Passion for building a consensus, involving communities and balancing priorities are three key aims for the council’s latest cabinet member.
The major task for Claire Vickers (Con, Southwater), Horsham District Council’s new cabinet member for living and working communities, is to finish work on the Horsham District Planning Framework, which will lay out where and how many houses will be built over the next 20 years.
In an exclusive interview with the County Times she revealed they would be recommending a lower figure than the 635 homes per year her predecessor floated in October 2012, but the final say would be made by the entire council, and she hoped to build a consensus by the time she brings forward proposals in June.
Mention of comments made to a national paper in 1997 where she threatened to take to the trees and chain herself to a bulldozer as the Horsham district faced the spectre of massive housing development under the Labour Government brought a nervous burst of laughter.
Back then she said: “I will become the Swampy of West Sussex if necessary. My constituents are furious. We will take to the trees and chain ourselves to the bulldozers.”
Reflecting on the comments years later Mrs Vickers said: “I’m more sensible and I have mellowed. I’m still passionate about protecting the countryside for its own sake, but we need to be realistic.”
Her central focus is on Neighbourhood Plans, where parish councils would provide their own evidence-based documents to sit alongside HDC’s planning framework.
These would not preclude development entirely, but could inform where houses were built and what community facilities any money would be spent on.
She said: “I see this as an opportunity for communities to get involved in planning their own needs and wants.”
HDC will be holding a seminar for parish and neighbourhood councils shortly, with places such as Storrington and Henfield expressing an interest.
“It’s a new direction for us. We do need development and it’s a realistic stance,” she added.
Asked how she would balance supporting the interests of Southwater, where Berkeley is looking to build 2,750 homes west of the village, with her cabinet duties, she said her first duty was to those who voted for her, balanced against the needs of the whole district.
She explained: “You do what is the right thing and go for it like Maggie Thatcher did.”
A district councillor for Southwater since 2007 and a parish councillor in the village since 1989, she also served the old ward of Itchingfield and Shipley from 1991 to 2003.
Councillors recently visited proposed housing sites in the district, and assessments would be drawn up on each, although she would not comment on which sites were visited.
As well as Southwater, developers have mooted schemes for 4,500 homes North of Horsham, 1,750 houses east of Billingshurst, and a new market town east of Henfield.
Concerning applications that have been rejected by HDC but may be passed on appeal, Mrs Vickers said they still had to do the best for communities, and in the short term they had an issue with how the planning inspector was interpreting a recent housing shortfall.
A rejected application for 102 homes in Henfield was overturned on appeal last year, and Billingshurst is facing the prospect almost 600 homes being waved through on appeal.
Mrs Vickers and the leader of the council would be meeting with Horsham MP and minister for the cabinet office Francis Maude on Friday to discuss this particular issue.
“I have a real enthusiasm and energy for the role, and want to get a consensus,” she added. “We have to do the right thing by everybody.”