Campaigns and closure fights in Hungerford, January 2017 to February 2021

Hungerford campaigns montage

If producing Penny Post has taught us one thing it’s that, no matter how large or small the settlement you live in or the area you cover, there’s always something going on. While many of these wouldn’t have caused the national presses to hold their front pages, many are of considerable local significance. After all, an intrusive development down the road or the withdrawal of a key service in the local town is probably going to affect local residents more than the latest government white paper or tweet from a former US President.

We can’t change the world (though some us  try) but we can change the bit of it we live in.  Many might feel that there’s not much about Hungerford that needs to change. The fact that it’s a pretty good place to live now may, in part, be due to several campaigns which have been waged in recent years. Some were successful, some less so, others are still ongoing. It so happened that many of these first surfaced when we started Penny Post Hungerford – indeed, that was one of the reasons we launched it – so it might be worth having a quick look back over some of these.

(Many of these we have covered so many times and in so many ways in Penny Post Hungerford and on our website that it seems pointless to supply links – use the search panel at the top of any page on the site to look up what we’ve covered on these topics.)

Salisbury Road

The biggest issue, which has been featured in every issue since #1 in one form or another, is the 100-home development south of Salisbury Road (now known as Lancaster Park). The development was the subject of a well-attended public meeting on 7 January 2017 in the Corn Exchange. Hungerford Town Council (HTC), which had proposed an alternative way that the homes could be provided spread throughout the town, had a number of misgivings about the plan. The infringement of the AONB status was a key issue, as was its likely affect on traffic. The application was lodged and was eventually approved. HTC launched a judicial review into the decision which, as so many do, failed, There was then a change of developer, a delayed public exhibition and, most recently, a wrangle with West Berkshire Council (WBC) about the tenure of some the homes, the developers preferring to have no provision for social housing despite this being a clear term of the approval. At the time of writing, that matter has yet to be resolved but the first homes will go on sale this month. It’s worth stressing that, being only a consultee in the planning process, HTC has no direct influence over the decisions (though it can, and has, lobby the participants, launch campaigns and generally make its views known). By far the two most important participants in such matters (unless the government gets involved) are the planning authority, WBC in this case, and the developer: though not always, it would seem, in that order.

The Post Office

Another issue which kicked off at about this time was the closure of Martins in the High Street, which was happened in late 2016. This would have risked the town losing its Post Office. You might think that some law insists that a PO counter exist in a town of a certain size – it doesn’t. HTC certainly realised this: if action were not taken, that could have been that. It was important to maintain some service continuation to demonstrate to the new owners, or some other suitable retailer, that a PO counter in the town was viable. With the help of Sue Rendell, the Postmistress from Aldbourne, an outreach service was offered from the Library building. When WHS took over the old Martin’s store, it therefore was a much easier decision to add a PO counter, which remains there to this day. If HTC had not acted as it did this may not have happened. This has become all the more important now that the town is set to lose its last remaining bank.

The Library

The Library, in which the outreach service was located, was also having problems of its own. The severe cuts to government funding for local councils led to WBC deciding in February 2016 that all the district’s libraries save Newbury’s would need to close. This led to a torrent of objections and the establishment of many ‘friends of…’ groups. HTC disputed WBC’s binary approach to the problem – that the libraries would either be operated by them or not at all – and suggested a third route, whereby the building itself would be transferred to the Town Council and administered through a charitable trust (so enabling new funding streams to be generated from grants) while the library service itself would continue unchanged. WBC was initially dismissive of this proposal though, to their credit and after the appointment of a new Library Services Manager, they warmed to the idea. The discussions proceed, the document were drawn up, the trust was established and on 15 June 2018 the Library building was transferred to the town. It was immediately re-named the Hungerford Hub and the new arrangements have seen the building put to an increasingly wide range of uses. This model has been emulated elsewhere, in the district and beyond, including in Stratfield Mortimer. Were the Friends of Hungerford Library and HTC not to have taken action, there might now not be a library in Hungerford and certainly not the vibrant community centre which this initiative created.

The Nursery School

Yet another organisation facing funding problems was, and is, the Hungerford Nursery School, one of the 400 or so maintained nursery schools (MNSs) in the country. According to the Association of Head teachers, MSNs “have a critical role to play in the provision of high-quality early years education,” and are particularly effective at being able to provide the necessary expertise and facilities for children with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND), those from disadvantaged areas and those from vulnerable families. This would, one might think, be sufficient reason for ensuring their survival. Instead, in 2017, the government introduced changes to their funding that would result in most of them being forced to close. Campaigns were launched by the school and by its association. These were supported by HTC, WBC and the then MP Richard Benson (as well as a powerful cross-bench alliance of backbenchers). The funding changes were due to come into force in 2020 but, in November 2019, this deadline was pushed back to March 2021 and, more recently, to March 2022. This still provides no long-term security and the campaign therefore continues. (It’s worth adding that Hungerford Nursery School has never received anything other than an ‘outstanding’ OFSTED rating. MNSs are also by far the best performing parts of the educational system. 63% of MNSs were rated as ‘outstanding’ in August 2017, a figure no other part of the education sector came close to matching.)

Car parking

In any town, car parking is always likely to be a problematic issue. In Hungerford’s case, the fact that the town has a railway station means that it needs to provide day-long parking spaces for more than just residents and shoppers. One of the parking areas near the station, for about 100 cars, was a temporary site leased from Oakes Bros. This would, however, close if the long-term ambition to develop the site were realised. HTC and others were aware of the risk and so were not wholly taken by surprise when planning application was applied for in July 2018. Oakes Bros did not close the car park immediately, as it could have done (this finally happened in January 2021) but it was clear that problems would result if new spaces could not be found. HTC identified some suitable locations and also saw this as an opportunity to push forward other plans for the upgrading of the area, including the provision of a taxi rank (which has happened) and a permanent kiosk (which has so far not). HTC is only one of the interested parties in this – WBC, GWR and Network Rail are also also involved, which has made discussions at time frustratingly slow. Covid has, of course, removed the immediate problem of parking spaces for commuters but it’s to be expected that this requirement will return. The new homes at Lancaster Park, not within an easy walk of the station, will also start to add pressure on the parking spaces that remain. It’s likely to be some time before this matter is finally resolved.

The neighbourhood development plan

In May 2018, Hungerford announced that it had decided to embark on a neighbourhood development plan, a method by which the community has a formalised say on the planning policies in its area which and which would, once all the hurdles were cleared, be enshrined in WBC’s local plan. By their nature, these require various bouts of local engagement interspersed with periods, sometimes lasting several months when, like a train in a tunnel, the project disappears from public view while assessments are made and consultations conducted with WBC or other bodies. NDPs typically take several years to complete and Hungerford’s is no exception. It’s anticipated that this will be completed and ratified by March 2022 when WNC’s local plan (of which this will become a part) is finally approved.

Self-isolation Network

The advent of Covid brought fresh challenges to the town. One was the need to ensure that who were shielding or self-isolating would still be able to get food and medicines and the Hungerford Self-isolation Network was set up be local resident Geordie Taylor in March 2020. At its height it had over 200 volunteers and has continued to operate through the various tiers and lockdowns that have followed.

The Wednesday market

Another thing that kept going during lockdown was the excellent Wednesday market in town. This had grown in size during 2019 and early 2020 and, although government regulations at times required that only stalls selling essential goods could remain open, these proved very popular. Social-distancing and other measures have been put in place and there’s plentiful evidence to suggest that one is far safer from the risk of Covid infection when outdoors.

And more…

In addition to these, numerous other issues have regularly cropped up in Penny Post Hungerford. These include the pigeon problem, the work of the Smarten Up Hungerford team, the upgrading of the street lights and speeding on the Common. We shall continue to report on these and other matters as they emerge. If there’s anything you feel needs move coverage than it’s currently receiving, let us know…

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