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Battle Over Rookwood Housing

CGI interpretation of how Rookwood could look (Courtesy of Horsham District Council)

Published on 29th March 2021

Of all the green spaces being considered for development in the Horsham District, one is proving to be more controversial than the rest. Rookwood.

While all proposed sites in Horsham District Council’s Local Plan have been met with opposition, the overlapping storylines at Rookwood make for an intriguing cocktail of contrasting views. Golfers are fighting to save the course they love, wildlife enthusiasts are trying to protect the nearby Warnham Local Nature Reserve, while thousands of residents want to preserve one of the last remnants of green space around the town. No less than 11,400 people have signed a petition to Keep Rookwood Green.

At the heart of it all is the landowner, Horsham District Council (HDC), which stands to make £20million if it can push through its own plans. On the face of it, it’s a classic good versus bad story. But there’s much more to it than that. AAH spoke to representatives on all sides, delving into the issues behind the divisive development…

Let’s start by looking at Rookwood Golf Course…

Okay. Rookwood is an 18-hole course just outside town. It also has a pitch & putt course and offers foot-golf. The course is accessed via Robin Hood Lane, although the road to it goes under the A24, so the course is on the other side of the dual-carriageway (the Horsham side, not the Warnham side). The course is split in two by Warnham Road, with most fairways to the south. Those to the north are right next to Warnham Local Nature Reserve (WLNR). The golf course land was once part of a much bigger nature reserve and there were protests when it was first proposed, along with the exclusive Rookwood housing development. Now, the course itself faces a fight for survival.

Is that a big deal?

It is for players, like Graham Hartley. He says, “Rookwood is a public pay-and-play course, not a traditional members club. That’s why it’s so important. People don't have to fork out for costly memberships or pay inflated green fees for a game of golf. It’s also a fantastic venue for beginners, especially young people, as it has a nine-hole pitch-and-putt course. I’m part of a Senior Section at Rookwood that meets three times a week and it’s a great social environment. It’s very beneficial to our health and is an essential part of my fitness regime.”

They could play somewhere else though…

 Graham points out that options have dwindled in recent years. Golf courses at Rusper, Wildwood and West Chiltington are among those to have closed, while others – including the Kingfisher course at Mannings Heath – have been reduced to nine-holes. He adds, “Rookwood is attractive as it’s affordable for pensioners and has a less formal feel to members’ clubs.” 

Why does HDC want to close it?

Ultimately, it comes down to money. The amount that Rookwood pays in rent and rates is not enough for the Council, which owns the land. Ray Dawe, Leader of HDC, says that the course “has run at a substantial loss for a number of years.” When asked to clarify that, he adds, “Basically, it is a loss, because the operator is not paying what was the agreed rent in the first place. It’s been reduced and they’re still not paying it.”

Couldn’t HDC bring in a new operator?

Cllr Dawe says, “The point is that nobody is going to take over something that has been loss-making for five years, despite the efforts that we put into it. The golfers would argue that it’s well used, but if it’s well used and still not making a profit, you end up at the same conclusion.” Campaigners challenge Cllr Dawe’s claim about HDC making an effort, pointing out that the golf course isn’t even on the Council’s website. 

Isn’t it? 

Seemingly not. There’s a link on the HDC Sports & Leisure page for tennis, football, BMX tracks and even free musical concerts at the Bandstand, but no link to a golf course on its own land. When AAH pointed out that it hadn’t received a single advert promoting Rookwood in ten years, suggesting that perhaps HDC hasn’t done all it could, Cllr Dawe rightly points out that “it is up to the people running the golf course to promote it, in the same way as the operators of local leisure centres do.” 

So, we’re losing a golf course and getting more houses then?

That’s not quite the full picture. HDC believes it can develop the Rookwood site and create more leisure space for people.


Houses will only take up 30% of the development space, it claims. Most of the land will be space that can be enjoyed by more people than which currently use the golf course. Cllr Dawe says, “What we are trying to do is say, okay, what’s the best thing we can do with this land that benefits the maximum number of people? This plan takes a golf course and makes it available for public recreation and extends the nature reserve. Nobody is taking anything away. We’re extending the possibilities of recreation.” 

Explain what HDC has in mind…

It proposes using the northern part of the site (the nature reserve end) as community space. There will be no houses built here. Instead, the Council’s vision is to “re-wild” that part of the golf course (which includes the beautiful pond around the side of the 2nd hole), improve biodiversity and enhance wildlife networks around the reserve. Cllr Dawe says, “We are not talking about something like Horsham Park here. We’re talking about a far more natural environment which is more open to nature and the type of place that parks will be like in future.”

What does a park of the future look like?

As you can see from HDC’s visual above, a great deal of consideration has gone into the design. Certainly more than some of the rather uninspired developments that have gone up in recent years. There’s potential for a primary school with play facilities, a new visitor centre and car park for WLNR, with key assets of the reserve – including the Mill Pond and the Walnut Plantation – preserved. There will be improved walkways that bring people closer to nature. Adam Chalmers, Director of Community Services at HDC (a non-political position) says, “The general setting is green and sustainable, with very little development. There’s a focus on re-wilding and extending the space so that it can be used by the public.” 

Good news for Warnham Local Nature Reserve, then?

Grab a hold of your horses there! We’re talking about a treasured community asset! The 92-acre reserve is much-loved for its flora and fauna and the Friends of WLNR have concerns. While the reserve has walkways and observation hides, it is carefully managed with large sections deliberately under-developed or out of bounds to visitors. “From a wildlife perspective, it’s better for the reserve to be quiet and secluded,” says Sally Sanderson, Chair of Friends of Horsham Park. “One of the good things about the golf course is that nobody uses it at night. Without human activity, nocturnal species including owls and bats benefit. You won’t get them with lit pathways and people walking around with dogs. If HDC isn’t careful, it may find that in 10 years’ time, the reserve isn’t worth visiting and the town will be poorer for it.” 

Re-wilding sounds exciting though… 

It depends on your interpretation of re-wilding. Knepp is one of the country’s leading re-wilding projects, but that’s a 3,500-acre rural estate around West Grinstead and Shipley. Knepp has free-roaming longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies, Tamworth pigs, red deer, and has made national headlines with the incredible success of its pioneering stork breeding project. Tim Thomas, a wildlife consultant and member of Friends of Chesworth Farm, says, “Re-wilding in its true sense means the reintroduction of herbivores, usually over vast tracts of land. Rookwood is so small that it isn’t re-wilding at all. What you can do though is leave the wildlife that’s already on site alone. Over 30 years, wildlife has been allowed to sort itself out at Rookwood and it is important to kingfishers, herons and many other species.” 

If’s it’s not re-wilding, what is it?

Morag Williams, a Rookwood campaigner, says, “The Council want to re-wild the northern end, but they also want to build a new car park and school, a café, play areas and create a network of walkways and cycle paths. That isn't re-wilding; that’s a country park.” 


Well, Cllr Dawe is adamant it’s not. “I don't think it would be like Knepp,” he says. “But I don't think it would be like Southwater Country Park either. I think it's closer to Knepp than the Country Park.” 

Well, thanks for clearing that up!

You’re welcome. Re-wilding or not, when HDC revealed its first plan for development in February 2020, it was met by widespread anger. The Horsham Society, as well as Denne, Trafalgar and Forest Neighbourhood Councils has opposed its plan and 11,400 people have signed a petition against it. Originally, HDC wanted to build up to 1,100 homes, with greater housing density in the southern part. However, to its credit, HDC has paid more than just lip-service to the concerns of its registered voters and come back with a revised plan with far fewer houses and more protection for Boldings Brook and the Red River. 

What’s Boldings Brook and the Red River?

There’s some confusion as to which is which, but the Red River and Boldings Brook both head south from the Mill Pond at WLNR and run through the heart of the golf course. The Red River gushes out of the Mill Pond and meanders along before joining up with Boldings Brook, which in turn links to the River Arun behind Hills Farm Lane. In HDC’s revised plan, Boldings Brook and Red River get more protection, as the space currently occupied by the 15th hole will not be built on. Adam Chalmers says, “This creates a buffer zone (between new housing) and protects the wildlife corridor. We have high expectations for Rookwood and are engaging with biodiversity and wildlife, while also looking at mitigating some of the current flood issues.” Specialist consultants Stantec have now been engaged by HDC and have recommended swales or ditches to facilitate water run-off and slow the flow of rainwater. 

What’s this wildlife corridor he’s talking about?

One of the campaigners’ main concerns is that wildlife (especially migrating birds) do not see a difference between the golf course and nature reserve. To wildlife, it’s just a large green space that’s part of a green corridor linking the River Arun, Boldings Brook and the Mill Pond. While the Council’s amended version is better than its first plan, campaigners say that the new houses will still infringe on this wildlife corridor. Morag Williams says, “The ironic thing is that HDC has partnered up with the Sussex Wildlife Trust (SWT) to launch Wilder Horsham, an initiative to link our wildlife corridors. Here, there’s already a natural corridor that benefits mammals, insects and birds. Only last week, storks flew over the golf course! This area fits beautifully alongside the Wilder Horsham project and is already owned by HDC, yet they want to build on it. Why wreck what you’ve already got?”

But the Council thinks it can increase biodiversity?

That’s the plan. Cllr Dawe reckons that the short grass of golf course fairways doesn’t provide much biodiversity anyway and that the Council can increase it by a net 10%. However, some fear we stand to lose more than we gain. Tim Thomas says, “When the Council talks about 10% increasing biodiversity, this can be achieved by planting a few trees. There’s a fabulous symbiosis on site now, with the golf course using natural fertilisers to help create a tremendous environment. Where else can you see kingfishers so close to town? The Council’s vision isn't right for nature.” 

Tell me more about the housing itself…

All the houses would be built on the southern end of the site. About 750 homes are proposed, including 250 affordable homes, with a focus throughout on eco-friendly living that encourages residents to walk and cycle. Cllr Dawe says, “This development is a site that’s aware of climate change and the needs of the future.” 

Why does HDC even want to build here, of all places?

Well, as landowners, it does stand to make £20million from the sale…


And Cllr Dawe admits that is a factor. He says, “I can’t pretend that councillors aren’t aware that if we sell the land there’s going to be £18 – 20m for the Council. But it’s got to stand on its planning credentials. If it fails on its planning credentials alone, then it fails full stop. If the Council does get the money, that’s excellent, because it helps pay for other services. As Council Leader, I often hear things about us only doing things for money. But we’re not going on jamborees or visiting exotic places! Money that comes in goes out too, spent on behalf of the community.” 

What’s a jamboree?

A lavish party. Often featuring bunting and cake. 

That’s a lot of money. Could do a lot of good... 

Campaigners point out that HDC has reserves of about £14m already. In the words of Sally Sanderson, it “doesn’t have to sell the family silver just yet!” Besides, the Council could make even more if it only waited a few decades. There’s a covenant in place, meaning the Council must split the proceeds from any sale of the land to the Lucas Trust. The covenant was put in place in 1987 – when the Council bought the land from the Lucas family, which owns the nearly Warnham Deer Park. The covenant was put in place to ensure the land was used for public recreation. It lasts until 2066. 

So, what’s the hurry?

The Council is putting together its Local Plan, outlining where houses should be built in future. There are nine strategic sites being considered, including Rookwood. Cllr Dawe says, “The government wants us to build 1,200 houses a year in the Horsham District and wherever you build, people will oppose it. It’s the Council’s job to look at the land and in each instance, test its viability and come up with conclusions. That’s what we have done and eventually, councillors will need to decide. If you asked councillors if they’d rather not choose between sites and that all this housing went somewhere else instead, I’m sure they’d say yes!”

Can’t argue with that, can you?

No, although some residents feel that the town itself is bearing the brunt of development, while rural areas to the south – in villages represented by prominent members of the Council’s Cabinet – are largely left untouched. Sally Sanderson says, “If you look at the development in the District since 2000, you’ll see nearly all of it has gone in the north. The Council use the argument that it’s more sustainable there, because of transport and infrastructure. But there comes a point where it reaches bursting point and it’s fair to say that infrastructure isn’t coping now. At some point, you are going to have to develop in the south, so why ruin the few remaining green spaces left around town?” 

There does seem to be a lot of housing around Horsham… 

New estates in Broadbridge Heath, Southwater and the new site at North Horsham is undoubtedly having a big impact. But the Council points to government policy, where building around existing infrastructure is preferred to development in the countryside. Cllr Dawe adds, “If you look at the growth of Billingshurst over the years, proportionately it has been higher than Horsham, so the idea that Horsham is taking it all isn't true.” He also gives short shrift to the idea that members of the Council are solely protecting their own localities, adding, “It’s never been the case that we build around town because there are fewer Conservative members of the Council living there.” 

When will the relentless building end?

Perhaps government policy will change in future, with development plans looked at over a larger area. Currently, the Horsham District is also burdened with housing shortfalls in places such as Crawley and Worthing, because they’re already full. Which is an unsustainable and quite ludicrous situation. The Council recognises this problem. Cllr Dawe says, “I’ve made no secret of the fact that I would like government policy to not just look at a District and demand 1,200 houses a year. I'd like them to decide nationally where to build homes and there are reforms planned.” 

Can’t we wait for these reforms?

Who knows? Maybe that’s covertly going on already. Right now, HDC is under pressure to finalise its Local Plan, incorporating both big developments on greenfield land and small-scale sites dotted around the District. Rookwood is not the only controversial site included. Late in March, The Guardian published an article about the threat to the Knepp estate by one of the strategic sites at Buck Barn. It’s worth reading. Cllr Dawe says, “We can provide everything in the current Local Plan except for about 3,000 houses. There are land ownership issues at Mayfield’s site (near Henfield) so we probably need to decide whether to put 3,000 houses at Buck Barn or at Adversane. There are issues with both sites, especially infrastructure. There is a long-term plan by Homes England to build 10,000 homes on land west of Crawley and a lot hinges on that. But as it stands, we’ll have to choose between those two sites. Inevitably, if you build on a greenfield site, it's not good for the environment and you can't pretend it is. But there aren’t enough brownfield sites left anymore.” 

Don’t we have policies to protect greenfield sites? 

HDC does have a Green Space Strategy, but needs to balance the objectives outlined in this against government housing targets. Sally Sanderson says: “HDC’s strategy is to ensure that there is sufficient green space to meet the community's needs. But it’s being whittled away. They say that if we can't build at Rookwood, they’ll have to develop Horsham Park or Chesworth Farm instead. They’ve got this Green Space Strategy on paper, but in practice, the Council is looking at opportunities to make money from the green spaces it owns.”

So, what happens next?

The Council is preparing the next stage of the Local Plan (called Regulation 19 – if you weren’t excited enough!) That should be ready around June, before a “period of representation.” Eventually, a planning application for Rookwood will be debated by councillors and either approved or rejected. That application will include finer details in terms of what exactly will be included in the development. Cllr Dawe says, “This is the best plan that we can take forward at this stage. Whether councillors agree with that or not is another matter.” 

So, the debate rumbles on?

Oh, yes. Even if it’s approved, campaigners question what will happen in future. Morag Williams says, “The golf course at least generates some money for the Council, whereas country parks cost money. It’s easy to imagine a few years down the line, the Council claiming it’s costing too much and reverting to something more like its first plan for Rookwood, with more housing. Perhaps if it was serious about its re-wilding ambitions, HDC would entrust the land to Sussex Wildlife Trust, who it’s already partnered with.”  


PHOTOS: Toby Phillips PhotographyVisuals courtesy of HDC
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