A petition calling for Alton Town Council to abandon proposals which seek to take Kings Pond offline from the River Wey has just passed a significant milestone – the number of signatures, predominantly from the Alton area, now stands at just over 1,000.
On the back of a council meeting last month which was attended by in excess of 120 local residents, combined with another 300-name petition collected by Sandra Hardman, there is a clear picture of public opinion forming.
Many people love and cherish Kings Pond in its current form and have no desire to see the proposed changes enacted.
Despite this, and an assertion that it was “not a done deal”, councillors voted in favour of earmarking funds for a feasibility study and appointment of a project manager, choosing to take the marginal result of a public consultation as a mandate to act over a majority opposition expressed through other mediums.
While many will see no cause for concern, there are grounds to worry.
By definition, a feasibility study is a document examining whether a concept can realistically be implemented – it is groundwork for achieving a desired outcome, not one of neutrality.
Critically, it comes at a cost and may put the town in a position where the mounting expenses become the catalyst to see the project through.
A point I made at the public meeting is we are not yet at a stage where a feasibility study should even be considered. The council has yet to investigate or seek to mitigate the ingress of silt and other pollutants into the river between its source and the pond.
I submitted evidence to Cllr Graham Hill which showed how, during downpours, soil was washed in a torrent down Brick Kiln Lane into the waterway – something which is likely a significant contributor to the silt build-up at Kings Pond.
Further documentation shows how authorities in Norfolk, when faced with similar issues, worked with local landowners to successfully address this.
I sincerely believe the next steps need to be ones of fact finding and problem solving – it might be a slow process but finding long-term fixes for how silt and pollutants enter the waterway in the first instance is the only true resolution.
There is no miracle cure nor a single solution – rather it is a giant jigsaw puzzle which we must tackle one piece at a time.
While a more drawn-out process, it has greater long-term prospects and represents less of a gamble than the proposals to take the pond offline which, as Cllr Hill noted, has no guarantee of success, as evidenced in similar projects elsewhere.
The future of the space has also been dealt a further blow. The dissolution of the open spaces committee now means Alton’s parks and public spaces, such as Kings Pond, are deprived of a quarterly meeting solely and exclusively dedicated to them.
While it should be noted the number of full council meetings will be increased from six to ten per annum, it does mean proposals, discussion and debate face being lost among a wider agenda, with less time dedicated to such issues.
With big-ticket items such as the Kings Pond proposals, the pump track and Flood Meadows enhancements being born out of such meetings, it feels like the council is making a significant step backwards with these plans.
And in being implemented with immediate effect, there is no option for the next council, post-May, to have its say on this decision.
With the above in mind, the petition launched calls for a complete abandonment of the proposals to date.
Without wishing to villainise the council, it made mistakes and neglected to represent the views of the electorate, which became evident in how local people expressed themselves at the public meeting, on social media and through letters to the Herald.
In asking the council to take things back to the drawing board, it’s not a criticism but an opportunity. It instead allows for a holistic and inclusive approach to addressing environmental needs of the pond and wider waterway while working towards an end project which townsfolk will want to support.
Speaking as a resident, county councillor Andrew Joy referred to Kings Pond as being the jewel in the crown for Alton – and that is exactly what many of the petition’s signatories wish to see – a return to its former glory as the wildlife-rich, beating heart of our town.
With local elections less than three months away, it is essential that those who stand seek to represent public feeling.
There is a genuine prospect that some votes will be won or lost depending on how a candidate positions themselves on the Kings Pond debate.
I read out a letter from a local resident at the meeting whose sentiment was to the effect of “Kings Pond has always been there at our times of need, now we must be there when it needs us most”.
Never were more true words spoken.