Ray Dawe: Debate over future of Horsham’s historic Park House

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Park House in Horsham is on the right hand side of North Street as you walk down from the station, on the edge of Horsham Park, and is a Grade II Listed Building.

Though parts date from an older period, it is considered a good example of an early 18th century provincial house. It was sold to the council in the 1920s and has since provided offices and meeting rooms for the council.

It became apparent in the 1970s that major works of repair were needed if Park House was to remain an important feature of the town’s stock of historic buildings. There was an extensive fire in 1979 and, the building was comprehensively restored in the early 1980s.

In particular, this restoration brought three downstairs rooms back to their original appearance by removing modern partitions, whilst retaining original material as much as possible: the Wicker room, now used for small council meetings, a small sitting room used by the council chairman for civic occasions and the grand Drawing Room, with its original decorated ceiling, which has been the town’s venue for civil weddings since it was leased along with some office accommodation to West Sussex County Council in 2009 to house Horsham Register Office. This currently brings in £30,000 rent each year to Horsham District Council.

As part of its overall office rationalisation the council no longer needs the office and basement accommodation that it has used which comprises about 75 per cent of the building. The annual running cost to the council is about £120,000 and should it remain in council use there would be a need for further expenditure to update much of the accommodation.

In order to set the matter in some context the council has engaged a local agent to identify any potential interest in the building from individuals or organisations. They consider that the property would suit a wide variety of alternative uses within the commercial and leisure sector.

As you can imagine, there is a wide variety of opinions both inside and outside of the council as to what happens next. These range from those councillors who would like to find some civic or public use for this historic building to others who believe that it is unreasonable for the district’s taxpayers to pick up the cost of running a building if another organisation would take this on as long as the external appearance of the building and its surroundings remain unchanged. Several have stated a preference for it to be let on a leasehold basis.

The main external comment so far has come from the Horsham Society. The society has said in a letter to the council: “Now that it is surplus to the council’s requirements it is important to find a new use for it which is appropriate to its setting and which does not involve any loss of public access to the park and gardens... The society supports the decision to market Park House in order to identify potential interest.”

While the decision will ultimately be taken by councillors, the society asks that there should be an opportunity ‘for the public to reflect upon all or any options’.

I am sure that this will indeed be the case and that as part of that we shall see opinions echoed in future letters and articles in this newspaper.