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Monthly Archives: July 2018

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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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