Horsham council officers jumped the gun when they stopped a debate about the Novartis site fearing it was going to be rejected, a number of councillors have said.
The outline application, including 300 homes, for the Parsonage Road site was being discussed by the planning committee earlier this month when Barbara Childs, director of place, brought things to a halt and said the matter should be discussed by the full council.
The decision came after Ruth Fletcher (Lib Dem, Denne) suggested the application should be rejected.
With fears that a subsequent appeal would cost the council thousands of pounds, Mrs Childs followed advice in the council’s constitution and stepped in.
The application will now be debated on September 4.
Her decision left a lot of baffled faces round the table and frustration from the public.
Frances Haigh (Lib Dem, Denne) said she had raised ‘strong concerns’ with the council about the incident.
Acknowledging that most people would recognise the need for some development on the Novartis site, she added: “It is absolutely essential that there should be a thorough discussion by councillors on behalf of the community to ensure that the development is acceptable and appropriate.
“It is only by having such a thorough discussion that an acceptable solution may be reached.
“As we had not heard all the views of councillors, it would not have been possible for officers to judge the decision that was likely to be made by councillors.
“Yet in effect, because one councillor proposed refusal, this was taken to mean that the general opinion would be to refuse.
“This may not have been the outcome if the debate had been allowed to progress and officers should have advised the chairman to allow the debate to continue.”
The application for the site was submitted by West Sussex County Council, and there was incredulity from some that one Tory-controlled council could consider taking costly action against another because of a planning application.
John Milne (Lib Dem, Roffey North) said: “This is a development almost nobody likes.
“But the suggestion that West Sussex County Council would use the courts to force it through in the teeth of local opposition is beyond belief.
“To add insult to injury, they’ll be using our own public money to sue us.”
Mr Milne added: “Local Horsham district Tories say they’re not to blame, it’s the county council. But they’re all members of the same party.
“No wonder people are losing faith in democracy.”
Conservative members had just as many concerns about the application as their Lib Dem colleagues.
Andrew Baldwin (Con, Holbrook East) said he had ‘real concerns’ about the impact on the local roads, describing the Wimblehurst Road/North Heath/Parsonage Road junction as ‘really dangerous’.
And Peter Burgess (Con, Holbrook West) called the application a ‘missed opportunity’, a ‘pig’s ear’ and accused the county council of leaving Horsham ‘with a horrible mess to somehow sort out’.
With the council having undergone major changes following the last election, there were a few new, inexperienced faces on the committee.
Mrs Haigh said: “The issue too, is that as this is a new council, there should have been far greater consultation with members beforehand to ensure that the application submitted to the planning committee had addressed all of their concerns as far as possible.”
She added: “I am extremely concerned by the way Horsham District Council is driving through developments.
“I understand that if an application goes to appeal and is over-turned then the council will incur costs.
“This is no reason to force councillors to accept development that has been badly conceived and which councillors consider will cause major harm to their locality.
“Although the council will save costs now, the long-term effect may be a huge cost to the community, at which time it will not be possible to mitigate the harm.”
Looking at the issues raised around the application, Mrs Haigh said she was disappointed that calls for a footbridge over the railway line had not been included.
She added: “As councillors, we have a duty to future generations to ensure that what we deliver here has been thoroughly assessed and considered, and is the best that we can achieve, and not something that was driven through because of the fear of appeal costs.”
There was disappointment, too, for members of the Wimblehurst Road Residents Association.
Jane Apostolou had spoken at the planning meeting, raising concerns about increased traffic and the ‘serious implications’ for air quality.
Speaking about the decision to end the discussion, she said: “There are still many outstanding issues regarding the application that have not been addressed, such as the standard to which the road safety audit has been carried out and how the Wimblehurst Road/North Heath Lane/Parsonage Road junction and the Parsonage Road entrance will be managed to make them safe for motorists, pedestrians and cyclists.
“It will be interesting to see if further work will have been done on these issues when the application is considered at the meeting scheduled for September 4 and we hope the democratic process is adhered to allow enough time for councillors to fully debate the application at this meeting.”
A spokesman for HDC said: “The discussion on the Novartis application was unfortunately cut short at the planning committee to prevent the committee taking a decision which could have led to significant costs for the council, and the taxpayer. This can be done if the director of place is of the opinion that the committee is minded to make a decision in which there are likely to be significant cost implications (4.4(s) of the constitution).
“During the debate at committee, it was clear that members had serious concerns regarding the highway impact of the proposed development, which is in contrary to the advice of officers, West Sussex County Council as the highway authority and our own appointed technical highway expert consultant. Having received advice from three highway consultants (including an independent consultant) that the scheme could not be refused on highway grounds, moving to reject the application on these grounds would have left the council open to challenge and consequently substantial cost. Allowing the committee to refuse the application on grounds which cannot be defended would have therefore been irresponsible.
“The application has now been referred to full council for determination and councillors will have an opportunity to speak on this application at this meeting.”