Senior councillor brands meeting ‘absolute disgrace’

Horsham District Councillor Christine Costin - picture submitted by HDC
Horsham District Councillor Christine Costin - picture submitted by HDC

A senior Lib Dem Horsham councillor today branded a meeting of the district council ‘an absolute disgrace’.

At last night’s meeting (Wednesday, February 26), Conservatives turned on their own vice chairman Christian Mitchell and stripped him of his forthcoming chairman’s role - after he articulated the concerns of his constituents in Holbrook West about his party’s plans to dump thousands of homes north of the town.

Speaking today, Christine Costin (Trafalgar) told the County Times: “Thank you for headlining Christian’s dreadful treatment with The Day Democracy Died in Horsham. He doesn’t deserve it; but neither do those of us who are constantly side-lined when we speak-up.

“I certainly do feel sorry for Christian Mitchell but I also feel sorry for our local people who so desperately want to be heard.

She submitted the following comment article which she said best explained her position:

Over my years as a councillor I have often been frustrated by the decision making process. At Horsham District Council we have an unfortunate anomaly whereby one part of the District is administered differently from the rest. The unparished area of Horsham town has no officially constituted Parish Council to back it up - everywhere else does. This leaves Horsham town somewhat isolated, it is the largest town in Horsham District but it is far more reliant than elsewhere on the goodwill and judgement of the Council as a whole. The unparished area has three Neighbourhood Councils which are not empowered to exert control on finances and services.

Horsham town has a variety of dedicated community Groups acting for the good of the town but none of them have legal standing comparable with Parishes. This historic quirk makes a difference to how Horsham people are able to influence their fate.

That is not to say that the Council would always bow to the will of parishes but at least they can add a formal tier to objections and challenges when they are made. The whole balance at the District Council means that decision making for Horsham town and its immediate neighbours can lead to local representatives being completely outvoted.

Not very healthy when policies are sometimes being pushed through by a majority who are living outside of the town or area most affected.

This should not happen but it does. There are some Councillors who tell us that Horsham hasn’t been taking its fair share of development, I am not sure where they have been because if you live here it is obvious that across the town Horsham has taken thousands of new residents in large and small developments.

The town has grown massively in size over the years; with green fields, gardens, farms woodland, river-sides and open land eaten up for housing. The town has tried to meet the demands and retain its character and individuality. I don’t think anyone would want to see Horsham become a faceless suburb sprawling into its near neighbours. Horsham has taken its fair share of development and must continue to take its proper share in the future too; however it would be unreasonable for it to take more than its fair share.

Too often Horsham is being told that imminent decisions about to be taken are in everyone’s best interests.

Local people who do not approve of the decision which is being made for them certainly do not have an easy time putting their views across. When they are not given sufficient opportunities to put their views forward then local representatives could be forgiven for feeling that they are being ignored. As a local Councillor I believe that ALL our local communities matter! If there are strong opinions against proposals these should get an unbiased and proper hearing.

As far as I am concerned it would be absolutely wrong if my vote helped to inflict unwelcome decisions on other parts of the District particularly in the southern extremes. Currently there are several parts of Horsham District where local communities are worried about the prospects of over development, such as being expected to take large quantities of new homes or even to have a complete new town close by. I certainly want to hear their views and would expect that within the outcome a resolution is found that will reflect what local communities want.

Horsham District Draft Planning Framework 2014 went out for consultation following a Full Council meeting on 25 July, it included plans for massive change to the north of Horsham which if adopted will have a major impact on the town. In spite of HDC spending years studying options for long term strategic planning the production of this single ‘solution’ has come as a shock. To many people the plan is flawed since it offers monumental change that is not supported by adequate infrastructure.

It is a plan that among other things expects to deliver 2,500 houses and a substantial business park which could offer modern accommodation for large incoming businesses.

For me a couple of the downsides are the loss of green fields and a closing of the gap between Horsham and Crawley. It has always been recognised that merging the two towns was totally undesirable because both towns benefit from their own specific identities. Most local residents and businesses would question the wisdom of allowing such blending to take place.

The Cabinet and HDC officers are now rigorously defending their Horsham District Planning Framework with its Preferred Strategy but unfortunately there is a perception that attempts by local people to put their views across and to have them taken seriously are being blocked. There was a surge of responses to the consultation and these were mainly objecting to the plan for N Horsham which is being heralded by the Council hierarchy.

The meeting held in public on the evening of Thursday 13 February was not encouraging. The public were allowed ten questions at the beginning of the meeting these were selected for inclusion. The whole meeting seemed to be designed to keep the opposition in its place then to deliver three speakers to support the Council’s chosen strategy.

The talk about Transport considerations was weak and did not even include the new highways intersection that will be created at Farthings Hill. The talks about the future of the local economy and the Gatwick Diamond were interesting and welcome. There is absolutely no doubt that having a progressive local economy has to be a central objective, the District must plan for more jobs and strong business successes to maintain a vibrant trading environment.

A large new business park may be one way of doing it but this does not address the needs of communities outside of the town and it does not maximise existing opportunities to upgrade commercial stock and to capitalise on land that should be coming available.

The meeting in public about future planning was prolonged and highly uncomfortable. It was supposed to be a chance for local people to get some answers. Perhaps some of them did, but from the very word go it was obvious that the composition of meeting was designed to wear-down even the most dedicated of campaigners.

Those watching the meeting from the Capitol via a video link would have found the meeting especially awkward to follow.

I was really disappointed that there was no willingness to take a thorough look at Alternative Strategies.

Councillors seeking to question the Council’s plan were given short shrift; brushed aside rather unceremoniously as if they were deliberately not grasping the ‘wisdom’ of what was on offer. The fact is that all those who have thought the issues through but come to a different conclusion from HDC’s Preferred Strategy are deserving of proper respect and a full hearing.

There are lots of people from every persuasion who have genuine fears about the plans being put forward.

The Horsham District Planning Framework 2014 supplies one single solution for Horsham’s future, a solution that according to the Cabinet must be agreed quickly so that the Government cannot take the matter out of our hands.

There are too many times when we have been hustled by this same argument! It is about time the Local Authority faced up to its responsibilities and informed the Government that we need extra time because in a democratic society proposals need to satisfy an overwhelming majority of the people who are actually involved.

People who are concerned about the North of Horsham plan feel that the consultation process has not given them a proper and acceptable opportunity to express themselves over this matter; since it will shape the whole future of the town and district for years to come it is of major importance. It is too easy for anyone to get the impression that what they are seeing is a situation where HDC’s Strategy is a ‘done deal.’ In not providing wider debate and discussion I believe that the Council is letting local people down, right from the very beginning the public should have been able to look at more than one option to enable them study and compare the impacts of each one.

There are realistic choices - and everyone needs to know what those choices are.

A great deal of time and effort has been put into researching and documenting sensible alternatives. What I find depressing is that it seems to be the case that Alternative Options are being rapidly dismissed without the benefit of thorough examination.