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Rhoda McGaw theatre

Wokingmatters makes no apology for returning to this issue, a year after first posting about the exhorbitant costs of drinks at the theatre bars in Woking, run by the Ambassadors theatre group. But I do feel a little guilty. Towards the end of our original blogpost I wrote:  “I understand that a number of regulars are now reduced to smuggling in their own alcohol.” Apologies if it was Wokingmatters that tipped the Ambassadors off about this practice. For now theatregoers are having their bags searched as they approach the New Victoria and Rhoda McGaw theatres in Woking.  This is nothing to do with anti-terrorism.  The security man on Saturday evening was upfront about it; it is to stop people smuggling in their own drinks to the theatre, rather than having to fork out huge sums for them at the bars, which are pricier than many in the West End.

The Ambassadors really did not cover themselves in glory on this particular Saturday.  There was no matinee show taking place in the 1,300-seat New Victoria theatre; however, there was one in the 200-seat Rhoda McGaw theatre, where Woking Amateur Operatic Society were performing Kiss Me, Kate. Owing to a breakdown in communication, or incompetence, the Ambassadors theatre staff had closed off all the theatre entrances, and had to be persuaded to let the Rhoda McGaw audience into the building. They refused however to open a bar – a blessing, you might argue – or even to provide an ice cream seller, saying that the society had to pay an additional fee to ensure these services were available. Wokingmatters understands that things went bad from bad to worse after the evening performance, when the lift failed, stranding a number of disabled theatregoers on the first floor. They eventually had to be rescued via the service lift.

The Ambassadors Theatre Group jointly manages the Rhoda McGaw theatre with Woking borough council as a community performance space.

jonathan-lord-mpWoking’s MP Jonathan Lord appears to be significantly out of touch with the views of his constituents, according to the local results of the Remain/Leave vote. While Lord announced months ago that he was in favour of Britain leaving the EU, the vote tally in Thursday’s referendum vote in Woking revealed a significant majority in favour of Remain. As it did in neighbouring Guildford, and in Epsom and Ewell (their MP is Brexit campaigner Chris Grayling) and Wokingham, parliamentary seat of longstanding Eurosceptic MP John Redwood, who was dubbed one of the “Tory bastards” by the-then Conservative prime minister, John Major, back in the 1990s for his anti-EU views. In Lord’s case, perhaps he should consider resigning from his Woking seat, where people were clearly worried about the impact of Brexit on their jobs in London, and stand instead for a seat in the north of England, where the locals are more likely to share his views.

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The Woking council elections have proved a bit of a turn-up this year, with three councillors losing their seats in the newly merged Byfleet and West Byfleet ward as residents association representatives won as Independents. West Byfleet Conservative councillors Gary Elson and Richard Wilson were casualties, while Byfleet’s longstanding Lib Dem councillor and former mayor Anne Roberts was also ousted. The former West Byfleet ward had previously invariably voted Tory. Under the boundaries reorganisation which saw the number of wards in Woking borough reduced from 17 to 10, the beleaguered community of Sheerwater, which is facing a huge regeneration programme that will see the demolition of hundreds of homes, had its name wiped from the map in favour of a new identity, Canalside.  The newly “gentrified” residents of Canalside duly elected three Labour candidates to represent them last Thursday.  In West Byfleet locals are concerned about a number of plans with big implications for the village, including a revamp of the centre, and likely demolition of the ugly office block, Sheer House, pictured above. The Conservatives still have a controlling majority on Woking borough council, with 17 seats, with the Lib Dems on seven.

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This is big news. The likely demolition of the notorious Canopy in Albion Square  outside Woking station comes as a shock – but is also not that surprising. The out-of-place structure has dwarfed, darkened and overshadowed its surroundings since its construction just nine years ago – and any environmental claims made for it at the outset have long since been discredited, and held up to ridicule.

In 2007 Woking council hailed its photovoltaic panels intended to generate solar energy as “an invaluable source of renewable energy for decades to come” – and even Prince Charles came to have a look.  However, critics who said that it would never generate the levels of power promised were soon proved right.

In 2009 a national newspaper claimed “the £4m project … produced only enough electricity in one year to power a single 100-watt lightbulb for just 59 days”. At the time the council said it was confident that the Canopy would eventually hit its green targets, and blamed “inclement weather” for its initial poor performance.

At a public meeting in 2013, Woking’s chief executive, Ray Morgan, conceded, with refreshing candour, that the Canopy had been “a disaster in its implementation”. But he also claimed, more surprisingly, that “it was never an environmental project. It was meant to be part of a scheme to provide a gateway to Woking at the station. But the private sector walked away from the project. We have learned lessons from that.”

The Canopy had been described as the “gateway” to the town when it was hoped developers would help reshape Albion Square around it. Now developers think the only hope for a future Albion Square is to knock the “unsightly” structure down. A planning application says its demolition “would significantly improve the quality of the public space at Albion Square and the arrival experience into the town centre”.

The saga of Woking Canopy, quite frankly, makes one question the thinking behind any future huge project unveiled by the council, which is understood to have amassed enormous levels of borrowing over recent years – borrowing that it always seems to justify as investment in the future. Have councillors actually been operating proper levels of scrutiny that we expect of them? Or just agreeing to such mega-projects on the nod?

Whatever lessons may or may not have been learned from the Albion Square debacle, some “gateway” the Canopy turned out to be. It is a modern-day folly, and has proved a scandalous waste of money. The Local Government Ombudsman should be asked to investigate the whole affair.

jonathan-lord-mpWoking’s MP, Jonathan Lord, has stated that he is in favour of Britain leaving the European Union – a position also held by his neighbouring MP in Surrey Heath, the justice secretary, Michael Gove. In a statement to the Woking Advertiser , Lord said: “Our membership of the EU prevents us being able to change a vast number of laws. It is estimated that perhaps as much as 60% of our laws come from the EU. Laws which govern us in the UK are decided by politicians and bureaucrats from other countries who we never elected and can’t throw out.

“We cannot even always deport terrorist sympathisers who shouldn’t be in the UK. At root, I believe that the decisions which govern all our lives, the laws we must all obey and the taxes we must all pay should be decided by citizens in a transparent, democratic and accountable way. We must be able to choose our lawmakers and then be able to ‘throw the rascals out’ when we want change. The general public must have the right to change laws and to change governments via elections.”

So Woking’s MP, a former director of Saatchi & Saatchi,  has placed himself in the same camp as the Ukip tendency, and on the opposite side from his own prime minister. He is quite young, and was born long after the second world war. Rather oddly, Wokingmatters could find no reference to his EU stance on the MP’s own official website.

There is also no mention on his website of the fact that Jonathan Lord recently, with many other Tory MPs, approved a planned £30-a-week cut to disability benefits, and rejected a House of Lords plea for an impact assessment. Charities have warned that the cut to the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)  would make it more difficult for disabled people to find work and that many struggled to afford food on the benefit at its current level.The government however says the cut, which applies to new claimaints, will incentivise disabled people to find work.

 

 

Woking theatre bar prices 001Woking is blessed to have such a fine theatre with the New Victoria, and the Rhoda McGaw as well for amateur shows. A shame, then, that the enjoyment of an evening out at the Ambassadors complex is marred so much by the outrageously exorbitant theatre bar prices. Last Friday I was charged £8.80 for a “regular” glass of Rioja, ie, not the larger size.  I was then asked if I would like to order some more drinks at the interval. Needless to say, I declined. If the glass of wine had been say £6, I might have said, Yes, and the theatre bar would have gained an additional £3.20 income. I was at the Yvonne Arnaud theatre in Guildford a few days later, and asked their wine prices, which were £5-£6 glass. A quick Google elicits similar views from other punters: “I made the mistake last time of ordering two large glasses of Pinot Grigio and was charged £17.60. We actually thought that might have been an error, but, no, and it’s not even the most expensive wine on their carte. They also don’t offer you the price list at the bar.” (TripAdvisor). A comment on the New Victoria theatre’s own Facebook page says: “We got well and truly stung at the interval with the price of the ice creams and drinks.” Another said: “Great theatre but would not advise you to buy a drink at the bar….bottle of water and 2 regular glasses of wine £18.10!!!!” And another: “Why charge so much for drinks. Petrol is cheaper than the Pepsi i bought £3 a bottle no wonder the theatre companies struggle charge less sell more.” I understand that a number of regulars are now reduced to smuggling in their own alcohol. Shame on the Ambassadors Theatre Group for ripping off Woking theatregoers in this way. It certainly leaves a bad taste in the mouth, whatever the quality of the drink.

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Almost three years ago this blog ran an item titled ‘The thoughts of Woking’s Ray Morgan’, a report of comments Woking council’s chief executive had made on a wide range of subjects at a public meeting. At the time we said we thought this was interesting because of Mr Morgan’s status – he is regarded as ‘Mr Woking’.  Not so much the power behind the throne, but the throne itself, you might say. Recently he has made his views known again, at a public council meeting, about the Phoenix Cultural Centre – a cause which Wokingmatters has supported in a number of blogs –  and its relationship with the council in its search for a live music venue with community facilities in Woking, a search that councillors have instructed Woking council officials to assist. Commenting on the progress made, Mr Morgan produced these soundbites:

“There’s a reality check here … I drafted an email in response to the one sent by them … It’s still in my draft box, because I thought it would cause more offence by sending it … simply because I was appalled by their approach, and their total misrepresentation of everybody else, and rubbishing everybody else … and not valuing anybody at all that actually makes a difference, and whinge and moan … so I’m afraid … but I didn’t send it … although I’ve said some of it … it’s been very difficult … [it’s] very easy to go in and complain about what we should do … but they need to actually help themselves …  I think sometimes they over-represent the contribution they make to the cultural life of the borough, and under-represent that made by others. So, we’re trying to navigate that route, they were offered premises … not yet resolved, I think would be the way to say that … but is that easily resolvable? Probably not. But all the fuss they were making to you [the councillors] about not being made homeless … I know who owns the building, they’re not in a hurry to do anything about it … they can’t, because everyone around them won’t let them … so the likelihood of it being let to someone else in the short-term, once everything around it starts getting knocked down, it’s not likely to be let to anyone else. So I think the practical reality is, it’s not a crisis at the moment  … so could we just avoid believing them always when they whinge and moan about us, and actually start recognising that officers have tried really hard to work with them, and so far that’s not been over-productive.”

Mr Morgan goes on to say that council officers made arrangements for a redundant building to be used “for the York Road project to look after the most vulnerable instead of giving it to them [the Phoenix] … where’s the priority in our life? Should we look after rough sleepers before we look after those that just want to make a lot of noise? We’ve got other places for them to make noise …”

At this point the council chairman interrupts him: “Can I stop you there …?”

It appears not. Mr Morgan goes on: “Sorry chairman … but they really annoyed me …”

The council chairman says: “No doubt they’re watching on the webcast …”

Ray Morgan: “Jolly good!”

Council chairman: “And no doubt we will hear … “

Ray Morgan: “I can send my email … if you like. But I think there is a danger that we listen to those who complain, rather than to those that matter.”

Council chairman: “Can we definitely stop there?”

And that, amazingly, is that.

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In reply the Phoenix Cultural Centre – here’s a photograph at the start of one of their music nights at Goldsworth Road – have issued a very long statement “to clarify our position, draw a line under this regretful situation, and move on”.  It includes these comments:

“In November, we sent an email with a report attached updating on the progress of our project since 2014 when councillors agreed to support our petition for assistance to identify a building. The report and email sent were private and part of negotiations. They were sent to all Woking borough councillors, senior officers who have dealt with us and Woking’s MP who had asked to be kept up to date on our project.

“Our CEO spoke to the Woking Advertiser on viewing the content of the webcast and said that the project and its volunteers are only interested in building something good and not fighting or taking on an adverse stance to make things happen, and furthermore had no interest in entering into a negative public exchange with [Ray Morgan] … as she did not believe it to be in the best interests of the project, its volunteers, beneficiaries, partners or fair to the council staff we deal with. She did ask them however to publish that the project had a fantastic working relationship with Woking BC officers and had found them professional and courteous and enthusiastic. We have worked with them on a number of projects in the borough.

“However … it is important that we correct some of the points made in the statement to councillors on 4 Feb. First of all, to clear up some common misconceptions:

“We have not asked the council for money, we asked them to help us identify a building and assist with brokerage to start the  … process set by government to enable communities to run buildings for community benefit and unlock central funding to enable them to do that.

“We have never turned down free premises or any offer of premises. We have entered into lengthy negotiations and these were not taken off the table by us.

“In 2013 we negotiated a shop premises offered by the landlord rent free after a local letting agent presented our case to them.

“There was a statement made by the CEO of Woking BC that he knows the owner of the shop we use and contrary to what we have been recently saying there is no intention of us being asked to leave. This has given the impression that we are falsely claiming this for publicity. Firstly there is no value in this to us, we have been on the point of moving before and know how unsettling it is. Secondly the letting agent confirms that whilst the owner does know the CEO of Woking BC they are intending a short-term let and the planning portal on Woking BC website had the documents lodged in October 2015 for change of use to restaurant as the kebab shop next door wishes to extend. These are available for public viewing. The restaurant have also confirmed this to a group who used us and who have now relocated based on this information. When this is received (anytime now) we will be given the notice date so can only guarantee 30 days hence. Learning partners have started sourcing other premises too.

“We have never refused to work in partnership with anyone. We have a track record of putting on music for a variety of causes and in a variety of places and organisations in the town. One of our most constant partners is Woking BC.

IMG_3219“UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES HAVE WE OR WOULD WE RUBBISH OR DENIGRATE OR SEEK PREFERENCE OVER ANOTHER GROUP IN WOKING. It simply doesn’t make sense nor does any of the work we do ever suggest that and to be honest this assertion was the one the volunteers took most personally especially as it was levelled with regards to our attitude to homelessness. On this point we can only hope and trust that people are aware of the character of the people who work in the centre, their track record and attitude to the community of Woking and let that speak for itself.

“We haven’t overblown our culture contribution to the town and put down others. We have listed our activities and achievements – open for all to see so to do anything else would not bear scrutiny. There’s no value to pretending to do what we haven’t.

“We may appear to Woking BC’s CEO that we are just a group of people who want to make a load of noise and he is entitled to his personal private opinion. We appreciate not everyone will be a fan of what we are trying to achieve. Hopefully those who know us and know the project and what it is trying to achieve will see the positive work it has been trying to do which ultimately benefits Woking. It is to our regret however, that he made the remarks without ever having visited. He would be made very welcome if he did engage with us. We see no use in carrying on any tension and would rather be optimistic about working relationships.

“To describe us as ‘moaners’ and ‘whingers’ and ‘those who shout the loudest’ doesn’t really match up to our communication style at all, or our history. It also insults the intelligence and expertise of the group who call on many years of experience in music and community and business and come from many different backgrounds for a common aim.

“We received no reply to this document sent in November yet now in February this happens. We did not use a public forum to call out or denigrate the council as a body and are disappointed that the most senior paid officer chose to do so about a group of residents who are volunteers, on camera, in front of the press where we weren’t present to answer, and thus forced us to spend time away from building our project to answer when we could so much better have spent the time on something useful.

“There was an assertion at the meeting that it would make future meetings with council officers difficult with us. This will never be the case, we are not in the habit of making life difficult for people trying to do their job to reach a positive outcome.

“This is our answer – this is all we have to say on the matter and wish only to move on positively. We can only hope that everyone has a bad day at work sometimes and is also allowed to move on.”

Wokingmatters has not of course been privy to the negotiations between the Phoenix Cultural Centre and Woking council, and so cannot reasonably take a view on who is right and who is wrong, if there are such black and white positons in this case. But we can express our amazement at some of the angry language used by Woking’s chief executive Ray Morgan – and reflect that dismissive phrases such as “making a lot of noise” in regards to music might just have alienated a great chunk of Woking’s youth in one fell swoop.

Unlike Ray Morgan, Wokingmatters has visited the Phoenix Cultural Centre’s warm, welcoming but inadequate premises on a number of occasions, and can testify to the encouragement given to nervous young musicians stepping up to the open mic for the first time.  A number of important and worthwhile community activities also take place at the former shop in Goldsworth Road, near the JobCentre. These are the ideals and vision that we understand the Phoenix wishes to develop at a designated, suitable place somewhere in the heart of Woking.

Going back to that previous time when Ray Morgan went public in a big way, back in 2013, there was a comment made at the end of that meeting which is still pertinent today. A businessman spoke from the floor about moving both his home and his firm from Guildford to Woking. “We should be proud of what goes on in Woking,” he said. But he added the rider that there should be more facilities for the youth of the town. And on that, surely all of us can wholeheartedly agree.

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Residents in West Byfleet crammed – and I do mean crammed – into a small community room on Thursday night to inspect the first ideas put forward by property firm Altitude for the regeneration of the town centre. Staff representatives emphasised that what they were suggesting were not plans at this stage, but ideas on which they were seeking the views of residents. DSC_0426The ideas include a new square, to create a “core heart”, reduced traffic movements, “shared space”, new slip roads to Old Woking Road, and the possibility of extending West Byfleet health centre. It all sounded jolly good, but you wondered where all the additional cars that would be attracted to the new shopping centre would park, given that the existing Waitrose car park suffers gridlock problems on many days, and for most of each day. There was gridlock in the community room, too, as residents jostled for a view of what might be on offer in the confined space.  Last September, in its first major commercial acquisition, Altitude  purchased Station Approach, a mixture of office and retail accommodation, and the main shopping and commercial centre for West Byfleet, for £10.5m.

At the time Nigel Robson, director of Altitude Real Estate, said: “West Byfleet is an attractive town with an affluent catchment area and first class connectivity to central London. We think there is significant untapped potential in the area for high quality retail, restaurants, living and work space.” Another Altitude director, Stephen Tillman, said: “There is a remarkable opportunity to use investment in the property to help transform the whole town centre of West Byfleet. Fundamentally, the town has everything one would look for. We want to start from scratch and take a holistic approach to look at how people use the town centre and then work alongside Woking council, occupiers and local groups to generate.”

Woking’s chief executive, Ray Morgan, has said that the council has “serious ambitions for the regeneration of the whole town centre of West Byfleet and have been delighted to hear how the Altitude team wants to take the project forward. This is a once in a generation opportunity and the Council will use its powers, influence and expertise to capitalise on this exciting opportunity for the local community.”

Presumably the rather chaotic consultation on Thursday night was the start of the “holistic approach”. Let us hope the miscalculation of the size of room required is not an omen of things to come.

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DSC_0007DSC_0016DSC_0014DSC_0018The people of Woking – and indeed, nearby Chobham – can enjoy a fabulous new amenity as from this weekend. Heather Farm riverside meadows and wetland, a former mushroom farm transformed into a public open space, is open to the public, thanks to the hard work of Horsell Common Preservation Society, which only two months ago opened its peace garden at the restored Muslim Burial Ground, plus the help of Woking borough council.

In the terminology of land use, Heather  Farm is officially a Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspace (SANG). To this end, dog walkers are being encouraged to come and use its riverside walks, as well as the splendid Waters Edge café, although they are prohibited from the wetland area, for fear of disturbing the wildlife. HCPS hope that some dog owners will thus will be lured away from using nearby Horsell common, where the dogs can disrupt the heathland habitat of Dartford warblers, nightjars and woodlarks.

Heather Farm’s lake and ponds are intended to provide a haven for waterfowl. Although Wokingmatters only spotted a couple of coots on opening day – a grey, damp Saturday in January –  12 wetland species have been spied there already, including kingfishers, herons, teal, tufted ducks, little grebes, and green sandpipers. Reeds and other water-loving species, including marsh marigold, purple loosestrife, water forget-me-not, branched bur-reed, reedmace, and water plantain were planted on the banks of the lake and ponds in 2013.

There are walks and bridges, and a small hide to observe birds from. There was a constant stream of visitors on opening day, with car park and cafe often packed, even though HCPS had kept the publicity razzamatazz fairly low-key. The Waters Edge cafe has a warm, inviting and relaxed feel, and looks like becoming a popular haven and meeting place.

When I arrived I could still hear the roar of traffic from the main road. After walking around the lake I couldn’t hear it any longer. Funny that. First the beautiful and peaceful garden at the Muslim Burial Ground. Now this wonderful wetlands habitat, truly a place to get away from it all. Horsell Common Preservation Society, you are spoiling us!

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DSC_0149Residents in Woking were given a chance to wander inside the Muslim soldiers’ burial ground and its Islamic-style garden at the weekend, which has been restored by its custodians, Horsell Common Preservation Society, with the help of Woking council. It was only a brief glimpse, but a steady stream of curious visitors made their way from Monument Road to the structure in the woods during its few hours of opening as part of Woking heritage weekend on Saturday and Saturday. The Muslim burial ground was constructed in 1917 when it was known as Woking Muslim Military Cemetery, abandoned in the 1960s when the remains there were removed to Brookwood military cemetery, and listed in the 1980s by English Heritage. The area once had a dilapidated and eerie quality to it, but now has taken on a new identity. The garden includes a memorial to those originally buried there, a combination of Indian granite and English Portland stone.

DSC_0140Designed by landscaper Lionel Fanshawe of Terra Firma, it includes 27 Himalayan birches, one for each original burial, and pink and white heather, to replicate the heather that was there when the Commonwealth War Graves Commission looked after the site.  A pair of Irish yews flank the memorial stone. English Heritage has funded 80% of the cost of restoring the structure, with the remainder met by Woking Council. The garden has been created with the aid of money from the Army Civilian Covenant Fund, Department of Local Government and Communities, Surrey county council, the sultanates of Qatar and Oman, and the local Muslim community via the Shah Jahan Mosque. Horsell Common Preservation Society has a track record of going far beyond its apparent remit of protecting and preserving the green acres around Woking, and has been creating things of lasting beauty and amenity around the town. The society, which is to open another major project in the next few weeks – the Heather Farm wetlands and wildlife site – is to be praised to the skies for transforming  a ghostly and rather melancholy area on the edge of town into a place of remembrance and peace that all communities in Woking can be proud of. Although the garden and restoration of the surrounding structure has been completed, it still awaits an official opening. Once that has taken place, it will be open 24/7 and lit at night, protected by CCTV.

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