One of Horsham’s longest-serving political figures has described his combined three decades representing residents as a ‘privilege’ but ‘will miss being able to make a difference’.
Brian Richard Anthony Derek Watson, but known to everyone as Brad, moved to the town with his parents in 1960 and became a full-time shopkeeper in 1971 in St Leonard’s Road as well as setting up several other businesses.
He served as a Horsham district councillor from 1977 and throughout the 1980s and played no small part in attracting massive investment into the area, which saw the pedestrianisation of the Carfax, the refurbishment of Swan Walk, the creation of Piries Place, the reconfiguration of Albion Way, the construction of St Mark’s Court, and the arrival of Tesco in Broadbridge Heath.
Having lost his district seat in 1991, Brad was elected to represent Southwater on West Sussex County Council a decade later, and after 16 years at County Hall announced earlier this year he would not be seeking re-election in May.
Speaking to the County Times, he described it as a ‘privilege to represent residents to the best of my ability’.
Brad grew up in Worcester Park in South West London and when he was 20 his parents moved down to Horsham.
His first impression was of a ‘pleasant country town’ and had probably not changed much since the end of the Second World War.
He married his wife Lin in 1964 at St Mary’s Church. They lived in Billingshurst until they bought the shop in St Leonard’s Road.
The original plan was for Lin and his mother to manage the shop jointly, but they soon found ‘it was too much for them to run’.
At the time Brad was commuting up to London, but gave up his job as a print sales manager to become a full-time shopkeeper!
They later went into partnership to run a butcher’s shop in St Leonard’s Road and also opened a specialist delicatessen/grocery store in the Bishopric.
In 1986 the butcher’s was converted into an office from where they sold property in Spain.
Brad described Horsham as a great place to run a business.
He explained: “It was a very friendly place and seemed to be like a large village. You soon learned just how many people knew other people.
“If you were chatting to somebody about someone else they would often say that’s my friend or relative.
“I think Horsham is a great place and I always have done.”
Brad joined the Young Conservatives in 1958 and through his involvement with the local Conservative Association has helped select general election Tory candidates who went on to be elected Horsham’s last three MPs: Sir Peter Hordern, Francis Maude, and incumbent Jeremy Quin.
Although he has not necessarily agreed with every Conservative Party policy over the years, he believes in small government and people ‘having the ability to run their own lives without being overly interfered with’.
He met the late Margaret Thatcher on a number of occasions where they talked about running a grocer’s, and described how she ‘radiated something special’.
Brad has also visited Number 10 Downing Street a few times, and recalls having a conversation with Sir John Major leaning over the bannister where they talked about growing up in neighbouring streets in Worcester Park.
He has also been to Buckingham Palace functions three times, and received an OBE for services to the community from the Queen in the spring of 1996 which he described as an ‘amazing experience’.
He was first elected to Horsham District Council in 1977, and was elected Chairman of the Council for year 1983/4.
Brad was made a Freeman of the City of London in 1984 for his work with Christs Hospital.
The part of council work he most enjoyed was planning. During the 1980s, officers and councillors realised a ‘bold plan’ needed to be developed as the town centre was becoming gridlocked.
The ‘only sensible solution’ was to extend Albion Way right through the area where St Mark’s Church stood.
He described it as a ‘bit of a battle at the time’ as he chaired the team leading the project, adding: “Initially there was a lot of opposition because Horsham is a small ‘c’ conservative place, but we knew change had to happen and we had to look at how we managed that.”
The council approached all the town’s major players including Sun Alliance and the owners of Swan Walk Shopping Centre.
The first piece of the puzzle was building a new Tesco superstore, and a new leisure centre on the old army camp at Broadbridge Heath, which secured the council £15m pot in developer contributions, which went on projects across the district, and left the council with some funds to ‘pump prime’ investment into the town centre.
The other challenge was to pedestrianise the Carfax, Brad described how with buses running through it the Carfax area was ‘basically a large roundabout’.
A petition to save St Mark’s originally gained considerable support, but the ‘key information that came to light was the church did not want it’, due to a huge repair bill and a shrinking congregation.
Brad explained: “In a pre-internet age, we found many signatories thought the council was planning to demolish St Mary’s instead of St Mark’s!”
The church spire, which provides a curiosity to people visiting Horsham for the first time, was retained and stands still tall more than two decades later.
The main reason for retaining it was because the spire was added to the church by an incumbent vicar who built it as a memorial for his daughter who died at a young age.
The other reason was to retain a spire near the centre of the town.
Brad said: “In the end a lot of people realised we were doing a significant amount to improve the town. The key was to make the town more commercially viable and all of that worked and still works today.”
He added: “Every time I walk through the Carfax I feel: ‘I had a hand in this’, and it’s the satisfaction of getting elected to do something, and to make a difference, and I think I can look back at it and say I helped to make a difference.”
In the years leading up to 1991, Brad was vice-chairman of a body called the national Association of District Councils, which was one of the precursors to the Local Government Association. Brad called losing his seat a ‘great shame’ as his work at national level was cut short.
During his time at the Association he worked with Michael Portillo to help develop the community charge, which became widely known as the ‘poll tax’, and Brad speculates about what might have been ‘if only Maggie had listened to us and followed what we suggested’.
He stood at the County Council elections for Roffey in 1997, where after several recounts he fell agonisingly short of unseating the Lib Dem incumbent by just three votes!
Four years later he was elected to the previously Lib Dem held Southwater division with a majority of 57 votes.
As a county councillor he served in the cabinet led by former leader Henry Smith, who is now Crawley’s MP.
Put in charge of communications, Brad was keen to embrace, among many other issues, the Plain English campaign, which looked to banish jargon from things such as officer reports, which he argued should always be easily understandable and presented in a readable way. He added: “I think that’s an important thing councillors have to stick to.”
More recently, Brad was instrumental in setting up the Sussex Police and Crime Panel, which scrutinises decisions made by the county’s Police and Crime Commissioner, a role created in 2012.
He chaired the panel from its inception until May 2017 and described it as an ‘honour’, adding: “I believe we’ve created the right format and that it will go on from strength to strength in the future.”
He described how he would ‘miss being able to make a difference in the same way you can as an elected member’, but looked forward to doing things and taking trips without having to check his diary for council and other meetings first!