ALTON’S Community Forum threw up a clear challenge to East Hampshire District Council (EHDC) this week to stop treating Alton as a second-class citizen.
It was a lively gathering at Alton Community Centre on Tuesday with representatives from the town and surrounding villages determined to make their voices heard.
Having suffered from the imposition of increased car-parking charges, leading to a loss of confidence over EHDC’s commitment to the economic well-being of the town and adding fuel to the growing trend of on-street parking, Altonians were in no mood for platitudes.
While calling for more transparency and public consultation in EHDC’s work and management of local affairs, the list of concerns was considerable.
Alton Society member Bob Booker led the way with a forceful attack on a now historic decision that has left Alton without a designated and appropriately-manned tourist information centre when it clearly has a strong, if underdeveloped, tourism offering, as demonstrated by the success of Jane Austen Regency Week.
In pointing out the inadequacy of a tourist information point which, while attached to the EHDC presence office, is unmanned and offers out-of-date leaflets, Mr Booker said: “I am sick and tired of this town being second place to Petersfield and being under-serviced.
“We are getting a lot of visitors and yet our tourist information provision is singularly underwhelming. Given its history, it is about time Alton was treated with equality.”
While EHDC officers confirmed that the tourist information centre in Petersfield library, which is manned and run in conjunction with Tourism South East, is the main provision for East Hampshire, Mr Booker pointed out that this was of little help to Alton. He insisted that what Alton needs is a tourist information centre in a more accessible location such as the library or community centre.
As organiser, with her team, of Alton’s Regency Week, Pat Lerew flagged up the need for a “budget for tourism” pointing out that the event had been run by volunteers who had to go “cap in hand” to local councillors for support “which is not the way to do things”.
Jane Austen 200, she said, had given “a big boost” to Alton’s tourism credibility and it was one they should build on to help regenerate interest in the town and fill the empty shops. But it couldn’t be done without funding, and EHDC had been woefully lacking in its support on this front.
Her message to EHDC was clear: “Try looking at Alton rather than putting everything through Petersfield, which does not have the same tourist attractions.”
The other serious ongoing bone of contention was the future of Alton Sports Centre and EHDC’s failure to consult fully before making a decision on the mix of provision that favours leisure and fails, in the opinion of the town’s sporting fraternity, to provide for the needs of a growing community.
Speaking on behalf of Alton and District Sports Council, Joe Walters and Alton Squash Academy member Laurie Cufley heaped praise on Alton Town Council for picking up the cudgel by running a public consultation to help shape its own response to the offering by EHDC.
Having served to unite the sporting community, the hope was that the consultation will reinforce the need for the mix of facilities to be revisited.
But based on recent performance, the fear was whether EHDC would actually listen to the voice of Alton and the motion was put forward by forum that, should the call be for change, the issue must be debated by EHDC at full council and not restricted to Cabinet.
The result of the town council’s survey will be presented at the full council meeting on July 13.
Another big concern was over the apparent reluctance by EHDC to release developers’ Section 106 contributions. Held by EHDC for use in the relevant community, both Four Marks and Medstead parish council representatives flagged up the embarrassment caused when Section 106 money, allocated to pay for work done, failed to come through on time.
While branded an administration problem, forum chairman Graham Hill gave an assurance that there was no conspiracy by EHDC to hold onto the money or to allow it to be returned to the developer unused. He agreed to ensure that a spreadsheet would be available at the next forum meeting in October to clearly identify the status of all Section 106 contributions.
While development issues remained on going, particularly in the villages of Four Marks, Medstead and Froyle, there was more promising news on the state of communications between developers and the local community in Alton with two liaison meetings already in place to serve the Cadnam Farm development in Upper Anstey Lane (Martin Grant Homes and Persimmon) and the former Coors Sports Ground in Anstey Road (Miller Homes), with a third group to come on board to serve the Will Hall Farm site (Redrow).
Calls were made for these meetings to take place in the evenings, to enable more people to attend, and for the Will Hall Farm meetings to include experts on river management, due to its close proximity to the source of the River Wey.