I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Woking is having some building work done. Just a little bit. Just some very modest new build in the centre of town, nothing major. You’d never know the new towers were there…if you were in space.
Who am I kidding? The towers are huge and have been vociferously opposed. Locals – myself included – are not just concerned about the damage to the beautiful views across the Surrey Hills, but also have grave concerns about the impact of so many new residents for Woking and the pressure this will put on school places, health service capacity and public transport.
So when another development, Cardinal Court at Woking Football Club, was proposed last year, Woking residents got organised. So far the opposition to the new development is going well, with the South Woking Action Group lobbying Woking Borough Council with great results.
What is interesting about Cardinal Court, however, is that it doesn’t appear to be a solution specifically for Woking. The same developer had tried to build an almost identical flats-with-football-club scheme in Braintree in Essex in 2008, and had met with the same opposition as he did in Woking.
The point is not that developers are trying to create more homes for Woking itself – instead, as the Braintree/Woking football club schemes show, anywhere in the South East will do. So my feeling is that, if we really want to preserve the home counties’ towns and green belts from unchecked expansion, we have to treat the causes. Letters to the council, public meetings, lying down in front of JCBs are effective in the short term, but they are only sticking-plaster solutions. Instead, we have to look at the wider problem, of which I myself am a symptom.
I’ll let you into a secret: I’m not from round here. I’m a blow-in. I came down from Newcastle twenty years ago and lived in London for a decade before moving out to Surrey to raise my family. I’d been “down south” for nearly a year when I realised that I was never going to go back to Newcastle. In Newcastle, aged twenty-one, I’d been doing a bar job I’d competed to get; in the south, I could walk into a decently paid office job almost without trying. At a recent school reunion, a prominent topic of conversation was about which train we were travelling home on, a conversation that showed how many bright lasses who sat their A-levels in 1996 are living in the South East now. Newcastle has the highest unemployment figures in the country. It also has the largest foodbank, one that carries the dubious honour of having been visited by a UN official reporting on poverty in Britain. You might know it – it’s the one in ‘I, Daniel Blake’.
Why am I telling you this? Because I feel that the answer to the problem of Woking’s expansion lies in the need for more investment in the provinces. If Newcastle and other provincial conurbations offered the prospects that London and the South East do, my school mates and I wouldn’t have needed to leave. We could have stayed in the beautiful city where we grew up, supporting its growth, putting its businesses on the map, developing ourselves and our skills for the good of the North East. Instead, we live down south, putting pressure on the South East’s housing and infrastructure, perpetuating the situation in Woking and validating the North/South divide. The more we support the South East’s businesses with our northern skills and experience, the less investors want to put into the provinces. This is the problem we need to solve – the towers in Woking are only a symptom of it.
So if you don’t want Surrey’s green belt built upon, if you don’t want high-rise towers to be a blot on the landscape, lobby government, But don’t lobby for planning restrictions. Instead, lobby for sustained, sustainable, strategic investment in the provinces. Help the children of those cities to become adults who want to stay put and give something back to the community that raised them – ultimately, you’ll be helping your Surrey community too.
- Woking: Hillbers News