Those of us who live in this area know that we are fortunate. We have great local shops, markets and restaurants. We have ancient forests and chalk streams on our doorstep. The seaside is just 20 minutes down the road. And we benefit from a thriving cultural scene and heritage sector.

We get hundreds of day trippers and weekenders, but Petersfield is not currently renowned as a tourist destination in the wider UK staycation scene. We are not yet on the map. People you meet on holiday do not generally know where Petersfield is; you have to explain to them that it is 18 miles north of Portsmouth. This is why I sometimes describe Petersfield as the best kept secret in the South. 

Many people would like to keep it that way. I totally understand that. If we did become a tourist destination, we would admittedly have more humans on our pavements and in our town square. The queues at the Post Office might become even longer.

But I would argue that we have to overcome this protectionist instinct. A healthy town needs its industries. Petersfield was lucky in the past to benefit from industries in wool production, rubber manufacturing, leather tanning and brewing. These industries brought jobs and prosperity to the town. We are lucky now to have successful and growing businesses like Feefo, Morgan Innovation and Whitman Laboratories. These firms are bringing jobs and prosperity today. But we will need more industries like them to support a growing population.

Tourism is a great industry for two reasons. Firstly, it brings new money into the area, as opposed to money recirculating within the area. Secondly, that influx of new money is widely distributed around the local economy. Thousands of businesses stand to benefit from more tourism, from farmers to laundries to market stalls.

Petersfield has attractions like the Museum and the Physic Garden, and it is an excellent base for exploring the wider area. The South Downs National Park has stunning vineyards and the Queen Elizabeth Country Park is close to us. Within reaching distance we have Jane Austen’s House, Butser Ancient Farm and the Portsmouth Historic dockyards. The National Trust has three glorious houses and gardens within half an hour: Hinton Ampner, Petworth and Uppark.

So what is stopping Petersfield from becoming a tourist destination? I believe that Petersfield could be transformed into a truly world-class market town with just three affordable infrastructure projects. They are: to enhance the Station Forecourt, complete the Rother Valley Way and pedestrianise the Square. Allow me set out my thinking in more detail.

The current station forecourt lets us down. It is basically a taxi rank! Visitors arriving on the train surely do not feel like they are arriving in a National Park. At Hampshire County Council we have an emerging plan to relocate the taxi rank and build a paved square on the forecourt with new seating, new interpretation boards, new signage and new trees. We are working with Network Rail, South Western Railway and all local government stakeholders to develop this plan further. 

Secondly, the Rother Valley Way is an old disused railway line linking Petersfield and Midhurst. The Friends of Rother Valley have been developing the plan to build a dedicated path for walkers and cyclists along this route, working closely with the National Park Authority. The reason this project is so important is that it will connect Petersfield to the wider National Park. For example, once you arrive in Midhurst on your bike, you can then take the Centurions Way down to Chichester. The completion of the path will bring health and wellbeing benefits to all of us as well as being a major draw.

Finally, there are simply too many cars driving through the Square, which is the heart of the town. This is problematic because it creates noise pollution, reduces air quality and deters walking and cycling. Many other market towns have successfully boosted footfall through pedestrianisation – it is time for Petersfield to do the same. The climate case and the business case are both compelling. Access will still be possible for retailers to get their deliveries and we can still make sure disabled drivers can park centrally. And we will not have to worry so much about crowded pavements because there will be more space!

At roughly £2.5m each, these projects are not cheap. We will have to find the money and this will be a challenge in the current environment. I believe that by working together across all tiers of local government we can do it. If we succeed, Petersfield might cease to be the best kept secret in the South, but the improvements to our quality of life and to our economy will be worth it.

By Russell Oppenheimer

Conservative county councillor for Petersfield Hangers and executive member for Countryside and Regulatory Services at Hampshire County Council