Wokingham Council planning committee turns down MRT bus lane bridge plan

A protest sign at the entrance of Wokingham Borough Council's Shute End offices ahead of an extraordinary planning meeting on Monday, June 25

PLANS to concrete over land by the River Thames were turned down by the planning committee on Monday evening. Five members voted against and four in favour.

The extraordinary meeting was held at Wokingham Borough Council’s Shute End offices on Monday evening and the decision was made just weeks after Reading Borough Council approved plans for its side of the scheme.

Under the proposals, the riverside would be turned into a single lane bus bridge linking a park and ride being built at Thames Valley Park with the Vastern Road end of Reading’s railway station. Known as the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), the scheme would plonk a new concrete bridge next to the historic and listed horseshoe and railway bridges originally built by Brunel.

The historic horseshoe bridge at Kennetmouth – where the River Thames meets the Kennet and Avon canal

Had it been approved, the bridge would be 316 metres long, supported by concrete columns, steel beams and a reinforced soil embankment.

It is designed to fit in with the council’s core strategy policy of providing high quality bus links along the A4 and A329, and is provided with one eye on potential population growth in the region, although, for instance, people moving into Hatch Farm scheme would use the Winnersh Triangle park and ride rather than the proposed Thames Valley Park project.

Planning officers noted that the area acted as a green buffer and that the scheme would “irrecoverably alter the area” with the viaduct being a “large, dominant structure”. ‘Scoops’ would be used to help alleviate the loss of floodplain storage area.

A separate legal process would be carried out over the appropriation of space, separate to the planning procedure. The Highways Officer did not raise concern over the loss of light.

Although 700 trees are at risk the council are promising that a greater number of trees will be planted to replace them.

Part of the Thameside that would been concreted over if the MRT scheme goes ahead

Speaking on behalf of Earley Town Council, Bill Luck raised their objections to the scheme saying that it was unsightly and that there were concerns over wildlife and to the Grade II listed bridges.

He said: “We are concerned about the loss of wildlife habitat, and that the western embankment approach to the bridge impedes the floodplain. The compensation for the floodplain is to be located within the strip of woodland between Tesco [in Reading] and the river, we believe the resulting loss of habitat and a reduction in the tree screening in the bulk of the store when viewed from the river.”

He added: “It would appear that there is no policy justification for this major development. While Policy CP10 deals with improvements to the strategic transport network, it lists specific projects and does not refer to this transit link.”

Tazmin Morphy and Carl Emerson-Darn, representing pressure group SOAR, said: “People who live in East Reading will be the most affected by this plan.

“The MRT will be built right alongside the Thames Path bringing traffic noise and pollution. It will ruin a locally valued green open space at Kennetmouth, contravening national and local policies on landscape features and open space, and adversely affect the physical and mental health of local people.”

She called for exploring a trial of congestion charging, saying it would cost £31,000 as opposed to the £24 million for the MRT.

She added that there had been 18 different species of trees found, while the area was a habitat for slow worms and grass snakes, which are protected species.

Ms Morphy also highlighted the reduction of traffic on the A4 London Road, citing that there fewer journeys being made each year.

Elsewhere, the scheme had received 100s of letters of complaint and 2,100 petition signatures.

She was given a large round of applause from the public gallery as she concluded: “I ask councillors, knowing the destruction that the MRT will cause for people, plants and animals, how can you in all good conscience agree to this wholesale devastation of a beautiful and beloved area of our riverside?”

Scott Witchalls, acting on behalf of the sponsoring agent for the scheme, spoke in favour saying that the scheme would provide rapid connections for bus services.

Cllr Shahid Younis (Conservative), councillor for Bulmershe and Whitegates, highlighted that the Thameside area is used by thousands of people and wanted the application refused.

“I understand both sides of the argument,” he said. “I hope that the committee applies the strongest, strictest conditions to ensure the environmental impact is mitigated.”

Cllr Andy Croy (Labour), councillor for Bulmershe and Whitegates, spoke against the scheme, saying that the application must be refused as the council’s core strategy has no provision for building a new road in the area.

“This scheme is simply a road, it is not a bus service, it is a road,” he said. “It is not a Mass Rapid Transport scheme and has none of the characteristics of such a scheme.

“An MRT is typically a light railway moving large volumes of people. This scheme provides no evidence of either.”

He said that without such provision, the application cannot be considered as it did not meet the borough council’s core strategy.

“If this scheme is approved, we face the prospect of Wokingham Borough barristers arguing with barristers of the scheme’s opponents over the definition of Mass Rapid Transit. Everyone in this room knows this is not a Mass Rapid Transit scheme. Everyone.

“We do not need to pay barristers to tell us this.”

The area is part of the Thames Path

During the committee’s discussions Cllr Carl Doran (Lab, Bulmershe and Whitegates) reiterated that the application was not for an MRT, it was for a road, also querying the number of buses that would use the route.

Cllr John Jarvis (Con, Twyford) said that he felt the scheme would not be as effective as it could be. “The A4 from Twyford is a large bottleneck,” he said, pointing out the scheme didn’t seem to offer any solutions for it.

Council officers told him that the MRT would relieve traffic on that part of the road.

Cllr Wayne Smith (Cons, Hurst) focused on the trees lost as a result of the plans: “I have the utmost sympathy for the protestors, it is very picturesque.

“I can’t see how it’s going to work, it’s going to cost a lot of money. Taxpayers in Reading and Wokingham are going to have to pay for this.”

To applause, he said: “I will vote against it.”

Cllr Bill Soane (Cons, Loddon), “Its’ a bit of shame this is being considered in my opinion/”

He wanted to know the number of buses per day that would be used. Officers struggled to find it: “I have to be honest, I can’t recall.”

Cllr Malcolm Richards (Cons, Norreys), raised concerns with the height of the scheme and felt that it would look out of place with the existing environment. “The open space is very different when there’s some concrete above you,” he added.

Cllr Doran pointed out that the report states that traffic will increase despite the MRT. “When you read this application, all the downsides are solid,” he added. “It seems such a lot of money to spend for such a small benefit.

“There’s lots of possible and coulds.”

Park & Ride
An image of what the proposed bus lane over the River Thames will look like produced by SOAR, a campaign against the plans Picture: SOAR

Cllr Angus Ross (Cons, Wokingham Without) felt it was comparing apples and pears, which was “difficult” to do.

“On balance it is a scheme that should be supported.”

Cllr Smith did want to know what other options had been explored in addition to the MRT, pointing out that he hadn’t had the opportunity to review them. He also reminded the officers of the possibility of a third bridge over the Thames.

He proposed that the scheme be deferred as he was concerned that the council was being led by Reading Borough Council over it and needed to be without this “awful concrete” and that the committee needed to come up with “something better”.

“It’s going to be an eyesore,” he added.

Four members voted in favour – with five against.



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