"The Ashridge Interchange Movement ('AIM') is a non-party
organisation that exists to promote the
Housing growth in Wokingham District
This paper looks into the history of housing
growth in this part of Berkshire since before the early 1970’s when Wokingham
District was first created as a local authority.
Up to the 1960’s, Berkshire was a largely rural county, but the M4 changed that, reaching Maidenhead in 1959. Originally, the M4 was to extend north of Henley and through south Oxfordshire towards Swindon, but after strong protest from influential Oxfordshire residents, the route was altered to go south of Reading instead, opening in 1972. This had a tremendous impact on Wokingham District.
Even in the 1960’s, WDC’s predecessors Wokingham Borough Council and Wokingham Rural District Council faced faster than usual growth. The eastern neighbour Bracknell was a fast-expanding New Town, backed by a fully-funded Development Corporation. However, Wokingham felt the effects, with senior management choosing to live in a country market town rather than in Bracknell. To the north-west of Wokingham District, Reading was changing from its traditional ‘Beer, Bulbs and Biscuits’, and housing had already covered the land down to its border. Woodley started to grow rapidly and become a town.
Although there are no readily-available figures for the area now covered by Wokingham District during the 1960's, an estimate has been made using electoral roll data. By comparing the list of streets in 1961 with the list in 1971, it was possible to count at least 9,000 new houses. Add to these an estimate of new houses on existing roads, and the total reaches at least 10,000 for the decade.
Local Government re-organisation had a major impact on Berkshire. To the east, it gained Slough, but it lost a huge chunk of land to Oxfordshire, including Abingdon, Didcot, Wallingford, Wantage and Faringdon. The rural character changed as the focus became a narrow corridor either side of the M4. The motorway made it easy to reach Heathrow and West London, and lower house prices attracted increasing numbers to live west of Maidenhead. The next junction was with the A329(M), linking the east of Wokingham with Winnersh and Earley, making it easier to commute long distances. If this link road had been built to a lower standard but with more junctions, the character of the area would have been quite different.
Winnersh expanded very rapidly beyond the narrow strip either side of the old Reading-Wokingham road. The new boundaries were the A329(M) to the east, and the M4 to the west. Wokingham’s houses spread either side of both the Reading and London Roads.
A Structure Plan published in April 1980 predicted that Berkshire’s housing stock would increase by a quarter between 1976 and 1986 from 121,400 to 153,000, while Wokingham District’s would grow faster at 36% from 35,900 to 48,900, which was an annual rate of 1,300 dwellings.
South of Reading University was still largely farmland until the mini-town of Lower Earley began to fill the space down towards the M4. The new community was established around a hypermarket and leisure centre, but with no real town centre. It was effectively designed as a dormitory for Reading, but without such good bus links as enjoyed by its older suburbs. The roads were ill-designed for public transport, and it was assumed that people would use their cars to get around. The Town Council even had to fund pavements out of its own budgets!
Hewlett-Packard’s site at Winnersh Cross-roads (now the site of Sainsbury's) acted as a magnet for similar businesses, and the Winnersh Triangle industrial estate quickly filled up. However, Winnersh was still a rural parish without the infrastructure to support what effectively became a small town.
Towards the end of the decade, one of the last remaining gaps in Wokingham was removed when Woosehill was developed. While not on such a large scale as Lower Earley, it too was centred around a superstore and community centre. For some reason, the entire development was intended to enter and leave by one dual-carriageway opening on to the already-congested Reading Road. This design made it almost impossible to provide an effective bus service, which would have functioned far better if it were able to pass through from one side to the other, as happens in Bracknell using a bus-only lane between the Great Hollands and Roman Hill estates.
The housing development of Woodley Airfield added greatly to this town’s population, while to the south of Wokingham the area around California Crossroads in Finchampstead rapidly filled up behind Nine Mile Ride and Barkham Ride.
Another Structure Plan published in November 1988 predicted 43,500 new houses in Berkshire between 1984 and 1996, and stated that completions in the four years from 1984 to 1988 were 6,476 in Wokingham District, a rate of over 1,600 per annum.
The 1991 census showed that Berkshire’s housing stock had almost doubled to over 260,000 in only 30 years, but this growth rate was dwarfed by that in Wokingham District. It was growing almost as fast as Milton Keynes, but without the benefit of a Development Corporation. The IT industry had taken hold in Bracknell, Wokingham and Reading, earning the area the nickname ‘Silicon Valley’.
Berkshire County Council had put together a ‘green’ Structure Plan based on 37,500 houses in the fifteen years to 2006.
Meanwhile, the Government was pushing for local government reform. Unitary Authorities replaced county councils in Wales, and the Government was pushing for Unitaries in England as well. Berkshire was the only Shire County Council to be replaced entirely by Unitary Authorities, but the political battles saw to it that the new authorities were based on the boundaries of the six old District and Borough Councils. The Government’s parting shot to the County was to impose a higher housing limit than the 37,500 already planned, thus delaying implementation of the Structure Plan until the 40,000 target had been spread across the six areas.
By this time, Slough and Reading had little room for expansion, while the Metropolitan Green Belt and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty made large parts of Windsor & Maidenhead and Bracknell out of bounds. Wokingham District had the lion’s share of the extra houses placed in its area, to be built in a triangle south of Reading in Shinfield Parish. Thus the difficult decision was taken to place a development at Grazeley as a ‘least-worst’ option. It had the chance of a railway station and well-planned bus services, plus a new bridge over the M4, ensuring sufficient transport infrastructure that was still lacking in Lower Earley, Woodley and Woosehill. Community facilities would have included surgeries and primary schools.
The draft Structure Plan published in November 1995 allocated 40,000 houses from 1991 to 2006 across the Districts as shown below.
The predicted completions from 1991 to 1996 weren’t achieved, because of lack of demand during the recession. Nevertheless, the shortfall was carried forward to the 1996/2001 period, originally predicted as 13,450. The rate reduced to 12,000 from 2001 to 2006. By District, the build rate was as follows:
During the mid-1990’s there had been discussion in Wokingham District about the merits of meeting the housing target on dispersed sites rather than one large site, which was eventually chosen as Grazeley as the ‘least worst’ option. This way, targets for public transport and affordable housing would have been met. With many smaller sites, it's far more difficult to extract developer contributions towards public transport and affordable housing.
The incoming administration in 1997 vowed to fight the Grazeley scheme, turning this into a party-political issue. Not surprisingly, without political backing for the project, the resulting expensive public inquiry rejected the Grazeley plan, and also competing schemes for Spencers Wood and Shinfield Village.
What was the effect on the rest of Wokingham District? The same housing target had to be met one way or another, and many unsuitable sites have since disappeared under bricks and mortar. All along the Reading Road, houses with large gardens have been demolished to make way for back-filling developments. Instead of a station, improved bus services and improved road access, these small schemes are simply straining existing facilities, including surgeries that are now turning away new patients.
The strategic planning function is now shared between the six Unitary Authorities in a Joint Strategic Planning Unit In the past, it had been easier to get agreement within the party groupings on the County Council, but this isn’t so simple with 6 more or less equal political groups more likely to want to protect their own area rather than to take a true strategic view of the County as a whole. At the time that the housing targets were being planned for 2016, the political balance was evenly split, with 2 Tory, 2 Labour and 2 Lib-Dem authorities. The latest Development Plan was published in March 2002.
The planned rate of housing provision in Berkshire from 2001 to 2006 was 2,620 dwellings per annum for the whole county. Regional Planning Guidance has dictated that this planned rate should continue until 2016 or until a review has been carried out, probably in 2006. This comes to 39,300 altogether. However, due to late revisions to the Wokingham District Plan, the 1996 – 2001 numbers were likely to undershoot, and this shortfall must be added to the total, making 40,740:
Source: Draft Berkshire Structure Plan 2001 - 2016.
The complete Structure Plan can be obtained from www.berks-jsu.gov.uk .
Annual housing completions in Wokingham District between 1976 and 2006 are shown here:
Figures for 2006/07, recently now announced, were 1,018.
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