EXCLUSIVE: Bill’s declares love for old town hall

JPCT 09-05-12 S12190316a new owner for Horsham's Old Town Hall, Bill Collison, of Bill's Produce in Lewes -photo by Steve Cobb
JPCT 09-05-12 S12190316a new owner for Horsham's Old Town Hall, Bill Collison, of Bill's Produce in Lewes -photo by Steve Cobb

DECLARING his love for Horsham’s ‘beautiful’ old town hall, Bill Collison told the County Times: “Bill’s is probably the best thing that could come here and I know we will give it loads of love.”

The restaurateur’s comments were made in an exclusive interview with the County Times last week, following a Horsham District Council statement that Lewes-based restaurant chain Bill’s is the preferred bidder for the historic Market Square premises, and would be recommended to the council on tonight.

Councillors decide the landmark’s fate at a special meeting at Park North from 6pm, after what promises to be a lively debate with the leader of the opposition David Holmes this week accusing his Conservative cabinet colleagues of being ‘accountants who have no feeling for Horsham town and no social conscience’. (See full report and letters in this Thursday’s County Times)

Bill Collison, the proprietor and founder of the successful Bill’s brand, has had his heart set upon opening a restaurant in the grade II* listed town hall at the top of the Causeway for more than seven years.

Lewes was where it all started, and for Bill, Horsham has always been a natural fit with his vision of fresh, seasonal, free range or organic produce served with love in a community setting.

The Old Town Hall was initially destined to become the third Bill’s restaurant after the business had first expanded to a former bus depot in North Street, Brighton. But legal challenges to HDC’s proposed change of use caused years of delay until in 2010 Bill Collison pulled out to focus on expansion elsewhere.

Should the council ratify cabinet member Andrew Baldwin’s (Con, Horsham Town) recommendation, Horsham will now become the eighth Bill’s in the country, following in the wake of new premises in Reading, Cambridge, Covent Garden and the latest opening in Exeter just last weekend.

It will represent an £800,000 investment in the local economy, employ up to 50 people, and offer 140 covers on two floors as well as outside in Market Square, giving the area a ‘Mediterranean feel’.

“We’ll bring some lovely products that you can buy, and we’ll offer a place where you can meet as a community,” said the 49 year old entrepreneur from Little Horsted, East Sussex.

Famed for supporting local producers and stocking artisan products, Bill’s has proved popular everywhere the brand has become established, with councils around the country inviting the Sussex business to open in their towns and cities.

However, nowhere else has an invitation turned into the protracted legal battle that has blighted the local council here, and made headlines in Horsham for more than half a decade.

“I can understand people’s reservations,” admitted Bill, “but times move forward and Bill’s will do its best to make everyone love it and be good for the community.

“That’s the biggest thing for me – we are about the community, we are a community café, and people have grown to love us.”

Bill was reflecting on the backlash over the past few years from community organisations as well as some residents and councillors who wish to see the Market Square landmark kept for public community use - the most prominent of which is the Blue Flash Music Trust.

This week its spokesperson Robert Mayfield said if the Bill’s bid is accepted next week it would ‘seemingly boost our forthcoming litigation against the council for ‘predetermination’ under the recent Localism Act’.

Bill hopes such opposition, although very vocal, is in the minority, and he is ‘totally 100 per cent confident’ Bill’s Horsham would be a success.

Comments made in Horsham’s East Street, increasingly now dubbed Eat Street after its transformation over recent years by what Bill terms a ’very proactive council’, support Bill’s coming to the area.

John Dobbin, 74, from Horsham said: “It’s a great idea because there’s so many restaurants in Horsham but none that really cater for organic produce.”

Luke Pavoni, 18, from Roffey agreed, saying: “If it’s bringing business to the area I think it’s great.” However, Michelle Ceka, 44, from Horsham was more circumspect, saying: “I suppose it’s better than it sitting there empty. It’s been a shame to see it all boarded up.”

The Horsham Society also backs this stance, with its chairman David Moore stating in a letter to the editor this week that ‘the most important thing is to ensure that a viable use is found for the building’.

For Bill, the town hall’s architecture and its landmark location are the main factors that will make him ‘incredibly proud’ to open in Horsham.

“Anyone can see this is an amazing site, the best in Horsham,” he enthused. And dispelling concerns significant changes would be necessary to the grade II* listed premises, he said: “It is beautiful the way it is - who would want to touch it?”

Bill boasts a proven track record in successfully breathing new life back into historic buildings elsewhere around the country, including St Mary’s Church Rectory in Reading, and soon Northgate Hall in St Michael’s Street, Oxford, where Bill’s is the city council’s preferred bidder too.

Countering the claim that some will find Bill’s expensive, he said he believes they offer ‘excellent value for money’. “When you want lovely local products and you want free range and some provenance with your products, there is a cost to that.”

As we began to discuss the timescale and when the new restaurant would hopefully be open, assuming his bid is accepted next week, the town hall’s historic clock chimed in the background – its position adorning the front of the Old Town Hall just metres from the County Times offices. Bill confirmed the clock would continue to chime under his watch as it has done for generations.

He hopes Bill’s Horsham will be open for business by late summer, in time for this year’s Harvest Festival. For more information on Bill’s visit www.bills-website.co.uk.