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Tag Archives: Woking Canopy

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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.

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

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There are at least one or two things which make one uneasy about the council’s response to its alarming debt levels of almost £100m http://www.getsurrey.co.uk/news/s/2053718_woking_borough_council_debts_highest_in_the_county

One is the assurance, according to the Woking News and Mail,  that the Lightbox, above, will pay its £638,000 money back. Er, how can it, when admission is free? At the very least, we need a bit more clarity about the financial arrangements here. Then there is the sun-seeking Canopy, and the mysterious finances of the energy-efficiency company, Thameswey, that Woking council has set up, and whose workings trouble a number of contributors to the forum on the council’s website. An airy wave of the arm from the council’s chief executive, Ray Morgan, who says council taxpayers have nothing to worry about, really won’t do.

I’m a great supporter of the Lightbox, unlike some, but I do think a transparent, easily accessible exposition of its finances, and its financial relationship with Woking council would help clear the air.  The Canopy, which I welcomed as giving the town a new, modern look, has had enormous cost overruns, and the council has proved strangely shy about giving details about the energy savings it has so far accumulated.  All this creates an atmosphere of suspicion towards new projects, such as the Woking Gateway. It really is time for Woking council to develop a new relationship with its council taxpayers, and keep them up to date with the full, financial facts. The council is now reported to be considering scrapping Woking’s Christmas lights this year to save money, and its car parking revenue is projected to be down by £1.3m this year. It’s not looking too good

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Woking council announced yesterday that it had reached an agreement with a London-based property development and investment company, Carisbrooke, that could lead to a multi-million pound redevelopment of  part of the town centre. http://www.woking.gov.uk/news?item=00004A30E951.C0A801BA.00006EF3.0018 The Woking Gateway project area  runs from Albion House in the east to Cawsey Way in the west, and takes in High Street and Commercial Way. The development includes residential, leisure, commercial, office and retail space. The council says that “public transport facilities and quality public spaces will also be important elements of the development”. The announcement says that Carisbrooke, which owns Albion House, now has the right  to acquire land owned by the council under the agreement. The council can also consider using its compulsory purchase powers to acquire properties owned by third parties (at Carisbrooke’s cost) “if they cannot be purchased on a voluntary basis”. There is talk of a planning application in 2011, and that work will start the same year, and be carried out in phases.

All this sound rather ominous for the small shops clustered round and dwarfed by Woking’s “energy-saving” Canopy, above, outside the station. Since its delayed construction the Canopy has always overshadowed its surroundings, and the suspicion has been that the council has wanted to clear a space round it – so that it can be seen more as a “gateway”. That would mean the disappearance of nearby shops. It would be no great surprise to me if this turns out to be part of the overall grand plan. Woking’s chief executive Ray Morgan has made no bones in the past about saying that much of Woking should be knocked down.  This appears to be the start of the implementation of his vision. Leaving aside the debate over the energy-efficiency of the Canopy and whether the council was right to go ahead with its hugh cost, these plans must mean relocation or closure for individual business in the short-term, whatever the final effect that is achieved.