THE leaders of West Berkshire Council say “it is not premature” to abandon a 15,000-home project.

The council had been working with Wokingham Borough Council and Reading Borough Council to draw up plans for a huge garden town in Grazeley – around one mile away from AWE Burghfield.

But West Berkshire Council has pulled out because of concerns about a potential radiation emergency and a lack of funding for infrastructure, after the government rejected a bid for £252 million of support in 2020.

The site that had been earmarked for the new homes is now inside the Detailed Emergency Planning Zone (DEPZ) around AWE Burghfield, after that zone was extended by West Berkshire Council in March 2020.

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According to the Office for Nuclear Regulation, anyone living in the zone, which has a radius of 3,160 metres, can be affected by a “reasonably foreseeable” radiation emergency.

Atomic Weapons Establishment, which runs the nuclear weapons factory, recommended the extension and West Berkshire Council was legally required to accept it, after the government introduced the Radiation Emergency Preparedness and Public Information Regulations (REPPIR) 2019.

According to The Ministry of Defence (MOD), the DEPZ was extended “due to changes in the evaluation and assessment required under REPPIR 2019, not because of any changes in the inventory of materials or in the operations at AWE Burghfield”.

The MOD has objected to the 15,000-home project, claiming there would be “real risks” for people living in those homes because it would be “challenging” to evacuate or shelter all of them quickly during a radiation emergency.

In an eight-page objection letter, the MOD added: “It could have an adverse impact on the nation’s security by constraining both the current and future operation of AWE Burghfield.”

Cllr Ross Mackinnon, executive member for economic development, said “it is not premature” to abandon the project, when he spoke at a West Berkshire Council meeting on February 11.

He added: “The DEPZ for AWE Burghfield encompasses the entire area proposed for the garden settlement.

“A bid for over £250 million from the Housing Infrastructure Fund failed and the MOD – through The Defence Nuclear Organisation – made a formal objection.”

He added: “All of those mean the decision not to allocate any strategic site within this area is entirely understandable and justified.”

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The Conservative-run council is now looking to spend £10 million on building a 75-acre solar farm on part of that area of Grazeley.

Wokingham Borough Council, which was leading the 15,000-home project, has not scrapped it yet. But the council said it is now “looking at alternatives”.

Reading Borough Council has not abandoned the scheme but says it “cannot be delivered at this time” without the support of the other two councils.

In 2019, the government announced a £3.7 million fund for the Grazeley development and four other “garden towns”, that were expected to provide 64,000 homes across England.

The MOD accepts that “significant work” has gone into plans for the Grazeley garden town but says the councils knew the DEPZ could have been extended to cover the site, which is on the border of West Berkshire and Wokingham.