Monday, 08 August 2022

PR man who wants to help shape town's development

PR man who wants to help shape town's development

THE new chairman of the Henley Society says the conservation group must continue to help shape the town’s future.

Frank Browne, a public relations expert, says he will liaise with residents, community groups and councillors at all levels of local government to learn more about their concerns and devise strategies to help.

The society, which is non-political, comments on most planning applications and its views are taken into account when Henley Town Council makes its own recommendations.

It also gave feedback and advice to the volunteers who drew up the Henley and Harpsden joint neighbourhood plan, which passed a referendum early last year.

Mr Browne, 47, who took over as chairman of the society from Henley architect Ian Giuliani last month, says it needs to “refocus” and decide its priorities as Henley faces demands to accommodate hundreds more homes than the 500 or so it agreed to take under the plan.

He says: “Henley is a fantastic place to live and work and we’re very fortunate to have a very high quality of life.

“My vision is that the Henley Society works to protect and, where possible, enhance that.

“All organisations go through periods when they’re highly motivated and others when things are pretty quiet.

“There are peaks and troughs and we now need to re-engage with our members and the broader community.

“However, I don’t want to impose anything from the top down — my priority is to get a better feeling of people’s priorities and what they value most.

“It might sound a vague aspiration but I don’t want to just charge in saying, ‘right, let’s do this and that’.”

Mr Browne moved to Henley with his parents Roger and Cheeky Browne when he was 13 and attended Shiplake College before going on to study business and finance at Bristol Polytechnic.

He then worked in client services and marketing for Henley investment firm Invesco Perpetual, then known simply as Perpetual.

He was inspired to serve the public by his parents, who no longer live in the area but were active members of many groups, including the River Thames Society.

He says: “They’ve always been involved in communities where they live so I picked up that ethos from them, although I was keen to strike out on my own and not follow precisely in their footsteps.”

He served briefly as a Conservative town councillor in 1995 after being co-opted but lost his seat in an election later that year. The following year, Mr Browne moved to Remenham and was elected to Wokingham Borough Council, later becoming its youngest ever leader at the age of 32.

He also sat on the Henley Society’s executive committee after befriending its then chairman John Howard.

He stepped down from both roles in 2008 to focus on his public relations career.

Mr Browne stopped working in 2013 when he was diagnosed with cancer but he finished treatment early last year and hopes to be given the all-clear after the next 18 months.

He moved to Rotherfield Greys two years ago and now sits on the advisory board of Meeting Place Communications, a public consultation agency based in London.

He became chairman of the Henley Society after a chance conversation with secretary Sandra Moon at a service at St Mary’s Church in December.

He says: “She asked if I was interested in being involved. I said ‘yes’ and it all took off from there.

“I don’t think it has been an easy two years for the society and it’s time for us to step back, refocus and clarify exactly what we stand for.

“We’re extraordinarily lucky to live on the most beautiful stretch of the River Thames and to benefit from historic architecture and a wide range of amenities.

“However, there are also some difficult issues that need to be addressed.

“I don’t want to presume anything but people’s concerns could include traffic and associated air quality problems, whether or not a third bridge over the Thames might alleviate that, noise from low-flying planes coming into Heathrow and the future of local government as we face a possible unitary council for Oxfordshire.

“We all know traffic is a major problem and personally I think a third bridge is a potential solution, subject to the appropriate design.

“The most obvious location is near Thames Valley Business Park in Reading, though I understand there’s been talk about that for a good 100 years now!

“A ban on heavy goods vehicles is also worth exploring but we need to take a wider view and ensure it doesn’t just push the problem further out into other towns and villages.

“We must be creative and willing to entertain all kinds of solutions, even if it’s lobbying the Government to introduce a ban on diesel vehicles before the current deadline of 2040.”

Mr Browne was also recently appointed chairman of the Henley Conservatives following the resignation of Dieter Hinke, a former town councillor and former chairman of the neighbourhood planning governance committee. He insists the society will remain non-partisan but would like it to play a key role in updating the neighbourhood plan to reflect demand from South Oxfordshire District Council, the planning authority, for an increase in the number of new houses.

The current quota is 400 homes under the district council’s existing local plan but this is now being revised to run until 2033 and the new total for Henley could be around 1,200.

The town council, which oversaw production of the neighbourhood plan, will have to reconvene the working groups to decide how much of an increase is realistic.

Mr Browne says: “The Henley Society can support that work by providing a wider perspective and liaising with the district and county councils as well as our MP John Howell on issues falling outside the town council’s remit.

“We have the benefit of being a non-political organisation, with members from both the Conservatives and Henley Residents’ Group, and that is a major strength. We will always focus on what’s best for the town.

“Clearly we’re under huge planning pressure, as is the district council and the majority of the South-East.

“If we’re going to accept significantly more housing, we have to ensure it’s accompanied by enough infrastructure.

“We don’t yet have a clear vision of the amenities we need over the next 50 or more years but I believe we should be seriously thinking on that kind of timescale to ensure future generations reap the benefit of us making the right decisions now.

“There are enormous challenges ahead but we cannot bury our heads in the sand and insist on taking no more housing whatsoever. The district council, and ultimately the Government, won’t stand for that.

“I think the work we’ve done on the neighbourhood plan thus far has been very important.

“We haven’t had it all our way but it’s a solid foundation and we’re right to resist unrealistic numbers being imposed upon us.

“There’s also a major issue around affordability and if we could harness that process to secure more affordable and social housing, it would be a real step forward.

“I’m very excited to be starting in this role. We have some fantastic people at both executive level and among the membership and I know we can make a very real and constructive contribution to the debate over Henley’s future.”

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