What is the Horsham Blueprint Forum?
Published on 4th December 2015
I was strolling through Horsham recently, wondering how the town could support so many estate agencies, when I was approached by a man. He was wearing a blue bib and had a clipboard.
What could he want?
He wasn't one of those paintball voucher guys, and wasn't shaking a charity tin. Maybe he's a pollster for the BBC game show Pointless. They need to find hundreds of people every week, yet I don't know a single person who's ever spoken to them, so it must be time they came to Horsham.
I hope it is Pointless, I thought. Then I can say 'Democratic Republic of the Congo.' As the man with the clipboard - that most unnerving of paper holding devices - came ever nearer, I could make out a logo back at his stand. 'Blue something.' He' s definitely not from Pointless.
"Good morning," he said. "I wonder if you can spare a moment to tell us your thoughts on..."
"Sorry mate, not today – in a hurry!" I lied, shuffling by, barely registering the words "Blueprint", "Horsham" and "future" as they faded into the ether.
As I drifted away, I remarked something along the lines of 'Like they'll listen to what I reckon; the council I mean!"
That was my spontaneous way of mocking Horsham District Council's historic inability to incorporate the ideas of its residents on housing and infrastructure during 'box ticking' public consultations into their long-term development plans. It just didn't quite come out as articulately in a real life scenario!
Clipboard man succeeded in handing me a leaflet about the Horsham Blueprint Forum. Having happily accepted it, I waited until he was out of sight before throwing it in the bin. Why do people do that?
Still, some months later, I've been compelled to find out more about Horsham Blueprint. What is it, who runs it, and why should we care? We threw a few questions the way of Frances Haigh, David Searle, Graham Sitton and Ron Bates, all members of the forum's Steering Group...
So what is Horsham Blueprint?
Frances: Horsham Blueprint is an open forum for the people who live or work in the town. Contribute ideas will help us produce a neighbourhood plan as to how the town should evolve in the next 15 years."
What is covered by this Blueprint?
David: "You can tell us where you think housing or business parks should be built, which open spaces need protecting, where we need public transport or cycle paths, really anything that relates to the town. We are asking the people of Horsham what they want and then we are listening. Unfortunately, that is not always what has happened in the past.
What has happened in the past?
David: Some residents feel that they have been asked for their views before, and when those views have been given, it seems to some people as though Horsham District Council has done as it pleases. However, we will listen to all suggestions.
Does the Horsham Blueprint apply to the whole Horsham district?
Graham: No. The Horsham Blueprint is for the three neighbourhood councils within the town centre. They are the Trafalgar ward, Denne ward and Forest ward. Residents can submit their views, as can people who work in those areas. We are keen to get comments from all types of people covering all types of issues. Tell us what you think is good about Horsham and what you think is bad.
Why does Horsham town need this forum?
Frances: In all of the other areas in the district, there is a parish council that will produce a neighbourhood plan. They are working on these, and will submit them to Horsham District Council, which will use all of that information to produce a plan for the entire district. Horsham town does not have a parish council and previously no group has been given the authority to produce a neighbourhood plan for Horsham town. That is why we formed this forum.
Why will Horsham District Council listen to you?
David: They have to. It was a long process, but in June we were designated as the group responsible for producing the neighbourhood plan for Horsham town. We hope to get an initial plan together by December 2016, and then hold a referendum on the proposals put forward. That is in line with what the parishes are doing.
So who is the Horsham Blueprint steering group made up of?
Graham: It is a collaboration of all of the different organisations who work within the town, including The Horsham Society, representatives from the three neighbourhood councils of Denne, Trafalgar and Forest, and well know
organisations such as Horsham in Bloom. There are 21 people involved in setting up the Horsham Blueprint Forum and take responsibility for forming a plan from all of the ideas put forward. The steering group is currently made up for ten people, and we have a mailing list of several hundred people.
Has it been difficult to convince the public to submit opinions?
Ron: That has been one of the main difficulties we have faced. When we are out in public (trying to engage with the public), people just say "I am too busy!" or "Go away!" Usually, they walk off and all we can do is leave information with them and hope they will read it later on and gain an understanding of what we are trying to do. I don't think people fully understand the power of this particular plan, and that we are trying to empower them.
Is one of the problems that people in Horsham don't trust the word 'consultation'?
Frances: "Normally what happens is that planning officers put together a document, which then it goes out to
consultation and they put on an exhibition for a couple of afternoons. A few people turn up and give feedback, and they might modify the plan slightly. This though, is very different. With the Horsham Blueprint forum, we are asking people what they want to see first, rather than giving them our own idea. It is your plan - not the councils.
Have you drawn up your own proposals though?
David: No, although what we have done individually is identify areas that are dilapidated and look a bit unloved, such as Queen's Street. We found public seating with bits missing off so people could not sit down, and out of date posters in the windows of shops that have closed. So we have looked at ways to redesign parts of the town like this, based on the ideas that people have suggested. The most common theme is that people want more green spaces, and street lighting too, although some have even come up with building design ideas! Of course, some ideas are airy fairy ideas, but those that make that suggestion can stand up and say "that was my idea!"
Who has the ultimate say in what goes in the neighbourhood plan?
Ron: The public. Once we have collated the ideas, we will put them all into draft plan, and there will be a referendum on what we have produced. If it is approved by the public and local businesses engaging with the forum, it will become part of Horsham District Council's Local Plan. They will have to take consideration of it when making decisions relating to the town centre, in the same way they would have to consider the views of the respective parish councils.
What other suggestions have been made by the public?
David: It's been interesting that people are telling us about the small things that have a big impact on their day to day lives. Some disabled and elderly people who use the Carfax find it difficult to get around with the cobbled stones and they would like a smooth area around it, offering more comfort. Others have complained that there is no public transport to the new Waitrose and John Lewis stores, and some people no longer go to Waitrose for that reason. Some people have suggested half an hour of free parking in town. These are ideas that you may not really identify with because they don't apply to you, but when you start asking people of all ages for their thoughts, the viewpoints are fantastic.
Are you engaging with young people?
Frances: Yes, although we could do with more young people coming forward. One thing we know is that a lot of young people want to McDonald's, as they are a great place to meet. We can't deliver a McDonald's, but we can say that there is a demand for it if that is the case. We also run a Digital Hub, working with Tanbridge House School, Hack Horsham, Red River and Creative Assembly. The Digital Hub helps people of all ages to acquire the necessary skills to take advantage of new technology. Hence the Hack Horsham projects, which introduce code clubs in schools. We are also working on bringing TeenTech to Horsham next autumn, teaching teenagers about careers in science, technology and engineering.
Is the forum open for businesses?
Frances: Yes. We've also been designated as a business neighbourhood forum, so we will have two separate referendums: one for the residents and one for businesses. Some businesses don't know what to make of the Blueprint forum. It is almost like they feel it is unusual to be approached and asked for their ideas. Other businesses are already coming forward with really good ideas, because they realise how vital it could be in
making sure their views are relayed.
So how do we all get involved?
David: "We have the website where people can submit their ideas, and that's probably the easiest way. We also operate Facebook and Twitter accounts. We have post boxes around town with postcards containing just a couple of questions relating to the forum, and there have been particularly popular at Park Surgery.
Is it not too late, what with big developments already going ahead?
Ron: It is too late for a number of issues. But we are where we are and we must look to the future, because there will be big and small decisions to be made next week, next year, and 10 years from now. If you don't start this process now, it'll never be there, and it is a fantastic opportunity for the community. There is very much to commend Horsham as a town. That is why this is needed, to make sure that we maintain it. We are not here to be do-gooders. This is about us all coming together to make sure that Horsham remains a good place to live for our children and grandchildren.
You can find out more about Horsham Blueprint Forum at http://www.horshamblueprint.btck.co.uk/
or visit the Horsham Blueprint page on Facebook or Twitter (@BlueprintNF)