and nothing of substance.

With regard to Brookwood Farm, major concerns remain with regard to traffic, roads, school places and medical cover provision. Houses must be built, but the infrastructure supporting them must be an imperitive also and no-one can see where this has been met. Records from a few years ago stated the maximum number of houses supportable on the A322 was 200, not the 300 now passed by committee. A new school being built adds to the problems in several ways, firstly it doesn’t provide enough spaces for pupils but it also necessitated another entrance to the development and even more traffic movements. Figures stated were predicted. We went and did our own number checking by actually counting the traffic movements and the predicted numbers are way off.

Being practical

The point above is that a more practical approach is required. Using untested traffic models and saying ‘we must have the houses’ is not good enough. If communities are to be built, as the council purport to be adamant about, then effort is required and a little bit of legwork wouldn’t go amiss either. If a lot of people are practically shouting ‘there is a traffic problem!’ then the chances are that there is a traffic problem, it’s not a trick. Go and count some cars. Get cold, get hot and get stuck in the fumes but make damned sure your numbers are fact-based and not pie in the sky. If the number of cars don’t stack up then do something about it – reduce the number of dwellings or find another way of reducing traffic. Telling people to walk or get the bus is not one of these. The planners, the councillors and the council all know there are issues when large scale plans are up for debate but precious little is done to allay their fears.

300 new homes and a school are to be built, so what about medical cover? What’s it like at the moment? Over-burdened? Well perhaps some form of mitigation there would be in order then; make it a part of the plans (not a condition, an actual part of the plan).

What of other plans submitted? 15 High Street (with flats above) is a good one. Does a village require 3 supermarkets in close proximity? Like a hole in the head. Common sense (not part of the planning process) would suggest that 3 huge players (Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Co-Op) in the retailing game would put local traders out of business. It is not competition, it is the death of community. A look at the plans also show that deliveries can only happen if certain parking spaces are vacant which should, surely, have raised the question of ‘is this really the best idea?’. Incidentally refuse deliveries for that development will have to be made via the kerbside, another point for questioning the plans.

The Point

There is no benefit to examining in detail any plan. The point to be made here was that the planning process is just plain wrong, for starters there is no planning involved, it’s just going through the motions.

To councils up the land –  More community engagement would go a very long way with most people and be demonstrating just a bit of thought over what the plans are showing you. Thinking of the resultant activity and impacts will inevitably lead you to a better solution. Some might call this actual planning – deliberate thought over the impact of intended changes for the betterment of an area and community. Show that you value the area you have stewardship over and the people within it, and not that you are really just after the cash reward.

A simple request goes out to all of you planners – start to think about what you’re doing and stop ticking boxes.

Last thought

Last year the taxpayer footed the £50m bill for the West Coast Main Line franchise bid going pearshaped after Sir Richard Branson questioned it. He was in a unique position of wealth and influence to do so and by that factor alone unearthed what people have known for some time – the process was wrong. Where’s Branson when you need him?

3 Comments on “The State of Planning

  1. Mr Editor,
    Congratulations on a superbly written and well observed piece Here’s hoping that you receive an equally articulate response from one or more of the very WBC officials at whom much of it is aimed. Don’t hold your breath though. In an exchange I had some 18 months ago with one of their number the individual in question consistently failed to spell the word SAINSBURYS correctly.
    Once again, BRAVO to you.


  2. Dear Editor,
    I must add my congratulation too for your excellent and constructive piece. Most uplifting but disappointing that it has drawn so little response. Woking as an authority lost its way at the start of the 60’s. Then building began in earnest with little thought to future demands on infrastructure or even that of energy needs, today a considerable issue. Roads have received a few bollards, a mini roundabout or two and squeezed cycle routes,(what price over thirty years twinning with our Dutch neighbours!)


  3. Thank you both. I fear that management by tick box is par for the course in planning and almost feel sorry for the burdens placed on the planning department. But not quite!


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