Within an hour I was on 'the Floral Mile', a stretch of yellow Rapeseed fields against a blue sky, teeming with horticultural business. I parked up and rudely interrupted Andy from his lunch. He runs the site and briefly explained the history of it to me since it was bought in the 90s. According to him, there has been £1000s spent on an ongoing feud with the council, ranging from Green Belt issues to EU regulations, with the garden centre being open to compromise.
As Andy showed me around, we came up to Santa's Grotto area with a real life nativity stable, with all proceeds going to charity. Eventually, we got distracted by plants I can't remember the name of and I ended up buying some Potato and Broccoli cuttings. At the till, we bumped in to Brian, who writes for a local paper, to which I gave him a quote and a quick photo.
As Brian went to meet up with a photographer, Andy continued to show me some of the offending areas of the site, now left derelict. We went up to the owner's house on site, and saw how eco friendly they were, almost acting as Caretakers for the 8 acre property. As we walked through a Cactus greenhouse, Andy stopped and pointed out how one greenhouse could be used but the one next to it couldn't. There seemed no logical reason why it couldn't be used. Isn't planting more plants on the green belt a good thing?
As we walked back up to meet the photographer, I was left to chat to Gill, who sent the original letter. It became immediately obvious that having spoken to them each individually, they all shared the same view on the planning permission problem - one of frustration. They seemed to not even know themselves what Wokingham Borough Council are objecting to, given that other garden centres do exactly the same as they do on the other side of the road but with planning permission.
On a table just outside the café is the petition. 10,000 unique signatures and counting, a majority of which have been collected in store by customers. Before I duly signed and returned to the café for more tea, a woman representing a housing group came to support the petition and was happy to give Brian a few words. We were then joined by Brian and Andy again as we sat down to discuss other things the company does. Andy spoke about how they have brought several other businesses on site to save them from close, such as a fish stall, a pet shop and a gift shop. They have welcomed over 100 teens for work experience with open arms. They used to get schools in to educate children on site, teaching them how bees only drink from running water and how to grow their own plants. This now cannot be done as that part of the site is left derelict. Mums and their kids walked through about 3pm to go out to the play area. I'm told pensioners gather in the café regularly for 'knit and natter' sessions as a way of getting out the house and meeting people. They raise £10,000 a year for charity and turn over £1m with 100 staff. I asked if anyone from the council has ever visited the site and in the 2 decades they've been there; they were able to name about 5 that had.
4 teas down Andy had to leave suddenly. We found out on exit that he had been handed an injunction there and then, the details of which I do not know of.
It seemed as I forgot the way home that these people knew what they were talking about, experts in their field, giving advice, people you could trust with the Green Belt. They were friendly, informative, community minded, charitable people that Wokingham Borough Council ought to be promoting. The smaller business taking on the national competitor across the street. The companies that employ locally, source their produce from down the road and properly pay their taxes.
To have brought about this problem in the first place, Wokingham Borough council should apologise for their relentless efforts to stunt the growth of a respectable, local green business they claim to represent. Secondly, they should meet one final time with Andy and the owners to settle this dispute with a resolution both sides can agree on once and for all.
Otherwise, the customers of Hare Hatch Sheeplands know where to vote.
David Robert Worley @ Green Party