Despite a bitterly cold evening, a warm welcome was given by Joan Rose the Chair of Highcliffe Residents Association to a joint evening organised by the HRA and the Highcliffe and Walkford Parish Council. The meeting had been convened to give a public forum to the guest for the evening Graham Farrant, the Chief Executive of BCP Council. Mr Farrant had been invited to speak at the Parish Council Annual Meeting earlier in 2022, and had been unable to attend on that occasion.
Joan began the evening by outlining some HRA successes particularly relating to the recent improvements made to the beach steps near to the Cliffhanger after years of complaints, which had been ignored by council officers until a recent joint meeting was held between herself, Highcliffe Councillors and BCP Officers.
She also described a very useful meeting she attended together with Councillor Andy Martin and the Morebus company who have recently taken over many of the bus routes from the Yellow Bus company, which has recently gone into administration. The loss of the service between Sainsburys and New Milton had been of particular concern to residents, and Morebus have agreed to revisit all routes in the hope of replacing those most needed.
Bob Hutchings Chairman of the Parish Council began his address to the meeting by acknowledging that there were examples of good collaboration between BCP and the Parish Council, such as the replacement of bus shelters, the new service agreement on the maintenance of green areas, and parking restrictions to ease the problems of those living near to the coast.
However, he emphasised that little progress had been made on many other issues that had been flagged up at a similar meeting held 18 months ago. He instanced in particular the transfer to the Parish Council of responsibility for the four play areas and the Recreation Ground, and the Revitalisation of the High Street, especially the pavements which frequently flood and are dangerous in places. This was particularly frustrating as the Parish Council have offered £125,000 towards the costs of improvements. He also referred to the outcome of some recent planning decisions which seemed to ignore local knowledge and concerns. The challenge now was to extend the collaborative approach to all areas of interaction between the councils, and to eliminate the impression that Highcliffe and Walkford was seen as a bit of a nuisance at the extreme Eastern end of the BCP area.
Responding to the remarks, Graham Farrant said that the creation of BCP Council as a unitary authority had been the biggest instance of local government re-organisation in England in the past 40 years. The restructure had been implemented a year faster than in other less complex areas but was still being 'run-in'. The need now was to foster a consistent culture and approach across all areas of the new organisation. The frequent changes in the political make-up of the elected council were not helping to create a stable framework, especially as some councillors had moved from one political grouping to another. A key effort was to improve relations with existing Parish Councils, and he was happy to announce the appointment of an officer with directly relevant experience.
The BCP Council area is mainly urban, albeit 19% of it is classed as areas of Special Scientific Interest. It includes 19 different High Streets, each with its own character and problems, and Graham recognises that there is no "one size fits all" way forward. A key constraint is the problem of the BCP budget, the great bulk of which is committed to statutory provisions such as education and social care. When a child is identified with particular care issues (some costing up to £1 million to £3 million a year each!), that inevitably affects the budget left available for improvements to local infrastructures. However, he would review the issues already mentioned, including Highcliffe High Street pavements especially after a lot of wet weather.
Other issues clamouring for his attention included urgent improvement of Children's Services, the need to rebuild the B.I.C. as a modern conference centre so as to attract big conferences back to the town, and the need to improve the three main town centres while respecting the character of each of them. He was working to create a more open culture within the BCP organisation, in which officers would work collaboratively and feel free to raise challenging questions. He would always respond to incoming emails addressed to him, and had asked his PA to note all topics raised at this meeting.
NB - HRA intends to create an 'action' list from the issues which were raised at the meeting to forward to Mr Farrant, in order to ensure all of these topics are addressed and answered as promised.
There followed a question and answer session where residents raised many additional points of concern including the closure of Highcliffe Castle Tearooms, the long delays in getting responses from some officers, and questions affecting planning.
Please note: The referendum on the Highcliffe and Walkford Neighbourhood Plan vote was taking place on the same day and the results were not available at that time but were announced the next day. The Plan has been accepted by the Residents and will have to be taken seriously by BCP when making planning decisions.