Open letter to Peter Waddell, RBC Leader; Paul Turrell, RBC CEO; Ian Maguire, RBC Head of Planning.
Today is a bad day for openness and freedom in the Borough, which is the birthplace of English democracy. With no notice to speak of, the WRA and other concerned resident groups have been refused the right to speak at a Council meeting this evening after RBC had invited us to speak nearly 2 months ago.
The Overview & Scrutiny Committee meeting is to consider two very important matters for us. First, to discuss how RBC’s planning performance can be improved and, secondly, to consider the seemingly ‘secretive’ deal made with Surrey Heath BC to support their proposal for substantial development at Fairoaks in exchange for their support for RBC’s unpopular development at Longcross. According to the Council’s Constitution, the Overview & Scrutiny Committee ‘can allow residents to contribute to the Council’s views on matters of local concern’. Not only have you wasted our time in preparing thoughts and comments for this meeting, which is discourteous in the extreme, but you have given a very clear signal to our residents that you are not listening, nor do you seem to have any intention to listen.
We have very legitimate concerns about RBC’s planning actions, particularly from the recent past. Not content with refusing to allow the councillor proposal for noise mitigation as a condition for the Sainsbury planning permission in Station Approach (which has now gone away but only in view of restrictive covenants), the decision to sell and permit development on the Bourne Car Park with no alternative parking provision in place has led to a massive number of complaints from Virginia Water residents and retail businesses. Only now are we finally making some progress in getting more parking provision – but sadly, not before two local businesses have failed after the ‘perfect storm’ of Bourne Car Park’s closure and redevelopment, station parking’s partial closure and redevelopment, and redevelopment at Hannover House – all in a tiny area of the village. It has simply been an utter shambles over the past ~9 months. Residents spoke at both of those planning meetings but the planning issues that they raised were disregarded. The planning mismanagement and disregard has had to be seen to be truly believed.
More recently, we have witnessed the audacious attempt to characterise the proposed Longcross South development as ‘locally led’. Whereas you know that there is great amount of local concern about this development. In fact, there is a petition, of which RBC has been made aware at change.org, that has already raised ~600 signatories. Part of this is, of course, a concern to protect the amenity and character of our village which is a draw for Runnymede as a whole. A significant part is concern that RBC’s planning process is being driven by the interests of large developers, and not residents, whereby planning approvals are fast-tracked, whilst issues relating to the sustainability of development, such as road access and traffic management that are already problems for the areas around Longcross, as well as on-site doctors, schools, shops, etc, are largely ignored. For example, we were informed that there would be 400 parking spaces at Longcross rail station and now understand the plan may have changed to no parking and a drop-off zone only. One of our residents who is a property expert has looked at the s.106 agreement for Longcross North and has been concerned to see the complete inadequacy of provision from the developers. If RBC does not have the quality of personnel nor the political will to stand up to developers so that there is a fair balance, surely the negotiation can be outsourced to an experienced third party, who will fight harder to protect the interests of residents? Developers do this themselves, and currently we seem to come off much the worse.
The ‘secret deal’ with Surrey Heath is a scandal. Local residents did not even know about this liaison until very recently. We assume that was deliberate as the anger of locals would have been entirely predictable. We are told that it was about a duty to co-operate but as is quite clear from government guidance, a duty to co-operate is not a duty to agree, so wrong law seems to have been used to justify this. We are also told that it doesn’t affect RBC’s ability to comment on any future development at Fairoaks. Again, please do credit us with some intelligence. As you well know, once you have given away the principle, all you can ever do afterwards is tinker around the edges. This is something which will greatly compound the effect of development at Longcross for our residents and there is no consideration of the impact on our community. The joint ‘reference’ to ‘improvements’ refers specifically to the A320. Great for Surrey Heath but not for those parts of Runnymede affected by Longcross. Why is the Chobham Road not mentioned? Why not the A30? Why are we not making more effort at a proper dialogue with our neighbours, RBWM (which we hear also has a poor view of RBC)?
It is scandalous that RBC planning believes they can make these important decisions in secret, especially when, to all appearances, they are assisting the chair of the planning committee to fend off similar development near Woking with another Woodham Councillor appointed to planning! We requested the Council leader last year to appoint a Virginia Water Councillor to the planning committee, but the recent vacancy has been given to a second Woodham councillor instead, while Virginia Water still has none and suffers from atrocious planning decisions. There is a clear correlation between lack of representation and adverse planning decisions. What happened to the previous protocol of one planning committee member for each ward? The reputational damage is already done – the fact of ignoring our previous requests, and blatantly favouring another area, makes a highly inappropriate bias very clear to us.
We have heard many times the stock excuses about planning being a ‘legal’ area. Local planning is, of course, subject to legal and constitutional context. RBC’s Constitution, we see, sets out the primary aim of RBC as ‘enhancing the quality of life of all of the residents of Runnymede’. Planners should not be hiding behind closed doors but really looking at what must be done to enhance the quality of life of all of the residents of Runnymede including Virginia Water. This does involve a proper engagement with us. We have also heard the ‘excuse’ of looking at ‘Runnymede as a whole’. Of course, but that does not mean the Virginia Water area can be actively disenfranchised by you as it is being now.
All this, compounded by the fact that senior members of the planning department and the planning committee have no local visibility whatsoever on important issues, is unacceptable. If RBC had a real local vision for enhancing the quality of life for our residents (which is surely part of the job description), we are quite sure that residents would be keen to hear. The fact that there is no active engagement at all at this crucial period in the development of the Local Plan (apart from formulaic ‘consultations’ which have given the look and feeling of tick boxing) is again, unacceptable. From the website, we see that you are inputting to ‘experts’ to produce, again, the ‘tick boxing’ reports, but how can you do this other than in an uninformed and one-sided wa if you are not engaging with residents who know the area better than anyone?
If we did not know otherwise, we would not believe from all the evidence that this is a Conservative council. Autocracy, cronyism, secrecy, bias, driving businesses to closure, disregard of human rights and penalising those thought of as ‘rich’ (although Virginia Water is a very pleasantly mixed community) are not the characteristics that we would have believed a Conservative council would be manifesting. These are important issues and – to us – it is clear they are being handled unfairly and you have not been listening but we hope and expect your urgent and concrete proposals for remedying this dire situation.
Wentworth Residents Association Executive Committee