Speakers and participants in the debate. DEBATE REPORT COMING SOON
Victoria Russell. Ray Morgan.
On Saturday 20 February, 71 people got through on Zoom to attend the debate on Woking in 2050: Dream or Nightmare? Our first speaker was Susan Venn, has recently retired as a researcher at the University of Surrey and lives just outside Guildford. She was studying What makes a good life and asked how society can change from its carbon-loving lifestyle. The study looked at three places, Stoke on Trent, Hay on Wye and Woking. Woking was included as an affluent commuter town. Susan spent time understanding Woking and what people liked about the borough. She found that the regeneration that is happening is painful, challenging and difficult, but people see it as ultimately of benefit to Woking and improving the physical facilities. There was a worry that the poorer will become more marginalised and if Woking is for the current residents, or becoming a commuter town for London. Affordability is an issue. Can young people stay here? It is expensive to live here and move within the town. Woking is valued for its community and its connectivity. Older people enjoy accessing all Woking has to offer but are worried about the cost of living and public transport. People were worried about the communities within Woking valuing them. Sheerwater is known as a strong community but is vulnerable with the re-development that is adding hundreds of houses to the estate. Young people, Muslim women and older people talked about the problems in meeting. Lockdown has created new forms of community and brought out the best in people. Speaker Victoria Russell is in her 20s and has lived in Surrey for her whole life and in Woking since secondary school. She established her own accountancy practice two years ago and moved out of her home when she was 20, but has a problem in getting on the property ladder. She loves Woking for its greenery, the good links to London its sustainability policies and its many eco-friendly businesses, the range of events such as Party in the Park and its groups and opportunities for volunteering. Downsides are the roads being so busy, litter, that it is becoming less rural and more built up, although trees are being planted. In her accountancy practice she is looking to help local businesses, particularly eco-friendly ones. In 2050, she hopes that Woking would be no more built up, that help will be available for people getting on the property ladder and there will be a reduction in waste. She fears that, instead, Woking will have a larger population, be more built up and house prices have risen even more. She hopes she will be able to afford to live here. Her husband works at the Leisure Centre which is currently being refurbished along with the local cinema. Raul Lai is also in his 20s and has lived in Woking for the last seven years. He is passionate about equality and social justice and works in that sector. For the future, he looks towards a society which is kinder with a changed outlook that is more just and peaceful. On Sheerwater, half the children live in poverty. Nationally, there are more than 600,000 children living in poverty. Many of the poorest have little access to the internet and school plays an important part in their community. The private educational sector such as Raul was educated in is out of their reach and moving is not an option to access a better school. Postcodes are a real indicator of educational achievement at GCSE and A-level. Every resident should have an equal chance. We need to level up and build back better investing in education, public transport and infrastructure. We need a better funded public service and to do more about climate change. The borough council needs to invest in more lower-cost housing but Raul recognised the investment there has been in the Sheerwater refurbishment, The Lightbox gallery and museum, the New Victoria Theatre and Woking Library. Woking MP Jonathan Lord was the final spealer. His background is in advertising and publicity and he was deputy leader of Westminster Council before becoming MP. Woking has a tension between providing more housing and protecting its green spaces, being smaller than Guildford and Waverley boroughs. There are great plans for West Byfleet replacing the Sheer House office block with a retirement village. There are 500 affordable units in the Sheerwater development. A residents panel is being created to hear residents’ views (see www.woking.gov.uk/residentspanel). The new borough development plan will protect almost all the Green Belt until at least 2040. Woking has a strong community with its mosques and churches, sports clubs and charities. Ashford and St Peter’s hospitals and the Woking Community hospital were both rated well. He identified a need for more technical education in Woking concentrating on IT and AI. The Victoria Arch is to be renewed, widening the road and strengthening the bridge in a £75million scheme. Woking has a problem with its success, which has created high priced housing and high rents for business. A question asked with working from home and commuting less, Brexit and the loss of some jobs in the city should we be planning for a different future now? We need less office space and better broadband connectivity. Woking is superbly located and its centre is very accessible. Recent applications for building more high blocks have all been refused. Susan had mixed feelings on this as she felt it was a trade-off between tower blocks and green spaces. There are strong feelings. The Sheerwater development doubles the number of houses by increasing the density. The town centre had few people living there and felt quiet in the evenings. With more people living there will be a better community. Asked what we can do to make Woking a better place, Victoria urged us to participate more in our local community. Susan also spoke about reinforcing the already strong volunteering. Jonathan wanted us to walk and cycle more and talked about volunteering. Raul felt there was a disconnect between the residents and the council and the deprivation is shocking and becoming worse. How can people’s voices be heard? Jonathan recommended becoming involved in a political party of your choice or a residents’ association. Raul wanted a two-way dialogue between residents and the council and Victoria urged people to get more involved. With regard to the cost overrun of the Victoria Square development in the town centre, Jonathan said this was because the project had developed and grown, and the costs with it. What needs to change? Our transport. We need electric cars and new cycle routes. Getting across the borough can be difficult. In summary, Susan thought that transport is the real issue. Woking has all the ingredients to make it a good community yet it remains worried about its identity. Residents still feel it is not as good as Guildford but, increasingly, residents of Guildford are looking to Woking. Raul talked about the infrastructure and our being as strong as our weakest link. Jonathan spoke about how when he first became MP the centre of Woking was not as good as it could be. There were few coffee shops and restaurants and few people living there. It has been transformed. After the debate closed, Ray Morgan, the retiring council chief executive, was given the floor to speak for 10 minutes. He spoke about how he had been criticised for trying to create a mini-Singapore in Woking but Singapore has many green sustainable features and that is what he was alluding to. He has worked to move cars away from the centre to create a space for people to live, work and play. Some people think the new tall buildings beautiful. In a consultation with residents in 2010, people wanted to protect the Green Belt and 50% of the new housing has been built in the town centre. Regarding the new tower blocks that have been turned down by the planning committee, they were recommended by the planning officers. We need to pay for all the amenities we have and new developments will provide more people to use and pay for them and more homes. The full debate can be found on YouTube by searching for Woking Debates.