At their private monthly meeting on June 24 last year, Conservative councillors dramatically ditched their housing blueprint for the Horsham District - and embarked on an entirely new strategy.
It was to prove a critical moment in the life of both the district council and the future of the town of Horsham.
Until then, they had appeared committed to ‘scenario one’ that had been discussed at previous group meetings and seminars.
But in the early evening of that Monday in the council chamber at Park North they were persuaded of a radically different approach.
It was the fourth and final item of the secret meeting.
Entitled ‘Housing Strategy/Economic Development’ they were about to commit themselves to a vision which would potentially change the shape of the town forever.
According to the private and confidential minutes of the then group secretary Jim Rae, they began with a resume of the existing first strategy scenario.
This proposal - which could so easily have been the one facing the council when it takes its final decision next Wednesday on April 30 - was focussed entirely on housing, and how to minimise its impact across the district.
Its goal was to reach the expected requirement of 575 additional homes each year - or 11,500 over the next 20 years - as painlessly as possible to all communities.
It indicated a number of ways of achieving this:
1 Counting existing permissions;
2 Including ‘unstoppable’ sites that the council could not prevent - including about 500 dwellings each at Southwater and Billingshurst;
3 Allowing for extra homes that would be required under Neighbourhood Plans;
4 Making a provision for ‘windfall’ applications.
This left a residual number of about 1,200 homes allocated to any one of three areas - two possible ‘new settlements’ and North of Horsham.
Discussions were taking place to try to minimise the impact of development at Southwater and Billingshurst - and any housing at north Horsham would have been far more modest than currently proposed.
But on that June evening, the emphasis suddenly changed.
It moved from Housing to Money.
Mr Rae’s minutes record: “Since the last discussion, various other councils have had their 20 year submissions tested by inspectors and it had become apparent that they are requiring a major emphasis to be placed on economic development and growth as part of the strategy. They also regard ‘windfalls’ as a buffer rather than part of the potential build numbers. Gordon [Lindsay] then added that future council funding was going to become heavily dependent on retaining existing businesses and attracting new ones.”
The comment about ‘windfall’ sites seems significant.
The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) defines ‘windfalls’ as: “Sites which have not been specifically identified as available in the Local Plan process. They normally comprise previously developed sites that have unexpectedly become available.”
The guidance in the policy document explicitly states that ‘local planning authorities may make an allowance for windfall sites in the five-year supply if they have compelling evidence that such sites have consistently become available in the local area and will continue to provide a reliable source of supply. Any allowance should be realistic having regard to the Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment, historic windfall delivery rates and expected future trends, and should not include residential gardens’.
Councils also have the ability to identify broad locations in years 6-15 which could include a windfall allowance based on a geographical area.
Windfall numbers can make a huge contribution to a local plan and removing them as a ‘buffer’ would put enormous pressure to find new, large sites like North Horsham.
But in assessing local plans, inspectors have seemed content to include them in line with the Framework. For example, the Inspector’s Report of September, 2013, for South Gloucestershire Council Core Strategy, stated: “I consider there is ample evidence to show that windfalls have been and remain an important component of housing supply in South Gloucestershire justifying the inclusion of an allowance in the calculation that equates to 150 dwellings per annum in addition to the small site commitments that benefit from planning permission.”
On the issue of council funding, Mr Lindsay was certainly correct.
But there was nothing new in the policy that councils should keep more of the business rates that they raised rather than it being pooled by Whitehall and redistributed using a complex formula.
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles made a Commons statement to MPs as early as early as July 18, 2011, announcing the change in order to incentivise councils to encourage business growth. The whole issue of business rates is currently under review.
The minutes of June 24 continue: “A second scenario was then discussed. This was based around the need to give priority to how we could get economic growth and where new business could be located.
“The big growth area will be within the Gatwick Diamond, based not only on the proximity of the airport but because of good road and rail links. It was suggested that the North of Horsham site would therefore need to feature very strongly in the strategy.
“In order to fund the infrastructure and land for a business park there, the strategy would need to include an allocation of 2,500 homes. It would also include a railway station. These homes to be built at a rate of 200 pa though the developers would pre-fund infrastructure so it could enable the business park area to be available at an early date.”
There had been a significant shift of emphasis. The 2,500 homes were no longer the end goal but the means to the end goal - they were the number required to underwrite a business park which would generate new revenues for the district council.
This was no longer primarily a housing plan to help local young people in need of accommodation but a strategy to boost council finances.
At that meeting, 18 councillors voted in favour of it - approximately 40 per cent of the entire council.
In order to force it through it was confirmed at the following month’s meeting that all Tory councillors must either support it or abstain. Voting against it was not an option unless they accepted that disciplinary action would immediately follow.
Vice chairman and barrister at law Christian Mitchell wrote last week in this newspaper that imposing such a disciplinary sanction was ‘whipping’ and could make the entire plan unsafe at any public inquiry - as each councillor must make a personal evaluation of the strengths or otherwise of the strategy and not abdicate their responsibilities to a group position.
Four and a half weeks later, on July 25, no Conservative voted against the new plan when it was presented to council.
It was rushed through.
One council source told me: “Indeed, only two advisory group meetings (PPAG) were held in this period. The week later on July 1 and then on July 10. Both these were closed to the public so no-one - parish councils, neighbourhood councils, agents, members of the public - had any formal idea of the change of plan until committee papers came out the week before the July 25 council meeting.”
Of course, the North Horsham plan was not new. In an exclusive front page report, the County Times revealed full details of it in January 2012.
At the time, my own view of focussing housing and economic growth to the north of Horsham was that it made sense.
Rather than have sporadic development across the district - especially in some of the most sensitive environmental areas - the best outcome would be to create a quality development that would deliver high calibre jobs, resolve the housing need, and provide a growing Horsham population to sustain the town centre shopping centre.
But Horsham belongs to its people.
The residents of the district should have been offered both scenarios, rather than a Hobson’s Choice, and their view should have prevailed.
Instead, a plan has been forced through in the most undemocratic ways.
No doubt, had it included Horsham MP Francis Maude’s much vaunted acute A&E hospital it might have seemed more acceptable. But it seems this was never more than a political pipe dream.
The County Times has done its duty. It has listened to the people of Horsham. They believe that the way to maintain the vitality of their town is to keep is special, focussed on its unique qualities, and avoiding it becoming any Anytown sprawl.
I trust that next Wednesday our district councillors will do the same and reject this plan and go back to the drawing board.
If they do not, the manner of its imposition will leave it wholly unsafe at a public inquiry and the time that will then be lost will leave some of the district’s most sensitive sites vulnerable to speculative development.