The Henley Residents Group was originally formed in 1989 to fight the over-intensive joint Waitrose / South Oxfordshire District Council (SODC) Town Centre Development Plan.
This is Gill’s story:
“A developer had produced plans that were on display at the Town Hall. We went to view them and were horrified at what we found. There was a shopping mall, underground parking, an enormous Waitrose but worst of all was the pastiche design with Mickey Mouse architecture. Our town was worthy of a much higher quality scheme than this.
We were not alone in our thinking and letters started appearing in the Henley Standard. One of the big concerns was that the District Council was part applicant and so in effect giving itself planning permission. A public meeting was called in the Town Hall and the author and playwright John Mortimer chaired the event. We invited all the SODC politicians and planning officers but none came. Instead came hundreds of Henley residents. The hall was full to overflowing and a second impromptu meeting was held on the Town Hall steps. There was genuine anger at what was being forced on the town and its then Conservative Town Council was compliant.
A group of like-minded people started to form and we had to give ourselves a name. At first it was Henley Residents’ Action Group but then some thought that made us sound a bit militant, so we became the Henley Residents Group. We started to discover all sorts of problems in the town. The Day Centre Social Club for over 60’s was to be sold and turned into offices. The Youth Centre was to close and be sold. Anything owned by Henley Town Council was run down and not maintained. People talked of the town being run by the Henley Mafia. The Council had always been dominated by the Conservatives.
We campaigned on these issues too. We held a march through the town and again hundreds of people joined us. We delivered a petition to 10 Downing Street with thousands of signatures. We lobbied Michael Heseltine our MP who was also Secretary of State for the Environment, but no one listened, and the town centre development still looked as though it was going ahead. Then we hit on the idea of a Parish Poll. We asked the town if they wanted the development, and also asked the question ‘Do you have confidence that Henley is being properly represented by its councillors?’ 79% voted no to the development and 84% said they had no confidence in their Councillors. That was a clear message that HRG had to take the next step and stand at the election May 1991.
We put up 8 candidates for the Town Council – all 8 were elected. We got 3 of the 5 SODC seats too. It was an extraordinary result. HRG had moved from lobbying as a group of concerned townspeople to running Henley Town Council. We set about putting right the wrongs we had campaigned so hard against for two years.
The town centre development never went ahead, killed off by our protesting and the 1990’s recession. Waitrose built a much more modest scheme. The Day Centre was bought by the then HRG led Town Council and flourishes today. The Youth Centre was saved. So many areas of Henley got a face lift.
Our town is a now a bustling, lively, beautiful place and I thank all the people of Henley who over the years have supported us and helped make things happen.”