EMOTIONS ran high on Tuesday night as Horsham District councillors made the decision to lease out the Old Town Hall to Bill’s Produce.
The momentous meeting was fraught with controversy and passion from start to finish with a political divide on the issue of community use, which continued after the meeting when an unprecedented argument erupted between some members of the Liberal Democrat group and Conservatives.
Subsequently, in the heat of the moment, the leader of the Lib Dems David Holmes was allegedly heard to call Conservative Jim Rae (Holbrook East) ‘an odious little man’.
Dr Holmes said later that he did not remember using those words but had apologised to Mr Rae for showing him lack of respect.
The debate started with member of the public Jeanette Stone asking Roger Arthur, cabinet member for efficiency and resources, why he believed Horsham needed another restaurant and what impact he expected it to have on existing market traders and eateries in the town.
Mr Arthur (Con, Chanctonbury), who recommended Bill’s Produce as the preferred bidder, answered saying the combination of Bill’s daytime and evening offering would provide something unique to other providers in the town.
“The experience from Bill’s will be different and it will sustain the night-time daytime and economy,” he said.
The controversy continued when Dr Holmes (LDem, Horsham Park) made a proposal to defer the decision and perform a public consultation on ‘what is best for the town’ and continued later when Philip Circus (Con, Chanctonbury) called some people who oppose the decision ‘enemies of the community’.
Dr Holmes said: “I believe that having strong communities matters.
“Having somewhere in the town centre where a variety of events, particularly voluntary sector events, can take place is essential if we want people to have a sense of place, to have pride in where they live, to be and to feel part of the community. After all every village has such a place.
“I am absolutely disgusted and gutted that this council is planning to take this building away from the local community for twenty years, in all probability for the rest of my lifetime, without having considered whether it makes sense or whether it is what the public want.
“If this goes ahead it is a disgrace, a betrayal of the people of the town, and, I have no doubt, something that one day will be bitterly regretted.”
Mr Dawe (Con, Chantry) called the counter-proposal ‘silly nonsense’ and told members: “I don’t know why we are bothering with it.”
The Liberal Democrats lost the vote on Dr Holmes’ proposal and Mr Arthur’s proposal went on to be debated.
Brian Donnelly (Con, Pulborough and Coldwaltham) commented on the hundreds of thousands of pounds thought to have been spent in loss of rent, footfall and officers’ time on High Court challenges by the community group Blue Flash Music Trust.
Mr Circus said: “The only way we can preserve this building for the future is a commercial outlet to take charge of it. That’s a reasonable basis of a decision to be made.
“The people who oppose this are not folk heroes that we should worship. They are enemies of the community undermining our ability to make decisions.”
But David Sheldon (LDem, Denne), fought back on the comments saying: “This is not silly nonsense. This is a council meeting and it is why we are here. We are bothering because we care.
“Much has been mentioned about Blue Flash Music Trust. This not about Blue Flash and at no time have you heard the Lib Dems support them. We are asking for the best way forward.”
The council’s second choice from WJ King Brewers also won praise from members.
After seconding Dr Holmes’ proposal David Skipp (LDem, Roffey North) said: “WJ King is a local firm and we all support local business. They are putting up a proposal that’s exactly the same as Bill’s apart from the first year being rent free.
“But they are not a large business and do not have the financial backing Bill’s has.”
He also noted WJ King wanted to make parts of the 19th century building available for community use.
Leonard Crosbie (LDem, Trafalgar) highlighted WJ King’s business was ‘cut throat’ with pubs in the area shutting.
He said: “They are in a market which is increasingly competitive and I am reluctant to support them for that reason.”
In voting for Mr Arthur’s proposal, members also agreed that if the bid from Bill’s do not go ahead, the council would proceed with the offer from WJ King without further debate from members.
It was won on a majority vote, but the heated debate continued after the meeting when there was an exchange between Dr Holmes and Mr Dawe regarding the counter proposal.
After the meeting Mr Rae said: “David made an unfortunate comment.
“I will leave it at that. I asked for an apology, an apology was given and the apology has been accepted. The matter is closed.”
After the meeting, Dr Holmes said: “(Ray Dawe) accused me of being political and I said as far as I was concerned I wasn’t being party political. I care about the town hall.
“He and I had a conversation afterwards which was amicable and that was the end of the matter.
“I have apologised to Jim Rae for showing him lack of respect, but explained to him that I was concerned that he focused so much on the cost of things and that we have to take into account the need for the council to provide services.
“He accepted my apology. It doesn’t save the town hall, though.”