To loud cheers from campaigners a plan to dump a concrete bus lane bridge on an historic riverside beauty spot was once again turned down at a meeting of Wokingham Borough Council’s planning committee.
It was an emotional evening as the David Hicks Room was packed with protestors anxious to hear what the planning committee would decide.
They had stood outside the council officers in a peaceful protest, playing birdsong and waving placards as councillors entered the building.
The scheme had previously been rejected by Wokingham Borough Council back in June, despite being approved by its counterpart in Reading.
Under the plan, a single track bus lane would be built between Thames Valley Park and the Vastern Road end of Reading Station, with a bridge being built next to two historic bridges designed by Brunel, going over Kennetmouth: the area where the Kennet and Avon canal meets the River Thames.
The bus lane is anticipated to take the Lion buses, a new Woodley bus route and the Heathrow Rail Air, although the Lion and Woodley routes would need to serve East Reading on their way out of Reading. It would also potentially carry “other possible Wokingham and Bracknell Park and Ride services” but these have not been identified in the planning documents.
The revised scheme presented to the councillors included narrowing the scheme by one metre and green netting to try and camouflage the concrete.
Reading Borough Council are calling the scheme an MRT (Mass Rapid Transit), even though it doesn’t meet the defined criteria. As such, The Wokingham Paper does not refer to it as an MRT.
Planning documents reveal that the scheme received 319 objections and just seven letters in favour. Objections included Earley Town Council who said that there are concerns over loss of wildlife habitats, and that the scheme is contrary to three policies of the council’s Core Strategy.
Acting council leader Pauline Jorgensen also objected noting: “The use of bus transport rather than proper driverless mass transport such as the DLR would reduce the capacity of the service”.
The briefing for the councillors also noted that “the proposal does not fully comply with all of the development plan policies” and that it would “result in environmental impacts as a result of the localised effects to the character of that part of the river”.
Cllr Michael Firmager from Earley Town Council spoke at the meeting, saying that the changes to the scheme since June were ‘cosmetic’ and reiterated the loss of wildlife habits that the scheme would bring.
He added: “We believe the Wokingham side is too close to the river”.
There were also concerns for the protection of the horseshoe bridge.
To applause he concluded: “The advert from SOAR in last week’s Wokingham Paper was particularly powerful.”
Next to speak were residents Tamzin Morphy, Jonathan Adams and ACER’s Tim Marsh (the Whitegates Residents Association).
Ms Morphy compared the differences between the old proposal and new, pointing out that everything in the new scheme was already rejected by the planning committee in June except for two “tweaks”: the ivy and the restated benefits.
She also highlighted SOAR’s concerns over the shared roadspace that cyclists will have to use along Reading’s Napier Road.
Also mentioned was that the proposals would “make the air quality worse despite claims to the contrary”. She highlighted that 766 tree would be felled, 18 species at least affected, and there are more than 25 matures trees.
She finished by highlighting that the scheme had 319 objections, 3,500 signatures to a petition and 89% – almost nine in 10 of people – rejected the ivy, and received loud cheers from the campaigners
Jonathan Adams said he used to commute along London Road, “I find it difficult to understand why this scheme will increase the amount of traffic on the road.”
Tim Marsh said: “Whitegates stretches from the Thames to Woodley and acts as a gateway for many of those going in and out of Reading from the East.
“For years we have seen traffic congestion increase as frustrated motorists try to bypass the A4 route into Reading.
“We are, however, lucky, to have the Thames Path as an alternative route which is peaceful, serene and traffic free and can be enjoyed seven days a week.
“To approve this scheme would blight this unspoilt area and leave a permanent legacy for future generations, without solving any of the congestion which is affecting Whitegates and the surrounding area.
“There is no need to spoil the Thames.”
Agent Scott Witchells was one of three people speaking in favour of the plans.
“It is a key part of a longstanding commitment to deliver a high quality, segregated transit network for the Wokingham, Bracknell and Reading area.
“The project will enable a significant increase in bus capacity for both residents and businesses travelling to and from Reading from the east, helping to relieve existing problems that make it difficult to attract more passengers to public transport and operate services.”
He added that it would link Reading town centre and station with the proposed park and ride in Thames Valley Park and connect with Winnersh Triangle park and ride, and scope to introduce additional services to Woodley.
“This is the only place where such a connection can be provided, that is why the land was safeguarded for this specific purpose in the adopted Wokingham plan.”
He said that scheme was supported by the University of Reading and the TVBLEP.
“The scheme is much needed.”
Also supporting the plan was Tony Pettitt, the chief finance and information officer for Reading Buses.
“We recognise that people have a choice, they can and do use other forms of transport.”
And Cllr Anthony Pollock, the executive member for highways and transport, was also in favour of the scheme.
He was loudly heckled by protestors as he stated the potential benefits to the scheme and how the council had been behind other park and ride schemes in the borough.
Bulmershe and Whitegates councillor Andy Croy spoke against the application, saying “This application is the same application which was rejected earlier this year.
“This application should be rejected for the same reasons it was rejected earlier this year.”
He added that the revised proposal is the same height and scale and still too close to the RIver Thames and the River Kennet and would be harmful to the landscape character of the area.
“It still looks like a concrete jungle being dumped onto Wokingham Borough by our neighbours.
And it is still a road, not an MRT. It is it the same scheme. And, as it was refused last time, it should be refused again,” he said.
“Dangling some ivy over the edge of the wall will not change a thing. It will still be too high, too big and, too damaging and too close to the rivers.
“The applicants have not presented an improved application – it is the same application with some hanging baskets.”
He urged the planning committee to press the stop button on “unwanted developments”.
“This evening we can show residents that our Wokingham Borough councillors will stand up for them, we will stand up for our communities and we will stand up for our Borough. That is why we are elected.
“And make no mistake. The application can only be refused here and now.
“There can be no sense that the Reading Borough Committee will refuse the application. They approved it in June and they will do so again.
“So please, not just from me, but from my residents, from Earley Town council and from Shahid as well, please stay strong and reject this application.
“It is fundamentally the same application and it deserves the same response.”
Fellow ward councillor Shahid Younis was also against the scheme.
“Once it’s gone, you’ll never get it back,” he said of the riverside area.
The two councillors were given loud cheers and applause from the protestors.
After the speeches, planning committee chairman Cllr Tim Holton called Mr Witchells and Mr Pettitt back while councillors deliberated over the proposals.
Cllr Carl Doran said there was about 20 more pages of text in the new application
“I saw it again and again in this new one, this site is allocated. How often was this mentioned in the old one? Once,” he said. “I don’t understand why it wasn’t in the old one in June.
“The language is sanitised.”
He also pointed out that the report states that the area will be harmed by the proposals and also said that, like the Tony Blair dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, he hated ‘sexed-up dossiers’.
Cllr Malcolm Richards remained unconvinced that there were any significant changes to make him change his mind on the scheme. His comments met with applause from the proposals.
Cllr Wayne Smith pointed out that people using the Winnersh park and Ride wanted to get off at buses along the Kings Road, such as stops for Reading College, Jacksons Corner or Reading Town Centre.
He wanted to know if Reading Buses would force bus users to go to these destinations via Napier Road. He also pointed out that the company could change services at any time.
Changing the subject, he added: “Can we have it very clearly defined what has changed – is it the ivy or is it the concrete? You cannot get green concrete. Let’s have more clarity on what has changed. We need to be clear on this.”
He added: “I cannot see any benefit for Wokingham borough.”
Cllr Angus Ross reminded the committee that they were responsible for only the Wokingham Borough Council side of the scheme, and the proposed tree felling would mostly occur within the Reading side of it. The dividing line is the Kennetmouth itself.
He was in favour of the scheme back in June and confirmed that he would vote in favour again.
The meeting was interrupted by the sound of birdsong from protestors.
Cllr John Jarvis wanted to know why the look of the scheme hadn’t been changed. “I really don’t think the applicant has shown any change,” he said to applause from the room.
Cllr Wayne Smith said that he had commercial answers from Reading Buses, “but I have never had so many handwritten letters, emails and messages from people: The public are speaking to us.”
He added that he felt if the application wasn’t right he wouldn’t be able to forgive himself in 10 years time.
He added that he felt that report wasn’t “the full truth” and said that more work needed to be done. He urged the proposers to “Go away, have a good think and come back”.
“I don’t think we can approve it,” he said.
The proposal was voted down by the committee.