Planners are hoping to draw up a blueprint that could help revive the centre of Billingshurst, described as a ‘dead village’ at a parish meeting last Wednesday.
Horsham District Council has commissioned GL Hearn, and Allies and Morrison Urban Practitioners to draw up a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) for the village centre, looking at what could be done to improve what it currently offers.
Representatives from all three organisations attended Wednesday’s Billingshurst Parish Council meeting where topics of discussion included whether a major supermarket could be brought in, if Jengers Mead Car Park site could be compulsory purchased, and how they could bring more footfall into the village.
Alistair Macdonald, a director and project manager at Allies and Morrison, told councillors they were aware of a ‘serious issue’ with the ‘strict’ parking regime at the Jengers Mead Car Park and the impact it was having on the village and its reputation.
The other two properties discussed where the BT Exchange building and Budgens food store.
Parish councillor Paul Leaney said: “Jengers Mead to me looks like Langley Green in Crawley. It must have been built by the same builder.”
He added: “To me we have got a dead village. There’s just nobody about. You will not get anybody about unless you get competition in business.”
Garry Commins said that while the village had quadrupled in size the village centre was constrained by things like the conservation area and they could only expand it so far. He added: “At the moment rents are horrendous and crippling.”
And house building is not set to stop as two applications for 46 homes south of the village have been approved in the last year on appeal by the planning inspector. A2 Dominion has also submitted an application for 50 homes next to the 150 units currently being built south of Gillmans Industrial Estate.
Meanwhile last summer HDC approved 475 homes east of Billingshurst as it faced the threat of losing an appeal on the same site for 550 units.
While the approval means the village has secured £1.72m in section 106 contributions, at Wednesday’s meeting this sum was described as a ‘drop in the ocean’ for what was needed.
Horsham district councillor Kate Rowbottom (Con, Billingshurst and Shipley) said: “I see this as a very exciting opportunity. This really is an opportunity to reinvigorate it.
“If we have something to work towards to stop the village from dying then I think this is very very important.
“It’s an opportunity to do just that.”
Paul Berry, chairman of Billingshurst Parish Council, added: “I do believe hopefully there are a lot of people in the village that want to shop in the village.
“We need to work out why they are not shopping in the village and change that.”
But some were less keen on the idea.
Ken Longshurst explained that places like Steyning and Henfield worked because of ‘reasonable’ parking and ‘reasonable’ shops, and it had been decided in the late 1990s to remove parking on the high street in Billingshurst.
He added: “To spend money on trying to make Billingshurst a centre for commerce is a waste of money. It will not work.”
“What we need is a centre which is vibrant,” Alan Grant said.
“What we need is footfall. Now we have missed out on the other places to date as most places have got a supermarket somewhere near.”
Doug Rands added: “Unless we have something that other people have not got, people will not come.”
Meanwhile Jon Pinkerton, of GL Hearn, said their role in the process was to challenge the ideas that came forward and examine whether they were deliverable or not.
Parish councillor Roy Margetts asked the consultants if getting a bigger anchor retailer like Asda or Morrisons on the Jengers Mead site was really feasible.
Mr Pinkerton answered: “They all have their challenges and it’s part of what we need to examine is whether these challenges are surmountable.”
On the possibility of compulsory purchasing Jengers Mead Car Park he said that while a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) was a long process, having a SPD was one of the stepping stones.
Several councillors discussed the future of the high street in light of a rise in online shopping, but many thought a niche could be found if money was spent wisely.
Lesley Wilding, vice chairman, added: “I agree with my colleagues. I was told £440,000 [was spent] on the revamp of the high street. It has not improved footfall at all.”
Mr Rands said they were already losing one bank branch in the village, and many members expressed their confusion at why two businesses were having to relocate from the high street after HDC granted permission for the demolition of a block of shops and the erection of a new retail unit.
Gozone, which looks after the elderly in their own homes, will be moving to another premises in the high street in the coming weeks.
But councillors said the future of restaurant Dolce Salato was less certain.
At the end of the debate West Sussex county councillor Amanda Jupp (Con, Billingshurst) said they were investigating whether they could take the A272 out of that part of the village and connect it with the new spine road, which is due to be built as part of the 475 home development.
They were also looking to see if Barclays Bank could release part of their car park, which Mrs Jupp said was currently under used.
She added: “Parking is key and we all need to work together.”
Mr Macdonald said that the process of drawing up the SPD was at a very early stage and as they went along they would be involving stakeholders and the community.