Why our councillors must support tonight’s critical planning debate

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Comment by Gary Shipton, Editor In Chief

Oscar Wilde famously observed in The Picture of Dorian Gray: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

To misquote him in the context of local house-building blueprints, there is only one thing in the world worse than having a local development plan, and that is not having one.

Today’s County Times is one of the biggest we have ever produced in terms of editorial content.

In addition to all your local news, sports, entertainments and features - which are the benchmark of the newspaper - there is extensive coverage of proposals for a second runway at Gatwick as well as Horsham District Council’s plans for the future shape of the area in which we live.

Tonight (Thursday, July 25) district councillors will be asked to vote on launching a formal consultation on this district plan and it will be accompanied by what will almost certainly be a heated debate.

I know that there will be a range of strongly expressed views because in the best traditions of the local press, we give space to many of the conflicting arguments in today’s edition.

On the one hand, the council’s leadership is anxious to move the plan forward. In drawing the consultative document together, it has aimed to protect the most sensitive rural and village locations across the district - especially the downlands, Billingshurst and Southwater - while accommodating the homes that are likely to be demanded and combining them with a state of the art business park and rail station to create high quality jobs in North Horsham, closest to the Gatwick Diamond.

The County Times believes that the pressure for more development being exerted by central Government is unnecessary, wholly environmentally damaging, and contrary to the Conservative philosophy of empowering local people.

But the fact remains that national politicians - despite the cool words of commonsense from MPs such as Nick Herbert - seem hellbent on an orgy of greenfield destruction which will fuel another housing bubble based on more consumer borrowing. They learn nothing even from recent history.

We cannot change that position, much as we might wish to. In those circumstances, while maintaining the campaign, it is also vital we make the best of today’s reality.

Without an adopted local plan, developers will have a free for all. They will win pretty much every application on appeal to a Government inspector. They will target the most lucrative, sensitive sites - and the community will miss out on the infrastructure that should come with them and the ability to influence the quality and nature of the design.

It will be piecemeal sprawl of the worst kind. It will potentially affect North Horsham just as much as every other corner of the region.

Of course, some councillors - especially those in North Horsham - have enormous and very legitimate objections to parts of the plan.

We have given them an entire page in today’s edition to spell out those concerns.

I know they are motivated out of passion, principle, and a determination not to be railroaded against the best interests of their local constituents.

I applaud them for it and will continue to afford the widest platform for debate of all these issues. We share many of their fears.

But when they cast their vote tonight I hope they will support the stance of cabinet member Claire Vickers and leader Ray Dawe.

I do.

We must get a proper consultation under way. We must keep our most critical councillors at the heart of the public debate. Their expertise will be needed in shaping and refining the proposals through consultation - to ensure that what emerges is of the highest quality and inflicts the least damage, especially on the countryside and existing residents.

I hope, too, all local people will contribute to that process - not least through the pages of our newspapers and websites.

Council chairman Philip Circus sums up the ambiguity of localism very well in today’s County Times.

Sadly, it is not about giving people the planning powers they want - it is merely about curbing the worst excesses of a Government struggling to revitalise the economy.

Tonight is an important milestone in the development of our district. We need to seize the moment - or others will snatch it from us and the consequences will be far worse.