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Category Archives: McLaren visitor centre

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Just how much does having motor racing giant McLaren in the borough actually benefit Woking, increasing numbers of residents are beginning to wonder. The latest doubts have emerged after McLaren changed initial plans to expand its technology centre, which had been agreed, on a site on the other side of the A320, to a blueprint adjoining its current HQ, above, that has a much greater impact on the surrounding green belt countryside. Horsell Common Preservation Society has said that McLaren  promised to keep the land which it now plans to build on as open countryside when it was granted permission for its existing building in 1996. The Woking Advertiser quotes a McLaren spokesman as saying that the firm is “an important employer in Woking, providing high quality jobs for over 2,000 people, who all work in an iconic facility which has won countless architectural and environmental awards”. The spokesman added:  “However, we recognise our proposals cannot please everyone. But the planning process is just that – a process – which allows for consultation and discussion. The council will decide whether our scheme is acceptable, but meanwhile, we will engage openly with and listen to all interested parties.” The council is due to make a decision on whether to allow the plans next month. In 2012 McLaren emphatically denied that it had promised to set up a visitor centre in Woking as a condition of its original planning permission, despite the council’s long-standing hopes – a stance that some saw as the company turning its back on the town. In 2013 Woking council’s chief executive, Ray Morgan, said that McLaren’s continuing failure to provide a visitor centre in the town “remains an embarrassment”. Woking’s Conservative MP, Jonathan Lord, is reported by the Woking Advertiser as saying:  “It’s my understanding that this planning permission is going through all the correct processes … this development would bring future high quality jobs to this part of Surrey.”

Ray morgan

How much do one man’s views matter? Quite a lot when he’s the chief executive of Woking borough council. That’s why it was fascinating to listen to the views of Ray Morgan – who, he acknowledged himself, has been likened to Hitler –  at a public debate, Is Woking Becoming a More Sustainable Town? held at Christ Church, Woking on Saturday morning. At the packed meeting of around 60 concerned, committed people – the third of six Woking Debates initiated by Woking Action for Peace –  “Mr Woking” revealed himself to be a radical with passionate and outspoken opinions. Here are some of his quotes from the meeting:

  • “We need to have a wider debate with faith communities on gender and equality issues”
  • [On food waste] “I would treble the price of food”
  • “Every proposal by us to provide homes for people is opposed by people who already have them”
  • [On conservation] “There is this paranoiac behaviour about keeping everything as it is”
  • “The green belt will be reduced. It has to be reduced.”
  • “Silver birches are an intrusive weed”
  • “We need to think of Woking in 2050 as being like the Iberian peninsula”
  •  “In Woking, when we don’t get it right, we knock it down and start again”
  • “The Canopy was a disaster in its implementation. But 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.”

Jonathan Lord

With Woking’s MP Jonathan Lord, above,  in the audience, Morgan, who made clear at the outset that he was speaking personally, rather than on behalf of the council, criticised the coalition government for backtracking on green pledges, talked of wind turbines along the M25, and added that he was totally opposed to the “short-sighted” freeing-up of the planning process, which he predicted would rebound on the government when people put up “ridiculous extensions” right next door to “their [the government’s] supporters”. He also suggested that the provision of winter fuel allowance for all those over 60 was “criminally absurd”, and that McLaren’s failure to provide a visitor centre in Woking despite a planning pledge “remains an embarrassment”, although he at the same time paid tribute to the vital contribution that the Formula One company makes to the UK economy as well as Woking’s.

There were many thoughtful and searching questions put by members of the audience, many from local religious and campaigning groups, but too many to deal with in detail here.

Jonathan Lord’s response included the need to get an attack on the previous Labour government out of his system: “They had all the money and threw it all away.” He defended the government’s environmental stance, mentioning its “fantastic initiative” on home insulation, and then asked a question of Morgan: “How does the council run itself, when we have such a powerful chief executive with such strong ideas, and differences of opinion between the CEO and many councillors?”  In other words, how does Ray Morgan always seem to get his way?

Morgan replied by conceding that “various people accuse me of being a megalomaniac”. It was true that he promoted an “environmental and social agenda”,  but “at the end of the day I do what the council decides”.

In these days of little or no reporting of council proceedings by hard-pressed local newspapers, it was a rare and rewarding opportunity to hear the views of  Woking’s chief executive – a man of undoubted ideals and vision – on a wide range of subjects.

Near the end of the meeting 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, although he added the rider that there should be more facilities for the youth of the town.

PHOTOGRAPHS: PETER BREDDAL

The Surrey Advertiser newspaper has taken the unusual step, presumably following pressure from McLaren, of publishing a lengthy rebuttal in its letters pages from the Woking racing car firm after a front -page piece in the paper recently “put a very negative slant on the McLaren Group’s contribution to the region”, as McLaren put it.

The long letter is very interesting, as it clearly represents an attempt by McLaren to set the record straight on a number of issues, not least  on whether the firm ever promised to provide a visitor centre when it was granted permission to build its headquarters on green belt land outside Woking in 1997.    The McLaren technology centre opened in 2004, and recently permission was granted by the secretary of state for a further extensive McLaren building, also on green belt land, on the other side of the A320.

The letter, from Simon Lake, general manager of McLaren, goes back to the original granting of planning permission to McLaren for its HQ on green belt land on 1997. As the letter puts it, back then “the site it now stands on was largely occupied by an agricultural operation in the twilight of its years, a run-down ostrich farm and a long forgotten municipal waste site”.

The letter goes on to point out that when McLaren moved in the area “was landscaped sympathetically, with the planting of hundreds of trees and the installation of water features, native animal species were protected and some even reintroduced,  and a substantial area of the land was transferred to the Horsell Common Preservation society for public access. Ramblers, dog walkers and joggers can now enjoy the enhanced landscape and woodland around the MTC (McLaren technology centre) and we see them doing so every day.”

A belief in Woking has grown over the years that McLaren undertook to provide a public visitor centre when it received its original planning permission, and that the firm has reneged on this promise, or shows no sign of fulfilling it. What the McLaren letter says is this:

“There was no promise – or indeed, any stipulation – that a visitor centre would be built, though a proposal was evaluated. The section 106 agreements outlined what functions such a building would fulfil should it be built and what the landscaping requirements should if it was not, which we addressed during construction.”

No mention there of Woking council’s current hope that a visitor centre will be built in the town at some point, with McLaren’s co-operation. The letter goes on to list McLaren’s many contributions to the local community:

* Providing cycleway footpaths and a new roundabout on the A320

* Financially assisting Woking Miniature Railway Society’s relocation to “bigger and better facilities in the borough”

* Backing the local community in opposing plans to build an industrial incinerator in the area

* Carefully disposing of asbestos discovered when excavating the McLaren site

* Acquiring a derelict former mushroom farm and passing ownership of it to the common preservation society.

The letter goes on to say that McLaren is based in the Woking area “because our executive chairman, Ron Dennis CBE,  was born here and has lived all his life in the area. Over the past few decades, we have offered thousands of people employment in an exciting and rewarding environment, enabling them to be proud of their roots and proud of Woking”.

It is a fascinating letter, partly because McLaren has rarely in the past publicly responded  to criticism in such a comprehensive way. It will also be interesting to see if,  as construction of its applied technology centre on the other side of the A320 gets under way, any deal has been struck with the council this time round to provide a visitor centre in the town, which could well mean tourists coming to Woking for the first time and further endorse McLaren’s emphatically-stated commitment to the town.

The government has predictably given the go-ahead to McLaren’s plans for a new applied technology centre on the green belt land on the other side of the road from their existing facility, pictured above, on the edge of Woking. Woking council had referred the planning decision to the Department for Communities and Local Government and the secretary of state, Eric Pickles, decided not to “call in” the decision. It wasn’t long ago that the prime minster, David Cameron, paid a visit to McLaren’s luxury sports car plant and praised its export efforts.  So a planning refusal was never going to happen. McLaren has promised that Woking town centre will get a Formula One visitor centre as part of the deal: but those with long memories will recall that the racing car firm pledged a visitor centre when securing its original planning permission some years ago. So we can only wait and see.  Undoubtedly a McLaren visitor centre would be a feather in the cap for Woking and attract people to the town. Now – this time – it’s up to McLaren to honour its promises.