To date I, and many others, have been very concerned by Horsham District Council’s approach to the future housing strategy, with its massive potential impact on the whole area.
The council has been tending to follow, with little question, the view of its Strategic Planning Department. I question whether this trust is justified – failures by the Planning Department in managing the recent Henfield application, robustly criticised by the inspector, have cost the council and by extension us all, a lot of money.
Now we are seeing refreshing signs that councillors are appreciating this and are asking for alternatives to be put forward; to such effect that councillor Ian Howard, whose area of responsibility this is, has agreed to go back to the drawing board and reconsider what should be done.
Up to now he has considered as incontrovertible fact his opinion that Horsham’s relative prosperity at the present time is simply because a large number of houses were built in the boom years of the past. From that he extrapolates the view, again presented as fact, that it is therefore essential that we build large numbers again now, even though we are about as far from boom as is imaginable.
Surely it is reasonable to consider that there may be other reasons. The financial climate was totally different then. There was work to come into and mortgages were readily available. People came to the work and the pleasant environment; and secondarily bought the houses.
Can we be so sure that houses alone will promote economic growth now? Without an increase in local working opportunities and with the attractive environment (cited by so many residents as their main reason for coming here) under attack by developers, it is very questionable. Should we not have a care and ponder the lessons of Ireland and Spain?
Mr Howard has also said, on behalf of the district council, that they will only consider alternative housing numbers which come complete with substantive evidence in the form of reports etc.
That statement alone excludes virtually the whole of the electorate from making any comment that will be given any consideration. It is true to say that that the vast majority of people who live in the district do not want to see vast areas of the countryside concreted over and would, if offered the choice, want to see the council looking for a different solution. Perhaps at last they are.
Councillor Dawe, the leader of the council, contends that the decision on housing numbers is purely a planning decision and that numbers will be imposed by the Inspectorate. He claims to be able to do nothing about it and that it is not a political decision. But is that actually the situation?
There are many aspects of council’s decision which clearly do involve political choice. The council has the right to determine the way in which development is structured; it and nobody else has the option to choose between large or distributed sites; it can determine what level of development it actually wants - it could even choose to respect the views of the majority of its electorate and be more conservative with the numbers, perhaps incorporating some prudent flexibility.
The Inspectorate may or may not approve, but if need be the council can appeal to the Secretary of State. Who could forecast the outcome? Mr Cameron still says publicly that people may decide, and Mr Pickles has upheld the principle of his Localism Bill many times and ruled in favour of the local decision.
At the very least the people of Horsham district would appreciate that the representatives they elected had done their best to represent their views.
What the council cannot do now is to hide behind the screen of coercion - the decision really is down to it. Will the public not feel rightly aggrieved if they do not own this honestly and discuss it fully?
Let us all hope that in the name of, and indeed for the sake of, democracy the recent and welcome change in the council’s approach is not a false dawn.
Dr IAN THWAITES