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VIDEO: Close friendships keep community spirit alive during pandemic

VIDEO: Close friendships keep community spirit alive during pandemic

06 December 2021
WBC Tonia2.jpg

A community minister says Wokingham Borough Council’s “joined-up” approach to development has helped her neighbours to look after each other throughout the coronavirus pandemic.


Rev Tonia Elliot, who serves in the role at St Eligius’ Church in Arborfield Green, says they had already forged close relationships when the outbreak began last year, which made keeping in touch to offer support and carry out errands much easier.


Many got to know each other through walking dogs in the community’s public green spaces or attending the Bohunt secondary school, both of which were funded by developers building new housing in the area.


So when the first lockdown was announced, followed by others later that year and early this year, residents were able to quickly unite and make sure everyone was well cared for.

Getting to know you

Tonia, who has shared her story in a video interview with Wokingham Borough Council, moved to Arborfield Green with her husband David, their grown-up daughters and family dog Digby in 2018, four years after being ordained.


She quickly got to know parishioners by knocking on newcomers’ doors and stopping to chat with people while walking Digby around the streets and green spaces.


She also regularly visits the secondary school, which opened in 2016 and was funded by development, to bring in cakes, organise services and talk to pupils.


The academy is the first new school built in the borough in more than 50 years and Tonia says it plays a crucial role in community life.


The borough council’s major development at the former Arborfield Garrison is also home to the newly relocated Farley Hill Primary School, which opened in September and recently expanded its catchment area, with more space set aside for another primary when it’s needed.

'Beautiful area'


Tonia said: “I love my job because life here is so vibrant – it’s such a green, scenic neighbourhood to live in and get to know others who are also enjoying it.


“We moved here from a town centre with very little green space so and we’re all in our element, including the dog!


“Our family life revolves around the outdoors, whether it’s visiting local pubs and the café at California Country Park or my husband leading the weekly running group around this beautiful area.”


At the start of lockdown, Tonia launched a scheme to help those who were isolating due to age or medical conditions by bringing shopping and medicine or providing a listening ear.


The church had to close but activities were still held outside when it was safe to do so, and with full precautions in place.

New opportunities

Tonia said: “The neighbourhood seemed to come alive – it was buzzing with people looking after one another and while we couldn’t do much inside, there was still a supportive atmosphere.


“We got to know each other a lot better and I certainly met more people. It felt like almost everybody got dogs during lockdown so there were far more opportunities to chat.


“Residents have also found this is a great environment for working from home because they feel so comfortable. I understand a lot of small businesses have started recently because of that.


“People are glad to have friendly neighbours and social opportunities they might not have had in places they’ve lived before. It's a great area for them to bring up children.”


Tonia says working with Bohunt School is another highlight.


She says: “It’s a wonderful, modern secondary with all the facilities a student could need. They see themselves as part of the community and are there for everyone, just as the church is.


“A lot of students come from this area and we see them cycling or walking in every morning. It’s a very safe place to live, work and study.”

Working better together

Tonia sits on a team which organises regular community events alongside representatives of the borough council and housing developers.


She says the authority’s strategic, co-operative stance on development has proven successful.


Tonia says: “That joined-up approach has helped to build an active community, with the council and developers working together and residents like me working with both.


“There’s a real sense that everyone’s pulling together to make this a nice place to live.”


Arborfield is one of the council’s four major new developments, with three others allocated at North and South Wokingham and Shinfield Parish as part of its current local plan.


That plan, which serves as a blueprint for housing and other development across Wokingham borough, must now be updated and the council proposes continuing that successful approach in its revised growth strategy.


It once again suggests concentrating most development in large-scale new communities so that a wide range of high-quality services and amenities can be provided. 


A public consultation runs until 24 January and everyone is encouraged to take part to help shape the plan to meet the community’s needs.

Building communities, not just homes


Cllr Wayne Smith, executive member for planning and enforcement, said: “We’ve always sought to build communities, rather than simply places to live, and this goes to show the benefits of doing so.


“Not only has it improved residents’ quality of life in the long run, but it has enabled them to come together and offer both emotional and practical support at a time which proved difficult for many, particularly the elderly and medically vulnerable.


“The pandemic is far from over and we must all play our part in containing the spread of the virus, but I hope that residents of Arborfield Green, and indeed all our communities, feel confident that support from a neighbour is never far away.”


To find out more about the revised growth strategy, take the survey or watch Tonia’s interview, visit our new Engage platform

We have also published a detailed history of our major development strategy which outlines why it has proven so successful.


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