As the date for Horsham District Council to vote on the revised Preferred Strategy (30 April) draws near, councillors and taxpayers should be aware of the extraordinary lengths to which the council has gone to try and make them think that the proposed business park – identified by the developers (Liberty) as a key component of the huge North Horsham Strategic Development – would be something other than a disastrous white elephant.
Cllr Dawe and his colleagues, along with Liberty, faced a thorny problem in trying to push this concept in that no fewer than three authoritative studies in recent years – two by consultants GVA Grimley (2009) and GL Hearn (2010) and one by the Gatwick Diamond Initiative (Local Strategic Statement, 2012) – had all effectively concluded that there was no commercial case for significant new office space in Horsham.
To get round this HDC has attempted to use the opportunity presented by an Economic Growth Assessment of Northern West Sussex – undertaken jointly with Crawley Borough Council and Mid-Sussex DC (apparently the lead authority) – to try to produce evidence in support of the view that there is a ‘gap in the market’ for the proposed NHSD business park.
Strangely HDC has stated in response to an FoI request that it is unable to make available the terms of reference for this exercise – which the consultants Nathaniel Lichfield and Partners were commissioned to undertake in May 2013 – and the final report has still not been published even though the draft report was submitted by the consultants in September 2013.
Against this background it has paid the consultants an extra £6,000 to produce a separate report of their ‘emerging findings’, which were presented at the Meeting in Public on 13 February but which revealed no evidence of meaningful demand for new office space, particularly of Grade A quality such as the NHSD park is projected to provide. Given the information black-out on the consultants’ brief and the refusal to allow the public to question them at the February meeting it is impossible to assess their work adequately.
However, confidence in their objectivity – and their vague assertions that Horsham needs to expand its provision of ‘modern accommodation (particularly for offices)’ – is not inspired by their false statement that the National Planning Policy Framework calls for councils to ‘positively plan for growth’, echoing the familiar bogus claims of Cllrs Dawe and Rae.
In its desperation to find evidence of demand for the proposed business park HDC has commissioned yet another study – by a leading commercial estate agency, Stiles Harold Williams (at further cost to taxpayers) – to undertake a market appraisal (2014).
However, despite applying as much positive spin as possible, this evidently confirms the earlier consultants’ findings, concluding that a) the project would be ‘speculative’ in an area such as Sussex where there has been ‘very limited speculative development over the last 10 to 15 years’ and b) rental levels have been too low to justify such development – even since before the start of the recession in 2007.
In a final bid to get this Frankenstein’s monster to take on a life of its own HDC has managed to have it included in the Strategic Economic Plan of the Coast-to Capital Local Economic Partnership (March 2014) – along with the equally implausible Horsham Parkway station.
As this has been done without any attempt at commercial justification it inevitably casts doubt on the validity of the whole LEP exercise, to which many millions of local authority funds are set to be diverted over the coming years.
Allingham Gardens, Horsham