Third Conservative council leader quits at Horsham District Council within last 20 months

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A third Conservative has resigned as leader of Horsham District Council in less than 20 months.

Jonathan Chowen, who represents Cowfold, Shermanbury and West Grinstead, has stepped down this week after his group voted to postpone the local plan until after May's local election.

HDC, under the control of the Conservatives, has spent the last few years grappling with the thorny issue of setting a housing target for its revised local plan and which large development sites would need to be allocated as a result.

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Various ministerial pronouncements have not helped, giving only a glimmer of hope that fewer new homes would have to be built across the Horsham district, saving many of our greenfields from being concreted over. Central government is holding a consultation at the moment on proposed changes to the national planning system, although it is unclear whether the Horsham district would be better off, and if so, how.

Jonathan Chowen pictured in 2019. Photo by Derek Martin Photography.Jonathan Chowen pictured in 2019. Photo by Derek Martin Photography.
Jonathan Chowen pictured in 2019. Photo by Derek Martin Photography.

Four months removed from election time and Mr Chowen has appeared to be at odds with members in the Conservative ranks about the best way to proceed.

He said in a statement to the County Times: “I have resigned as Leader of Horsham District Council and Conservative Group Leader as a matter of principle and conscience, following the decision of the Conservative Group not to support the publication of the New Local Plan before the elections in May.

“I believe this is a grave mistake as it leaves our District and residents vulnerable to speculative, spasmodic planning applications by developers. I fear they will pick off small lucrative sites in our villages and towns, using our lack of a local plan to build on greenfield sites with little reference to local neighbourhood plans and with minimum consideration to vital infrastructure. There could also be the return of unsustainable large scale sites such as Adversane and Buck Barn. There will be less certainty, local control, accountability and environmental protection for our countryside and rivers. I fear this will create a developer-led free for all, as ‘what is not to like in a district with high house prices and no protective plan’.

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“The opportunity of Michael Gove’s recent reforms and the current protection of water neutrality will be lost and decisions left in the hands of developers with little reference to the needs and wishes of our local communities.

“I regret that I was not able convince the Conservative Group of these factors at this private meeting and the secret ballot that followed.

“It has been a privilege to work at Horsham District Council with a fine team of professional officers and colleagues on many exciting projects that have benefitted local people including the Bridge Leisure Centre, Horsham Football Club and Broadbridge Heath Football Club. Also the improvements to Horsham Park, the Pond, the new Skateboard Park and Dinosaur Island at Southwater. I am particularly pleased with the emphasis on environmental concerns which have resulted in the Wilder Horsham initiative with Sussex Wildlife and the development of Chesworth Farm and Warnham Nature Reserves, particularly its new Discovery Hub.

“I have taken the decision to stand down as a councillor in May 2023, until then I will stay on as an Independent having had the privilege of representing my home parishes of West Grinstead, Cowfold & Shermanbury since elected in 2005.”

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Mr Chowen took over from Paul Clarke, who resigned as leader in late 2021 after just six months in the role. Mr Clarke in turn had succeeded long-time leader Ray Dawe who stepped down saying he felt the best way forward for the revised local plan would be with a new leader.

This was hot on the heels of Mr Chowen’s own resignation as deputy leader, with Mr Dawe saying it was over disagreement about emerging views on the local plan’. Up to that point Mr Chowen had been the main spokesman for plans to build homes on the golf course at Rookwood, alongside investment to Warnham Local Nature Reserve. Development plans for the site were later shelved by Mr Clarke.

As cabinet member for leisure and culture, Mr Chowen was right at the centre of a huge controversy around the old Broadbridge Heath Leisure Centre. Initial plans from late 2011 would have seen it closed with no replacement. But users successfully campaigned for a replacement and the brand new Bridge leisure centre opened its doors in late 2018. Mr Chowen also helped deliver the much-acclaimed Horsham District Year of Culture in 2019.

In a statement, HDC confirmed the local plan process would be paused, saying: “Senior councillors of Horsham District Council have voted to pause the development of the Horsham District Local Plan until later this year. The planned meetings of Cabinet and full Council on 18 January 2023 have therefore been cancelled.

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“The Plan, which was set to go to a Regulation 19 consultation in February 2023 sets out how the District will deliver the required number of homes in a sustainable way, supporting the requirements to be water neutral and the delivery of community infrastructures, transport links and opportunities for local employment.”