The Conservative Government requires that 300,000 homes are built per annum. It is a key part of Prime Minister Johnson’s plans to “Build Back Better”. In Horsham District, the Conservative Council is required to produce a Local Plan, and that includes designating strategic sites which will deliver the housing number that the Conservative Government specifies. It is of course greatly influenced by the developers who fund the Conservative Party. Developers find it easier and more profitable to build large detached houses on green field sites.
We Liberal Democrats recognise the need for homes, but consider the basis for calculating the number of homes to be built, their type and where they should be is wrong. If there was a Liberal Democrat Government, we would focus on building homes where the need is greatest. We would also be ensuring that those homes are affordable for our local young people and sustainable to protect the countryside and climate. We would put an end to overseas investment in city flats which remain empty, a policy encouraged by the Prime Minister when he was Mayor of London. This has led to more people having to find homes outside of larger towns and cities.
The Conservative Government is still requiring the planning process to continue, sacrificing the green fields of Sussex, even though the UK is leading Cop26 and should be protecting our valuable environment. No doubt the Prime Minister needs to reward the donations the Conservative Party received from JCB and property developers.
This process takes no account of the double-whammy impact of Covid-19 and Brexit. The Conservative Government has no idea what long-term effects there are likely to be, yet these are already affecting employment at Gatwick and accelerating the changing use of retail and commercial property. The Government is risking the loss of more countryside, at a time when the UK has the prospect of far more brown field sites becoming available during the next few years. It is unlikely that high streets will ever return to pre-Covid levels - and there was already excess retail space. Indeed, one northern town is proposing to demolish an ageing shopping mall and replace it with a park. Similarly, commuting may be much reduced as working from home has shown that travelling to an office is not essential.
It is the Liberal Democrats’ view that Horsham District has already taken more than enough housing, much of it still to be built, and that there is not a genuine need for the extra housing that the developers want to be planned. However, if Horsham does not prepare a plan or have an up-to-date plan, the Conservative Government regulations permit those developers to build anywhere as there will be a presumption in favour of development. That would not be in anybody’s interests but theirs.
As Councillors we have to consider the sites that are put to us by Horsham’s strategic planners and decide about the merits of the sites proposed when we come to vote. In effect we will all be pushed by the Conservative Government into looking for the least bad option, knowing that all the sites will be unacceptable in some respects. It is also likely that there will be only one option of recommended sites brought to Council and that this will be acceptable to a majority of the Conservative councillors, and therefore the Council overall. This would not be true of a Liberal Democrat-run Council where we would have consulted openly and widely on the developing options from the beginning, as we have where we are in control elsewhere in the country.
For the residents of western Horsham, whom many Liberal Democrat councillors directly represent, the Rookwood site is an invaluable green lung for the urban area which must be protected. It is unclear what effect the development of North of Horsham will have on the Town, particularly with regard to flooding, and it is too soon to be introducing further development in the vicinity of the Arun catchment. We share concerns about Buck Barn and all the other potential development sites which face similar issues. It is important to note that Buck Barn is for 3500 homes and Rookwood for 800, so this is not an "either/or" situation. If Buck Barn is not built, the Council has to consider Mayfield, Adversane or one of the other sites instead so that the Government requirement is met. In any instance, we are likely to be faced with very little choice in order to prevent unfettered housebuilding by developers.
So, let’s be clear – if Buck Barn or any other of the strategic sites is selected, it will be by the Conservative majority of councillors for Horsham District, following the rules and housing targets set by the Conservative government before Parliament’s response to the climate emergency and before COVID changed all the relevant projections. Now why would the Conservatives do that?
Leader of Liberal Democrat Group