Thursday, 17 June 2021

Your letters...

Save our countryside

Sir, — On Wednesday evening (March 1) a small group of men and women will sit in judgment on Sonning Common’s neighbourhood plan — and on local democracy.

The members of South Oxfordshire District Council’s planning committee will decide whether to approve a proposal to build 95 houses on a field off Kennyands Road, Sonning Common, or to reject it.

If they take the first course, they will destroy our neighbourhood plan and deliver a hammer blow against the whole concept of decision-making by local people.

If they take the second, they will show that the five years of toil and anguish that went into producing the plan was worth it and that the ideal of communities taking control of their destinies still has a future.

Sonning Common is my village and, like others in South Oxfordshire, it is under siege from developers who are being helped by the district council’s planning officers.

And before anyone starts shouting “Nimby”, let me say straight away that we have long accepted the need for new houses and we have bent over backwards to provide room for them.

Five years ago our parish council, of which I am a member, recruited a group of volunteers to produce a Sonning Common neighbourhood plan, proclaimed under the Government’s Localism Act as a way to strengthen local democracy by encouraging communities like ours to shape their own future.

I was on that group and, after more than four years of grindingly hard work, we published our plan.

We had been told we had to find room for 140 new homes but, seeing the way the housing wind was blowing, we upped that to almost 200.

It wasn’t easy to persuade the village to accept an expansion of nearly 20 per cent.

Everyone accepts new houses are needed but no one wants them next door.

But we argued our case and last September, in an official referendum, 94 per cent of residents approved the plan on a turnout of nearly 50 per cent.

It was a triumph for local democracy — or so you might have thought. But hardly had the ink on our plan dried than it and everything it stood for were under direct attack.

On one of our chosen sites, off Kennylands Road, we had allocated 26 homes to be built in a strip fronting the road to fill a gap between existing houses.

A development company, Gallagher Homes, which doesn’t build houses at all but specialises in getting planning permission on greenfield sites and selling them on, promptly slapped in an application for 95 homes to be built over the whole of the field, spreading out into the countryside.

It was a blatant challenge to our plan — a plan endorsed by the district council’s planners and by an independent inspector, backed by our MP John Howell and overwhelmingly approved by the people of Sonning Common.

Despite all that, the planning department now says it is recommending that the district council’s planning committee approves the 95 houses.

Why, you might ask? The answer is the council’s planning department is demoralised and not fit for purpose.

The officers have been battered and bruised by a series of defeats in planning appeals affecting other parts of the district.

Now they refer to the developers as “customers” and are apparently hellbent on hurrying every major application through.

The reason is simple — and disgraceful. They want to increase the number of houses with planning permission so they can show they can meet the projected demand over a five-year period.

If that means Sonning Common’s neighbourhood plan — and all the other plans that villages like ours are being encouraged to produce — being thrown on the scrapheap, then too bad.

And that is despite the fact that the Government’s planning minister, Gavin Barwell, has gone on record as saying that where a neighbourhood plan has been approved, local authorities only need to demonstrate that they have a three-year land supply, which South Oxfordshire district council has.

Neighbourhood plans were supposed to be a way out of what everyone, including the Government, accepted was the shattered shambles of our planning system. They were supposed to offer local communities the chance to take control of their destinies and to tackle the desperate shortage of land for housing.

That is what we in Sonning Common were told. That is what we believed.

Two weeks ago the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, announced a much-trumpeted planning White Paper, saying he would fix the broken planning system.

The measures he came up with are feeble and will do nothing of the kind — and nothing to restrain the developers’ land grab.

If the Prime Minister wants to know what is really happening in the Tory heartlands of Middle England and why so many of us feel we are being betrayed, all she has to do is drive the few miles from her Berkshire home to my village and ask us.

Her Sonning is old, quaint and pretty — and because it’s a conservation area, there’s less chance of developers getting planning permission there than there is of Donald Trump learning humility.

My Sonning Common is none of those things. But it is precious to those of us who live here and particularly precious is the countryside around the villlage, which separates us from Reading and which the developers are so greedy to get their hands on.

So come on over, Mrs May. I’ll gladly walk you along the footpath that runs along the bottom of the field that Gallagher Homes wants to turn into a housing estate — as I do once or twice most weeks.

I’ll show you how the view of woods and open fields cherished by so many in my village will be wrecked forever if this plan goes through.

If you have the time, I’ll show you round our other housing sites so you understand how we have responded to the call to help solve the housing crisis.

And I’ll explain how we will feel if the bulldozers and diggers are allowed to destroy this piece of our countryside — that the earth itself will have been kicked in our faces — Yours faithfully,

Councillor Tom Fort

Sonning Common Parish Council

Save chapel before tree

Sir, — Behind the old Lashbrook Chapel, alongside the new public footpath to the river off Mill Road in Lower Shiplake, is a tall horse chestnut tree.

Although there are many other fine specimen trees nearby, protection of this particular tree, which is described as “a significant feature of the landscape” is likely to result in the chapel — itself a particularly significant feature of the landscape — becoming derelict and an eyesore.

Unfortunately, concern for this tree appears to have been uppermost in the minds of councillors who recently turned down an application to sensitively convert this rather quaint little building, dating back to 1885, into a single dwelling.

The application can be viewed on South Oxfordshire District Council’s planning website (application ref. P15/S4337/FUL).

Residents wishing to support the appeal against this decision should email Ms A Edmonds at west2@pins.gsi.gov.uk, referencing the appeal site address and the appeal reference APP/Q3115/W/16/3164379 by this Sunday, February 26. — Yours faithfully,

Dave Ramm

Reading

Unhygienic leisure centre

Sir, — I am writing with regard to your article about Henley leisure centre (Standard, February 17).

I have been a regular swimmer at the pool for many years but ever since GLL took over the running of the leisure centre the hygiene standards have been very poor — and not just in the showers and changing rooms.

There has frequently been silt in the bottom of the pool and rust from a broken water inlet in the shallow end.

During repairs to the ventilation system last year, swathes of black hair were drifting around in the water and discarded plasters are often lying at the bottom of the pool.

Also last year I complained several times to the front desk about the high temperature in the pool, which makes it very uncomfortable to swim in and very unsanitary considering very few people actually shower before entering the pool.

My complaints were brushed aside, so I wrote to Better, of which GLL is part, and received a letter saying I would hear from the manager of the pool within a few days. I didn’t.

I gave up going to the pool and declined to renew my membership.

I sincerely hope South Oxfordshire District Council will either take control of the leisure centre itself or find a more responsible contractor to do so. — Yours faithfully,

Lynda West

Deanfield Road, Henley

I won’t use pool showers

Sir, — As a current member of Henley leisure centre, I read your article concerning complaints about the lack of cleanliness and general maintenance with interest.

I can only agree with the complainant and his photographs do not lie!

Some months ago I was about to enter the pool when I noticed a small pile of congealed wet tissue lying on the drainage channel at the edge of the pool.

I reported it straight away and, after I had got into the water, was pleased to see a young lady appear with a mop in her hand. Imagine my disbelief when I watched her dip said mop into the pool and then use it to sweep the tissue into the drain!

I continue to use the pool as it is the only option locally but I no longer shower there since contracting a virus which I am told is most commonly picked up in public showers.

I also use the gym facilities and have no complaints about the standard of cleanliness there.

Almost always when I visit there is a cleaner on site, constantly wiping down equipment and tidying, so I am curious as to why this does not happen in other areas of the building.

We are all constantly being reminded how important it is for us to keep fit and exercise more and obviously with only one pool in town now demand is very high.

We would all appreciate it if this facility was updated and made more fit for purpose. — Yours faithfully,

S Hale

Deanacre, Henley

Tories don’t work for town

Sir, — Henley suffered two more severe blows at the meeting of South Oxfordshire District Council on Thursday last week.

The ruling Conservative councillors voted as a block to remove the funding for police community support officers and for a zero budget for air quality measures.

I believe that all residents of Henley will agree that our two PCSOs do a fantastic and valuable job for our community and that we want an improvement in the air quality in our town.

As a Henley Residents’ Group member of the district council, I am able to speak and vote independently for Henley.

I tabled motions to preserve the PCSOs and to include an air quality budget.

Shockingly, all the Conservative councillors voted to abolish the funding for PCSOs and to spend not a penny on air quality.

Henley was designated as an air quality management area in 2002 because levels of NO2 were above the legal safe limit.

Since then levels have continued to rise, which means 15 years of doing nothing. We need action on air quality now and we need to keep our PCSOs, who do a great job for Henley.

It is about time we had councillors who will stand up and speak independently for Henley and support measures that make our community a safer and better place. — Yours faithfully,

Councillor Stefan Gawrysiak

South Oxfordshire District Council, Elizabeth Road, Henley

Can you hear me, GWR?

Sir, — In recent months you have carried several stories about what is happening and what yet may happen on the Henley branch line but I do not recall readers ever being told exactly what one has to do to obtain a reply to any communication with Great Western Railway.

On December 8 I emailed them to explain how, upon arriving at Twyford from Paddington, I crossed the bridge by means of the lifts (as nowadays I have to walk with a stick) only to be left behind after all the passengers who had used the stairs were allowed to embark for Henley.

I asked whether any assurance could be given that matters would improve in future and also for guidance as to whether, in similar circumstances, it would be better for me to use the stairs because, though this would take me longer, I might be seen earlier by staff on the platform.

I received, by way of reply, an automated email, saying that it might be up to three weeks before I received a fuller answer.

When nearly six weeks had elapsed, I wrote again, attaching a copy of my first email and received another automated response identical tothe first.

By now, I was far more distressed at the way my communications had been ignored than I was by my initial cause of complaint.

As time went on, I tried writing to the Henley Branch User Group to see if they could prod GWR into action.

I did not receive any response from them either, although I concede that the matter probably fell outside their remit.

So what next? As I write this, nearly 11 weeks have elapsed since I first tried to contact GWR. I have considered asking our MP to help, or a member of one of our many councils.

But, upon reflection, I decided that you, sir, could be my most formidable ally. Even GWR might be aroused from their slumbers by the power of the Henley Standard. — Yours faithfully,

J F Bailey

St Andrew’s Road, Henley

GWR responds: “We are sorry for the time it has taken our customer service team to work through this complaint and to resolve to Mr Bailey’s satisfaction.

“We’ve recently moved our contact centre to a new site, bringing all our customer service work back to the UK.

“This move means some detailed responses are taking longer than we would like and we are working with our new team to be back to our usual high standard of service quickly. We should have allowed additional time for the customer transferring by lift to do so and we are sorry that this did not happen.”

Children need sex education

Sir, — Readers may be aware of a growing campaign for sex and relationships education to be introduced as a mandatory part of the school curriculum.

Like me, they may indeed be surprised to learn that this vital part of a child’s education is not currently compulsory in all schools.

When children are exposed, whether we like it or not, to highly sexualised imagery, online pornography and the pressures of social media, it’s vital for them to learn about sex and relationships at school — not simply the physical or biological side (we need more than the birds and bees talk) but also the emotional and social aspects of what a healthy relationship looks like.

Evidence-based and delivered in a safe environment, sex and relationships education is vital to prepare children for later life and help prevent abusive relationships.

We should be encouraged by research recently released by Plan International UK which showed that more than eight in 10 people supported mandatory sex and relationships education across all main school types, including those in our area.

I’ve recently written to my local MP to urge them to support this in Parliament and would encourage others to do the same. This is no longer an issue we can shy away from. — Yours faithfully,

Polly Kerr

Littlemore, Oxford

The message is unclear

Sir, — Your correspondents, Mrs G M Radley and Mrs K Pinder (Standard, February 17), claim that the Christian god has set up a perfect communication system to us all by inspiring the writings in the Bible.

However, such a system not only has to be accessed and understood but believed if our choice to accept or reject the message is a fair one.

Self-evidently, the great majority of people in Henley and Sonning Common, for example, have either not felt compelled to study the Bible with this in mind or having read it do not accept your correspondents’ understanding of the message.

Generally, we happily go about the business of living.

What has gone wrong, bearing in mind an eternity of bliss or hell depends upon our reaction to the message in the view of your correspondents?

It is puzzling that Mrs Pinder recommends the purchase of a book, Unlocking The Bible, to help us. Why does the Divine message need to be unlocked in this way?

The passengers on the Titanic received a very clear, believable message from the captain that they had to take to the lifeboats and they all accepted the necessity and took appropriate action.

Surely, the alleged issue of eternal salvation or not deserves the same effective clarity. — Yours faithfully,

Douglas Kedge

Lea Road, Sonning Common

Question
of belief

Sir, — I envy those who not only do their best to live a good life but also believe in an afterlife in which they will be rewarded. Many of us do the one without believing in the other. Where belief is concerned there is no choice — who, after all, would not choose comfort if it were so readily available?

Belief is not a commodity that can be picked off a shelf: faith is not something that can be acquired simply because one wishes it to be so. I am grateful to have been brought up in a community with Christian values but these are also humanitarian values.

A final point which perhaps partly explains my present position: one of the earliest things I can remember is being told: “God helps them that help themselves.” Perhaps I was wrong in assuming that this meant that it is we who should assume responsibility for what ails us.

I do not believe in a life after death but I do have faith in our ability to improve life on earth. If there is a God, I suspect He would approve. — Yours faithfully,

Ann Law

Binfield Heath

Expensive cup of tea

Sir, — On Sunday I walked with my husband (both of us National Trust members) and our daughter and son-in-law (neither members) from Henley to Greys Court.

On arrival at the ticket booth we showed our membership card and asked for a ticket for a free cup of tea in the café. We were told that our daughter and son-in-law would have to pay the full entrance fee (£22 for two), although we had no intention of entering the house in our muddy boots and just wanted a cup of tea.

Not surprisingly, we declined this ridiculous offer.

While I appreciate that the refreshments are for the fee- paying visitors would it not be a more generous thing, considering that the National Trust owns vast tracts of the countryside, to make its cafés available to patrons who are also using the National Trust land for walking and cycling etc?

There would surely be ample profit from the sale of refreshments and there would also be goodwill generated.

Earlier this year we came upon a similar occurrence at Kingston Lacy in Dorset when a companion was charged £15 for the privilege of seeing the bluebells and then buying lunch, a very high cover charge.

This money-grabbing attitude is surely not in keeping with the founding high principles of the National Trust: “Forever, for everyone” — Yours faithfully,

Anne Brown

St Mark’s Road, Henley

Rob Hayes, general manager at Greys Court, said: “First of all, we’d like to thank you correspondent for her support for the work of the National Trust through membership and we’re sorry she upset by her visit. Let me explain why we need funds to protect our built and natural heritage.

As Britain’s largest conservation charity, the National Trust cares for more than 250,000 hectares of countryside and 775 miles of coastline around England, Wales and Northern Ireland. More than 200 million visits are made every year to our countryside and coastline putting increasing pressure on the landscape and facilities. 

“We’re proud and delighted that so many people enjoy spending time at special places like Greys Court but we need to ensure we have the funds available to protect it and carry out the necessary conservation works. It costs £1.1million a year to look after Greys Court and keep it open for people to enjoy.

“Because we’re a charity, we need to generate funds in order to proactively manage the conservation needs of the house and the woodland for wildlife and maintain the footpaths, fencing and car parks as well as continually maintain and improve facilities for visitors.

“Our members actively support all this work through their membership to the National Trust. We ask those who aren’t members to pay an entrance fee so that they are also helping to contribute to the necessary and vital conservation work, so that our members are not bearing the full weight of the costs.

“The National Trust is committed to protecting the special places we look after forever and for everyone, so we need to ensure we have the funds available to do so.”

Explain rules for recycling

Sir, — Following Audrey Richardson’s two letters about recycling, I am also confused about what is and is not recyclable.

However your attempt to clarify the problem in last week’s edition left me completely baffled.

As a member of the older generation just about able to Google information, I could not even get the South Oxfordshire District Council web address you gave into the search bar. Could we just have a list of recyclable products on a sheet of paper, possibly delivered when the bins are emptied? — Yours faithfully,

Betty Freeman

Sonning Common

The editor responds: “Okay, Mrs Freeman, here goes: According to South Oxfordshire District Council, the following can be recycled: All paper and cardboard, including books (only if not suitable for taking to a charity shop), catalogues, phone directories (including Yellow Pages), cereal boxes, corrugated cardboard, envelopes (including ones with windows), greeting cards, junk mail, magazines, newspapers, shredded paper (loose), tissue boxes, toilet roll tubes and writing paper.

Glass: Mixed bottles and jars, any colour (and bottle tops but please separate them). Not window panes, glass cookware/Pyrex, glasses, broken glasses, light bulbs etc.

Plastic: All plastic bottles, pots, tubs and trays (except film), empty carrier bags (except black bags), detergent bottles, drinks bottles (and tops), food and drink cartons (like soup or juice cartons), food trays, ice cream tubs, margarine tubs, plastic milk cartons and bottles, shampoo bottles, yoghurt pots. (When possible, remove the tops and squash the bottle to make more space in your bin).

Metal: aerosols, clean foil, food tins, steel and aluminium food and drink cans (please wash and squash them first), metal lids (bottle and jar lids)

Small electrical items: Broken toasters, kettles, irons, hairdryers, drills, radios, small electronic toys, telephones, power tools, straighteners, shavers, clocks and alarms. Put them in a tied carrier bag next to your grey bin on your normal collection day.

No large electrical items, such as televisions, microwaves, ovens, fridges, washing machines etc.

Textiles: Worn-out clothes, bedsheets, duvet covers, curtains - ripped and stained ones are fine too. Put them in a tied carrier bag next to your green bin on your normal collection day. No duvets or good quality or just unwanted clothes (please give these to charity).

Batteries can be recycled on your recycling collection day. These include batteries such as 6v, 9v (transistor batteries), D, C AA, AAA and button batteries (watch batteries) as well as mobile phone batteries, laptop batteries and lithium batteries with tape across the terminals. Just pop them in a clear plastic bag on top of your green recycling bin. No car batteries or other industrial batteries but you may be able to take these to a household waste recycling centre.

The following cannot be recycled: Video/tape cassettes or their cases, CDs, DVDs and cases (you could take these to a local charity shop), garden pots/flower pots, plastic or metal hangers, plastic toys, plastic trims, frames and mouldings, plastic film/shrink wrap/bubble wrap, plastic wrapping/salad bags/cereal and biscuit wrappers etc, polystyrene packing or beads, plastic cables/ties/strapping/binding multi-material items, e.g. Pringles tubes, cat food pouches, crisp packets, sweet and confectionary wrappers, toothbrushes, squeezy toothpaste tubes, foil-backed card, card with bubble pack attached, card with padding, mirrors, plate glass (windows), ornaments, car windows, paint tins (if you need to get rid of paint, pop some sand in the tin and let it solidify before putting it in your grey bin), machine or engine parts, utensils, tools or saucepans, wire/cable, cushions, mattresses, ropes and belts, carpet and underlay, cork, wood and MDF, ceramics and crockery, soil and rubble, nappies, dead animals and hazardous and clinical waste.”

Speedy and efficient NHS

Sir, — At a time when there is much criticism of the NHS, I would like to tell you of my experience.

From diagnosis by my optician of a common problem following a cataract operation to the letter to my GP, him phoning me, me phoning the Royal Berkshire Hospital eye clinic for an appointment to my visit and successful treatment to both eyes took five weeks.

Albeit mine was not a complicated problem, no time was wasted and there was no drawn-out process. It was all very efficient and must have been cost-effective. — Yours faithfully,

Keith Hedges

Hazelmoor Lane,
Gallowstree Common

In praise of our Fellow

Sir, — My letter about the BBC that you very kindly published last week was intended to simultaneously draw attention to the fact of one of our best known former Gillotts School pupils had been made a Fellow of the Royal Society.

This fact surfaced when Marcus du Sautoy delivered his recent Café Scientifique presentation at Gillotts and this letter is to draw attention to this honour bestowed on Marcus and its reflection on our town of Henley. — Yours faithfuly,

Jim Munro

Blandy Road, Henley

Thank you to kind PO staff

Sir, — Please can I thank the staff at Hambleden post office, with all my heart, for the kindness and care they gave to my parents.

It was pouring with rain when Mum and Dad arrived at the post office, to buy “the” favourite lardy cake.

However, on leaving, their car broke down with a very loud bang. They had breakdown cover, but it took four-and-a-half hours before a mechanic arrived.

During that time, the staff went out of their way to look after my parents and I’m truly grateful. — Yours faithfully,

J Smart

Henley

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