Ray Dawe: interesting debate on a very difficult subject

If you are reading this on Thursday, today’s the day that Horsham District Council decides on the housing strategy for the next 20 years.

Any regular reader of this paper can’t have missed what must seem like an endless rehearsing of opinions, facts and figures on the subject and maybe boredom has set in but if you live in the Horsham District it is a subject that will affect you in some way, whether you are someone looking for their first home or maybe someone nearing retirement having lived in the same home for many years.

It is easy to use phrases like ‘concreting over our green fields’ and to claim that by just building on available brownfield sites we can cater for our future housing need but there is a reality that simply can’t be ignored.

The Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) reported last week that Britain’s growing elderly population is rapidly adding billions to health, pensions and long term care costs. In effect the OBR says the ageing population will put unsustainable pressure on public finances. Unless we can get the British economy growing and generating additional revenues, a further £19 billion of further spending cuts or tax rises will be needed in the next parliament. It adds that if we do not maintain the number of working age residents who pay tax and support the elderly the number will increase still more.

So let us relate this to our District. We know that the average population age is already higher than the national average and that in some of our villages the average age of residents is already in the late sixties. This population is going to need better medical facilities and we need better infrastructure while trying to keep our shops, pubs and other recreational facilities open. There is no money to pay for it other than by allowing some development which will pay for any new infrastructure developments. That is why we are now asking all our villages and Horsham town to join in by making their own Neighbourhood Plans, looking forward and making their own assessment of what infrastructure and housing will be needed in the future.

This will take time. In the short term we also have a need to provide for our existing population but also maintain a working age population. We already have nearly 7,000 planning permissions so the relatively good news is that over the next 20 years we only need to find just over 30 per cent more.

We are also having to deal with large applications for houses in Billingshurst and Southwater which will be determined under the current planning rules. These are rules which the Government has heavily weighted in favour of developers and has effectively tied the hands of district councils like Horsham. We are however saying we should reject the large scale development threatened in favour of only about 500 houses in each village and in both cases we are trying to minimise the impact while extracting maximum benefit for the community.

The Government’s National Policy Framework dictates that we must prioritise economic growth in our plans. In addition, if we provide more local jobs we will also get a large share of the business rate to help run our own council services where our finances are under severe pressure. Employers are not going to stay or come here though unless we can give them good reason. Some of my council colleagues have put forward the idea that such firms would go wherever we wish but the reality is that of all our locations the one most likely to succeed is the one near a motorway, near a railway line and close to an airport. That is why we are proposing that an area north of Horsham on the road to the M23 and Gatwick makes the greatest sense. However, the infrastructure for it doesn’t just appear. It needs the investment that can only come from allowing housing there as well, to house the younger working age population - this same population that will also help keep Horsham town centre busy and vibrant. That is exactly why companies like John Lewis are looking at coming here!

It will be an interesting debate on a very difficult subject.