Rookwood golf course plans ‘drawn up behind closed doors’

Development plans for Rookwood Golf Course were prepared by the council ‘out of sight and behind closed doors’, according to the Liberal Democrats.

Wednesday, 5th August 2020, 4:48 pm

The land, which is owned by Horsham District Council, was put forward as one of many potential strategic sites during a consultation on the local plan review earlier this year.

The responses are currently being analysed and the council has repeatedly stated that no final decisions on any site allocations have been made.

Reports detailing the vision for development on the Rookwood site, which could include up to 1,100 new homes, are now in the public domain and on the council’s website.

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These have been worked up at the taxpayers’ expense with work ongoing with consultants since 2016, according to the Lib Dems.

They claim they were not involved in any early discussions about the proposals, despite the site being partially in the Trafalgar ward, which has been represented by two of their councillors for 25 years.

They say this has prevented any discussion of alternative options for the site, such as expanding Warnham Nature Reserve into a country park.

John Milne, the Lib Dems’ shadow cabinet member for planning, said: “This is public land - yet everything has been prepared out of sight, behind closed doors. It’s been easier to get information from private developers than from our own council. As the Novartis site shows, once a proposal gets this far then local input will be largely ignored, no matter how strongly people feel.”

The concept vision and masterplan for Rookwood, put together by Planit IE, outlines how the ‘convenient’ location, combined with the opportunity to ‘preserve and create links’ to the nature reserve and walnut tree planation and surrounding landscape and parks ‘creates the potential for an exceptional new community’.

The document adds: “There is an opportunity at Rookwood to create a development that truly maximises the opportunity of its landscape setting, this unique location sets it apart from other residential developments. In amongst the green space, pockets of development can be created, all benefiting from the natural landscape setting, contributing to the creation of a truly unique neighbourhood.

“The ambition is to create a place that is inspiring and peaceful. Buildings will be set amongst an already established and mature parkland and woodland landscape, allowing people to become close to nature.

“A vibrant and sustainable community will be created at Rookwood including new community facilities and a school within walking distance of homes.”

Studies show a capacity for around 1,110 new homes, split almost evenly between family houses and apartments.

Residential development could also range from starter homes to senior living accommodation to help Rookwood become a ‘lifetime neighbourhood’.

The clubhouse could be used as part of community hub plans, with a primary school and small convenience store also proposed.

Frances Haigh, Lib Dem group leader at the council, added: “Due to the great public interest in the major development sites in the draft plan, councillors are being lobbied constantly by concerned residents about the proposals for all sites including Mayfield, Buck Barn, Ifield and Rookwood.

“We will all be voting on the local plan, so we are bound by legislation not to pre-determine any decision we will make. This means we can’t declare a view on any or all of the proposals until we actually vote on the local plan.

“However, we are all listening to the arguments and campaigns that are being put forward to us and will continue to do so, right up until the time we go to the vote.”

The Keep Rookwood Green Alliance has held its own survey on the proposals, with more than 1,000 people having their say.

Of those who responded, 99.2 per cent wanted the area retained as green space for future generations and the survey confirms the top concern as the impact development would have on wildlife and the adjacent nature reserve.

Peter Simpson, from the Friends of Warnham Nature Reserve, said: “It’s clear that local residents share our concerns. If the Rookwood site is developed, it will have a terrible impact by eliminating green space on which the reserve’s wildlife relies.

“Furthermore, the reserve’s wide range of birds and animals will be disturbed by light and noise pollution from the development and killed though cat predation.”

Meanwhile 42 per cent of people wanted to see the reserve extended in the north section and 34 per cent were in favour of keeping the golf course either as it is or as a nine-hole facility with an extended reserve.

More than 800 people commented on what they value about Rookwood – some at length.

One respondent said: “Rookwood is full of nature and beauty that all should experience. It’s completely gutting that this should be taken away.

“From sunset walks to morning jogs, it’s been such a joy to see happy families, happy golfers, happy couples, happy rabbits, dogs, deer and birds collectively enjoy the open green space during such a hard year.”

Sally Sanderson, chair of Friends of Horsham Park which is a supporter of the Keep Rookwood Green Alliance, said “We are delighted with the very positive response to the survey. It shows how much we all value our green spaces for physical and mental well being as well as for connecting with nature.”

A Horsham District Council spokesperson said: “The Council has a requirement placed on it by Government to allocate land for future housing as part of a new Local Plan with likely house build numbers of over 1000 homes per year. This is a huge challenge. The Government has also said that publicly owned land should form part of any consideration when looking at where new homes can go.

“The aim is to relieve other land of potential development and to realise where possible the benefit to council finances, and hence the taxpayer, at a time when budgets are coming under increasing strain.

“As part of the Local Plan process, the Council looked at its own land holdings and in particular Rookwood Golf Course. Because Rookwood is a sensitive site adjacent to the ecologically rich Warnham Local Nature Reserve, the Council was acutely aware that any potential change of use there must protect the Nature Reserve and, if developed, must be an exemplar site that demonstrates that biodiversity can be increased.

“The Council does not have that degree of expertise in-house and so consultant specialists in this field were engaged. They undertook a full ecological and sustainability appraisal of the site and to further inform the process, so that council members can fully understand what might or might not be possible in the future, their work also included noise and air quality surveys, flood risk advice, a transport feasibility assessment and a high level possible masterplan. This consultancy work cost approximately £150k.

“All members have been kept informed over a period of several years that the site has become increasingly financially unviable in the light of the national downturn in demand for golf. The timeline for engagement of council members about the possible development of Rookwood Golf Course is a matter of public record since the site was included in the Council’s Strategic Housing and Economic Land Availability Assessment (SHELAA) Housing Report in 2018 and there have been a series of briefings, workshops and Planning and Development Policy Advisory group meetings about this for council members over a two year period. These also included an invitation to members to a day- long tour of all possible large sites in the District which could accommodate housing. All district councillors, including the members for Trafalgar ward, were advised of and have had access to all of these stages.

“No land anywhere in the District has yet been allocated in the Local Plan but in the light of the unprecedented circumstances arising from Covid19 the Council has asked the Government for a delay in that process and for a review of the very high house build numbers placed on it.

“As it currently stands, the Council is required to reach a decision about where future houses could go by November 2020.”