Campaigners petition aims to save vital green lung

River Thames
The Thameside path links Reading to Sonning

CAMPAIGNERS are hoping to save a ‘green lung’ from being turned into a bus lane.

Members of SOAR – Save Our Ancient Riverside – have launched a petition aimed at showing Wokingham Borough Council the groundswell of support against converting the land by the historic Kennetmouth.

In 2019, the campaigners twice convinced Wokingham Borough Council’s planning committee to reject a proposal from Reading Borough Council to build a single-track bus lane bridge over the area that links the River Thames with the start of the Kennet and Avon Canal.

The area has huge historical significance as the existing bridges at the site were designed by Brunel.

The footpath is part of the Thames Path and is a well-used route by recreational walkers as well as commuters to Sonning and Thames Valley Business Park.

The campaigners are worried that the land will not be designed a protected local green space in Wokingham Borough Council’s new local plan. The council’s report says: “The site is not considered to be of particular local significance and holds no formal recreational or historical value. The area of land is safeguarded for strategic transport network improvements… notably a high quality express bus service or mass rapid transit.”

But SOAR says that this is “a deliberate misrepresentation of the evidence in order to support the use of the land as a transport link” and that the “assessment fails to reflect the long term and widespread concern that local communities feel regarding development on this land”.

They point out that similar campaigns, in 1991 and 1996, saw the residents of neighbouring Newtown win the argument that that the area is a vital green lung and should be left as it is.

More than 500 people have signed the petition in the two weeks it has been running.

One, Richard Cocks, wrote: “How could the Thames Path not be of no formal recreational value?”

Jackie Oversby wrote: “I frequently walk along this bit of the river. It is a beautiful stretch of water so near the frantic traffic of Cemetery Junction”.

Lucy Lepp feels it is “such a calm place to go during the pandemic”, while David Inward said “wildlife areas must be protected”.

Andrew Lewis pointed out, “That area is used for recreation by thousands of local people. It’s essential to preserve it as public green space”.

At a January meeting of Wokingham Borough Council, Cllr Wayne Smith, the executive member for planning and enforcement, said: “Only a small number of green spaces were submitted to us for consideration as part of the local plan update process,” he said. “These were assessed and eight were proposed for allocation.

“An area of land at Kennetmouth was promoted for Local Green Space designation but rejected as the area nominated was assessed not to meet the criteria.”

Cllr Wayne Smith, executive member for planning and enforcement, said that Local Green Space (LGS) is an optional designation under the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) that allows communities to identify and protect green areas which are of particular importance.

Proposals should meet the criteria set out in national policy and guidance, and designation must be through a local plan or a neighbourhood plan.

“Originally, only a small number of green spaces were nominated to us for consideration as part of the local plan update process,” he continued.

The proposed designation of these areas wasm he said, broadly supported by people who responded to the consultation.

“One area nominated for consideration as a Local Green Space was land near the Kennetmouth,” he continued.

“This was not included in the Draft Local Plan.

“The area was assessed and the nominated area was not considered to meet national policy and guidance.”

Cllr Smith said that Wokingham Borough Council had proactively invited nominations from parish and town councils and other groups and more than 100 places were put forward.

“In the Kennetmouth area, a wider area to that originally considered has now been suggested as well as additional information provided,” he said.

“The new wider area incorporates the open space and river frontage along the Thames, whereas the previous nomination covered only a narrow strip of land between the railway line and the river, primarily west of the Wokingham Waterside Centre.

“The Draft Local Plan Update consultation provided an opportunity for everyone to express their views on what we got right, what we got wrong and where things could be improved.  We are now carefully considering everyone’s comments as we decide how to move forward.

“A summary of the responses to the consultation is available on the council website.”

He pledged that all views submitted would be considered ahead of further consultation later in the year.

“Where justified, our draft proposals will be amended to include revised or new Local Green Spaces,” he said.

The petition can be seen at: www.change.org/p/wokingham-borough-council-designate-the-thames-path-at-kennetmouth-as-local-green-space

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