A civil war within the Conservative ranks of Horsham’s district council over plans for development north of the town intensified this week as senior members of the party reaffirmed their strong objections to proposals.
Speaking to the County Times in the wake of the authority’s decision two weeks’ ago to approve a housing blueprint for the district which includes 2,500 homes and a new business park north of the A264, Liz Kitchen said it would be a new settlement which would ‘not have anything to do with Horsham’ and would be seen more as a neighbourhood of Crawley.
She was one of six Tories to speak out against the plan at the critical council meeting with another two abstaining from the final vote.
The former HDC leader and planning chairman was joined by Peter Burgess this week who said the approved plan was ‘flawed’ and would ‘seriously harm the entire district’.
Mrs Kitchen, who represents Colgate and Rusper, said: “The big thing is the Horsham and Crawley gap. I think last Wednesday was a very sad night in as much as presently it has been given away to Crawley and I think Crawley will see it more as a neighbourhood of Crawley rather than a part of Horsham.”
At last month’s meeting reference was made to her decision as leader to support thousands of homes west of Bewbush.
She said: “When I supported Kilnwood Vale I did so because I knew we had to have the houses. It never ever entered my head they would contemplate this sort of building north of the A264.
“It had been rejected at an earlier time in the district council by the Strategic Planning Advisory Group because it was building north of the A264 breaking the northern boundary of the town and it was too close to Crawley. When it was rejected I thought this was safe.
“My worry is it’s bad planning: ‘There’s an empty field there, lets dump it in a field’,” she added.
“It will be a new settlement north of Horsham and it will not have anything to do with Horsham.”
She countered suggestions made by Jim Rae and deputy leader Helena Croft in recent weeks that there was an element of inevitability about development north of Horsham.
In an ‘intouch’ leaflet, delivered through doors in Roffey North before the final vote had even taken place on April 30, Mrs Croft wrote: “Like it or not, the reality is that the controversial North Horsham development plan that has been so much in the news has never been in our gift to stop ever since it was identified in 2009 as a potential strategic site and all local councillors are well aware of that fact.”
Meanwhile Mr Rae wrote on Facebook: “FACT: North Horsham was always going to happen, with or without a local plan, all the plan attempts to do is to try and protect us ALL from Liberty’s planning excesses.”
Two separate strategic sites north of the A264 were identified in the 2009 Core Strategy Review, but these were ruled out in 2011 according to Mrs Kitchen.
She said their own officers said large-scale housebuilding there ‘could be uncontrolled development in the countryside’.
Then Liberty Property Trust’s proposals for 4,500 homes and a new A&E hospital north of Horsham were revealed exclusively in the County Times in January 2012.
Mrs Kitchen added: “Recently we would have accepted it with a hospital because it was worth paying that price.”
But in April 2013 GPs from the new Clinical Commissioning Groups appeared to rule out any possibility of a new acute medical facility.
Mrs Kitchen added: “I just assumed that would be the end of it.”
But then in July 2013 the Preferred Strategy, which included 2,500 homes and new business park instead of an A&E hospital, was put out for consultation.
Asked to clarify her comments, Mrs Croft said that nine potential strategic sites had been examined and North Horsham was assessed as being the most sustainable.
She added: “We want to be a plan-led authority so that we can best meet the needs of local people. The 2009 consultation which started the review of the Core Strategy and all the work since then has tried to put a plan in place to guide development in the most sustainable locations, provide the appropriate facilities and to protect and where possible enhance our most sensitive areas.
“Developers can and will pursue sites in which they have an interest and it is not in my or the council’s gift to stop that from happening. So, in the absence of a five year land supply it is not the district council that has the final say on sites that gain permission for development – it is a planning inspector on behalf of the government. Therefore that is not in our gift.”
A six week period of representation on the Horsham District Planning Framework Proposed Submission will start on Friday May 16.
The plan along with comments will be sent to the planning inspector where the soundness of the plan will be tested in a series of public examination hearings later this year.
Representations can be made on the council’s website at www.horsham.gov.uk or they can be emailed to email@example.com or by post to the Strategic Planning Team at Horsham District Council, Park North, North Street, Horsham, West Sussex, RH12 1RL.
Mrs Kitchen said that a group of councillors would put forward the case against the North Horsham development at the examination hearings, and criticised the way the entire process had been handled up to this point.
She explained: “Lots of this could have been avoided and it might not have happened if it was debated in front of Full Council and not the Conservative Group at a much earlier stage.
“There has to be more openness and discussion between the cabinet and normal members.”
Meanwhile writing to the County Times this week Peter Burgess, councillor for Holbrook West, questioned if the inspector would allow a ‘seriously flawed plan’ that ignored severe road, rail, access, water, sewage, and education problems.
He added: “I do despair, that we can allow a single option plan, dictated by a single developer, to be approved.
“One which will seriously harm the whole district; when with intelligent planning over the whole area, and I include Horsham, we could actually have enhanced local hamlets, villages and towns, by using the developers to give us what we need and want.
“Let’s hope it is not too late to change.”
The row within the Tory ranks erupted publicly in February when Christian Mitchell was deselected as chairman-elect in an unprecedented ‘three line whip’ vote. He said he had paid the price for articulating his residents’ concerns about the housing blueprint.
Since then there has been a huge debate - led by the County Times - over the secret way the plan was determined last year in private Tory group meetings, with a whipped vote last July, and at closed door meetings of the council’s Planning Policy Advisory Group (PPAG) committee.
It led the County Times to launch a STop Secret campaign and a free speech charter - which has been signed by Lib Dems, UKIP, and select number of district Tories including Mrs Kitchen, Mr Burgess, Mr Mitchell, Josh Murphy, John Bailey, Tricia Youtan, and Simon Torn.
See letters page 34.