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Residents groups in West Byfleet have made an official complaint to the Charity Commission about Woking council’s “unlawful” plan to sell off part of West Byfleet recreation ground to a pub group. At the same time a descendant of the land’s original benefactor has backed residents protesting about the plans, saying that they would “certainly fly in the face of Frederick Stoop’s vision for West Byfleet. The Stoop family feel very strongly that this space should be used for the benefit of all residents in West Byfleet as a recreation area for adults and children alike.”

A joint press release from West Byfleet Neighbourhood Forum and the Residents Association outlines in full their submission to the Charity Commission. They claim that Woking council has failed “to properly fulfil its legal duties as sole trustee of the Recreation Ground Charity” and has also failed to “address the conflict of interest in it being the trustee of the Recreation Ground Charity and the planning authority which will ultimately decide the planning decision”.

Its full press release says:

  • On 2nd August we submitted a complaint to the Charity Commission on behalf of the stakeholders of West Byfleet Recreation Ground about the failure of Woking Borough Council to properly fulfil its legal duties as sole trustee of the Recreation Ground Charity.
  • On 16 and 18 July 2018 a group of stakeholders wrote to WBC about our concerns regarding their conduct and their management.
  • The Recreation Ground Charity was established in 1913 after a piece of land (now known as West Byfleet Recreation Ground) was gifted to the charity to be used “as and for a Recreation Ground for the inhabitants of the Parish of Byfleet”.
  • The Recreation Ground Charity (charity number 304985) still exists today. The trustee, following several local government reorganisations over the last century, is now Woking Borough Council.
  • For a body to be a charity, it must be independent. It must exist and operate solely for charitable purposes and not as a means of carrying out the policies or directions of a local authority.
  • The Councillors’ Guide; to a council’s role as charity trustee produced by the Charity Commission and Local Government Association sets out how a local authority can manage charitable trusts safely including keeping management of the charity separate from the business of the local authority, keeping the finances of the charity separate from those of the council and producing annual statements of accounts under charity law.
  • On 28 June 2018 at a meeting of WBC Executive the Leader of the Council announced that WBC Executive had agreed on 2 February 2017 to sell part of the Recreation Ground to Marstons’ plc once Marston’s plc have obtained planning permission for a pub restaurant. We believe this to be unlawful.
  • We do not believe that the sale of any part of West Byfleet Recreation Ground can be in the best interests of the Recreation Ground Charity as the use to which the land would be put by the proposed buyer is not consistent with the purpose of the charity.
  • Woking Borough Council and its Executive have failed to address the conflict of interest in it being the trustee of the Recreation Ground Charity and the planning authority which will ultimately decide the planning decision about allowing a pub on the Recreation Ground.
  • Woking Borough Council has not submitted any annual returns for the Recreation Ground Charity in the last five years and states in its accounts that the charity has no income or expenditure.”

 

Meanwhile Michael Stoop, in a message to residents, has said:  “I would just like to add further to the objections you have already received from various members of the Stoop family that this land was bequeathed to the residents of West Byfleet to provide the village an outside sanctuary for future generations to enjoy.

“To allow …  Marston’s to build a pub on part of this land, would certainly fly in the face of Frederick Stoop’s vision for West Byfleet. The Stoop family feel very strongly that this space should be used for the benefit of all residents in West Byfleet as a recreation area for adults and children alike. I would certainly like to show my own grandchildren the beauty of West Byfleet’s recreational area without the eyesore of another unwanted pub!

“I hope with the support of the entire Stoop family and the local residents, this ‘hare-brained scheme’ is dismissed by the local planners.”

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This is the story of a public scandal. It involves Woking borough council secretly making a deal with a pub firm to sell off part of a local recreation ground, without telling or consulting residents in advance.

The story began almost exactly a year ago when residents in West Byfleet attending the annual event in their local park provided by the council – West Byfleet Live – were startled to find a stand there manned by staff from the Midlands pub firm Marston’s, who were keen to tell them about a plan to build one of their pubs on the recreation ground, very close to local schools and a play area. The Marston’s people seemed to expect a delighted reaction to their plan, which includes a new sports pavilion and car park, and the only input they were looking from residents was: any suggestions for the name of the pub?

They didn’t get the reaction they were expecting, on the whole – and a year on, a row is growing about the secretive and arrogant behaviour of Woking council in this matter.

West Byfleet Residents Association has been asking for details and documents about the meeting where the council’s executive made the decision to sell the land, subject to planning approval. So far the council leader John Bittleston has appeared reluctant to provide them. Separately, Wokingmatters understand that Mr Bittleston has suggested that if the council reneges on its agreement with Marston’s, it would destroy its reputation in the commercial markets and its ability to make future, similar deals. The residents association is understood to be considering legal action to challenge the council’s right to sell off recreation land in this way.

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The situation has been made more complicated for the council – and more emotive for local families – by the fact that several years ago children and parents started an online petition calling for the play area within the recreation ground to be refurbished. They were awarded money by Surrey county council and won the backing of Woking council to fix broken equipment and update some of the play area. But the project seemed to be taking a rather long time to get the green light.

Then a couple of months ago they were surprised to be offered a £300,000 playground on a different part of the recreation ground by Woking council, involving much more money than the original planned refurbishment. Around the same time Marston’s held a public consultation displaying plans for their pub on the recreation ground, with the brewery’s display suggesting it would not be possible to retain the play area on its current site, next to one of the schools, which has always been handy for parents picking up children at the end of the school day. Woking council is now offering a vote on the site for the play area, although there is no guarantee that the council will abide by the outcome. (There is also no suggestion that the increased amount of money offered for a new play area represents a council bribe to facilitate the Marston’s development, m’lud).

The headteacher of the junior school, Lesley Lawrence, was quoted by the Surrey Comet as saying: “It’s a natural community centre for the children and the parents at the beginning and end of the school day. It’s vital for their community to play and meet and greet. The proposal for the alternative being a pub is completely outrageous and totally unacceptable and will damage the community and opportunities for children and parents.” There are children’s protest posters attached to the fencing of the children’s play area – and more protest posters outside West Byfleet Bowls Club, too.

The West Byfleet Live event on the recreation ground has been an annual fixture since the Olympic cycle race in 2012, and now marks the yearly cycle event from London through West Byfleet. But the council’s behaviour in the matter of Marston’s reveals the reality of its “we know what’s good for you”, “bread and circuses” approach to local residents. The increasing impression is that those leading Woking council are only interested in corporations, and not communities. The council leader’s argument about commercial confidence may well be a load of old Canopy, anyway. Maybe it is up to Marston’s to do the decent thing, in the face of overwhelming public hostility, and withdraw its plan – to buttress its own reputation, and to save Woking council’s face at the same time.

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A plan has been submitted for an electricity generation plant in West Byfleet – but it will be remarkable if it is approved. The plan by UK Power Reserve  centres on waste land beyond the existing Camphill industrial estate, between the railway line and the Basingstoke canal.

Nearly 30 years ago a similar plan to develop the waste land beyond the existing industrial estate was put forward – and was turned down because the land contains toxic materials, which would be hazardous to residents if removed by lorry. If the current power station plan is approved, which seems highly unlikely, one will have to ask – has the land become less toxic with the passing of the years? The previous application was rejected in the last century, after all. Or does Woking borough council operate to different standards these days?

At the end of the industrial estate there is a fence bordering the land subject to the planning application – and two large notices saying Danger Keep Out. If you look closely you can see a faded Woking borough council logo above the warning. Interestingly, one of the units in the industrial estate is an NHS one – West Byfleet Dialysis Centre. Is there a danger of an additional health risk being inflicted on these patients?

Wokingmatters has a long memory, and recalls the details of the failed plan to extend the industrial estate back in the early 1990s. A businessman on the estate bought up a number of houses at the junction of Station Road, intending to knock them down and build a roundabout to serve the expanded industrial estate. But his plan was knocked back because of fears about contaminated waste being transported from the estate along local roads and endangering residents – and in 2018 those houses that had been due for demolition are still there.

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It seems there is always building work going on somewhere in Woking at the moment, from the Victoria Square development and its fast-rising towers beginning to loom above the town, to the Albion Square facelift that has involved the removal of the short-lived Canopy – a fiasco that will not be forgotten in a hurry by Woking’s council taxpayers. Even along the “tranquil” Basingstoke canal, beside the WWF HQ and the Lightbox art gallery, construction work is taking place this summer.

It is hoped that such work should prove beneficial to boat users – and also enhance the townscape for the benefit of all. The Town Wharf beside the World Wildlife Fund’s UK headquarters and opposite the Lightbox art gallery – from where the Basingstoke Canal Society currently runs its hire boat excursions, pictured above – is being extended so that eventually up to 15 boats can moor there. This raises the prospect of a host of colourful boats moored along the canal in the centre of Woking.

It can be argued – it has been – that Woking has failed to appreciate what the canal can offer the town, in softening its concrete profile and making it more attractive to visitors. Soaring new towers may offer hard economic benefits, but are maybe not so good for the soul. The “softer” appeal of an enhanced canalside beside undoubted visitor attractions such as the Lightbox, and, to a lesser extent, the WWF,  can provide something else – a place to escape? It is understood that talks are to take place involving the council that will be aimed at examining the chances of dusting down a shelved proposal to build a canal marina in Woking at Brookhouse Common, the site of a recent canal festival in 2016. That is a really exciting prospect. Let’s hope the funds can be found for that, one day soon.

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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.