Christian Mitchell: Why we must all mind the gap!

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Those of us who travel on the London Underground, particularly the Northern Line, will be familiar with the ‘Mind the Gap!’ warning phrase.

Here at home in our own district we have our own ‘gap’ that we too must keep our eye on if we are to keep the rural idyll safe.

I’m talking of course about planning; Horsham District Council’s (HDC) draft Preferred Strategy and our own Strategic Gaps – our very own local ‘green belts’ which prevents sprawl and maintain the unique identity of Horsham and our district.

An article on the back pages of this newspaper recently in ‘Memory Lane’ shone a light on their historic importance.

In March 1984 it was reported that a housing scheme was being considered for Roffey. The then planning officer was quoted at the time stating HDC’s position unequivocally. “Philip Hodskinson said: ‘That area of land is White Land which means it cannot be built on. It is part of the strategic gap we want to keep clear between Horsham and Crawley.’”

It is vital we preserve the sanctity of such green - or ‘white’ as they were then - spaces.

Six of my district council colleagues; Peter Burgess, Laurence Deakins, Liz Kitchen, Josh Murphy, Simon Torn; and county councillor Peter Catchpole; and myself wrote a letter to this paper on 18 July 2013 a week before the draft Preferred Strategy was voted to go out to consultation.

In that letter we called for the gap between Horsham and Crawley to be maintained with the A264 remaining as the red line not to be crossed – just as it hasn’t been since the by-pass was built early in the 1990s.

Under the current draft Preferred Strategy the future of our Strategic Gaps are dealt with under draft policy 30. In that draft policy HDC recognised that our district has a distinctive settlement pattern of medium and small sized market towns which act as ‘hubs’ for smaller villages. These settlements each have a distinct identity, and it is important to ensure that they remain separated and that development, particularly between villages and towns, has the potential to result in the convergence, and the loss of the character of the district.

Certain parts of the district are particularly at risk from this, where towns and villages are located very close to one another. This includes Horsham and neighbouring Crawley, Horsham and Southwater and Storrington and West Chiltington Common.

However it is my view that draft policy 30 doesn’t go anywhere far enough to protect our gaps and stop settlement coalescence. We must have in mind what the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, said: ‘a green belt is to prevent conurbations bumping into each other.’ (BBC’s Sunday Politics programme, 20 October 2013).

It can be argued that the draft policy 30 is similar but stronger than HDC’s currently adopted policy on Strategic Gaps in that it is anticipated to be a ‘Strategic Policy’ in the draft Preferred Strategy rather than a development management policy as it is at present.

Further it can be claimed that the draft policy is particularly pertinent for development proposals along the A264 between Horsham and Crawley for example as it provides ‘strict protection from inappropriate development’ and makes specific reference to the urbanising effects of development along road corridors such as the A264.

It also makes reference to development between settlements being supported if they seek to improve the character and appearance of the area, again with particular reference along road corridors.

But I don’t agree.

And it’s not just because of the current proposal to build in the Horsham-Crawley gap where the public are rightly concerned.

The development proposed on land north of Horsham would mean that the existing Strategic Gap would be narrowed by a third of a mile meaning a reduction in the length of the gap of some 15 per cent.

It’s also that draft policy 30 overall needs tightening. The drafting currently allows too much scope for subjective interpretation rather than the current binary definition of where is and is not land that falls within a gap by naming the towns to protect (i.e. Horsham-Crawley and Horsham-Southwater).

During the eight-week consultation at the end of last summer many comments requested the wording of the policy be strengthened to protect the character of ‘strategic gap’ locations. The presumption being that development will not be supported unless it relates to the rural economy.

The public are absolutely correct. It would be more practical to identify those locations where settlements are more at risk from coalescence and mention them specifically in the policy. These should be spelt out in the Policy for all to see particularly developers, just as they always have been thus far.

For it is only this way that we avoid future unplanned development falling into the gaps of Horsham and Crawley; Horsham and Southwater; and Storrington and West Chiltington Common.

Christian Mitchell is Vice Chairman of Horsham District Council. He has also committed himself to the County Times’ Free Speech Charter which states: “I undertake to speak, write and vote on behalf of my constituents without fear or favour of party discipline. If I am a member of a political party, I will respect its values and honour its pre-election manifesto pledges - but I will always put first the people I am elected to serve.”