Golden chance for better future

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I write as an individual, who is also a governor of the Weald School, a Rotarian and a member of the Billingshurst Community Partnership. The purpose of my letter is to provide some reality and perspective on the EYE Project and correct errors published in letters to the County Times.

I have recently returned from Kenya, where I was with a group of Year 12 students from the Weald School helping to build classrooms in a very poor region of Kenya. The buildings are financed through a trust, which is supported by the students’ fundraising efforts. The trip also served as a valuable opportunity to learn and appreciate a very different culture and approach to life. Although our own situation and this poor region of Kenya are worlds apart, we experienced a lot of common ground and hopes for the future.

Now I return to witness an ongoing debate about the EYE Project, with the doubters basing their position on inaccurate information and seemingly voicing their opposition on grounds of prejudice against the community partnership rather than facts.

Contrary to some people’s views, the community partnership is not a non-elected self-perpetuating clique. It is open for anyone to be nominated and elected onto the management committee at the AGM. Those not elected can still participate without voting rights.

Interestingly, most issues are resolved amicably and unanimously. Members are drawn from a wide range of local interests which include: Rotary, Lions, St Mary’s Church, Station Road Gardens, Horsham District Council, West Sussex County Council, Chamber of Commerce, The Weald School and of course the parish council. It is a broad church representing most, if not all, of the community.

Letters in opposition claim to be on the basis of location, not in principle against the project itself. In Kenya we offered to finance and build new classrooms on land owned by the schools. They welcomed us with open arms! Why are some of our councillors so against EYE on parish land? Why are they blind to the real facts and against an opportunity to build a lasting legacy without any downside costs to the community?

The community partnership has offered to manage the project to erect the EYE building on parish land at no cost to the parish council. Funds to build EYE would come from a variety of sources, many not available to local councils on legislative grounds and none any drain on council resources.

Some of the potential funds will require that EYE is also used for educational purposes and that is why we include the potential to utilise the building as part of the extra curricula education of our young people. Yes we would use Section 106 money if it was available, but EYE is not dependent on a growth in housing; Billingshurst needs EYE now. We would not build until all the funds were secured.

In respect of the location for the project, the parish land at the edge of the Station Road Gardens is the preferred and only practical location, as it will enable the running costs of the building to be independent of the parish council monies. Other locations have been extensively reviewed, but do not offer the same flexibility of use and security of revenue funding. This site is ideal because the Weald School will be able to use part of the facilities during term time for educational purposes. Here it is important to recognise that this use by the school is not a statutory requirement, but rather the school’s desire to find better ways of helping disadvantaged students who have difficulty learning in a school environment.

Jubilee Fields, or indeed any other location, would not offer this opportunity because they are too far away from the school. The Weald would pay for this use and what an opportunity for the school to reach out into the community!

Land is not available on the school campus, as the school will need to be extended within the foreseeable future even if major development is not granted.

It is pertinent to point out here that the catchment area for the Weald School extends beyond parish boundaries.

It is preferable to have a youth facility, which is not under the control of the educational authorities so that our young people feel independent. It is also worth noting that the young people involved will include those up to age 25 thus, we need to cater for those beyond the age of students at the Weald School.

Recognising that the preferred EYE location would be at the expense of an ever-diminishing source of green parish land we have sought to compensate the loss by the addition of other green land. Our original preferred site was actually on the Weald campus at the end of Myrtle Lane; the only piece of Weald land not capable of being utilised because it is too small and isolated by the adjacent Astroturf.

Unfortunately, we could not build on this land without expensive re-routing of the underground gas main.

Now West Sussex County Council has said it is willing to lease the land to the parish on a long-term lease at a peppercorn rent. The addition of this land for community use offers a significantly bigger area than that required for EYE and perhaps we could incorporate not only an open green space, but a boules area and other exercise facilities for the community!

The composition of the trustees who will run and operate EYE has been raised as a major concern by the parish council. In fact, the trustees can comprise anyone interested in being involved in the charitable set up.

The community partnership has told the council that we would love them to be involved, but they can opt out. After all, this is the case with the tennis club and the Scouts and Guides who run their facilities without parish council involvement. To safe guard parish land the lease could be conditional on the land being returned to a green space in the event that EYE ceases to exist.

Incorporating the EYE project into Station Road Gardens gives us a wonderful opportunity to integrate young and old in our community, as café and toilet facilities would be included for everyone when EYE is opened. Hopefully our parish council will put aside any prejudice and vote on the basis of seizing a golden opportunity to build a better future for all and at no financial cost to the electorate. Granted the parish council is NOT a local community group, it is an elected body governed by legislature with fiduciary limitations and duties, BUT it is there to serve the community!

TONY PRIESTLEY

Newbridge Road West, Billingshurst