The first Romsey Forum was set up by Cllr Mark Cooper on 22nd June 1994. The original suggestion came from Liz Brett, Romsey Division County Councillor 1985-2005, who had been impressed by the Forum run by Petersfield Town Council. Petersfield Forum was visited to see how it was set up after which Romsey Town Council agreed to give a 'Romsey Forum' a trial.
The Town Hall's Court Room hosted the first meeting which was chaired by Cllr. Cooper. At the inaugural meeting he stated that "The Forum should be an open debating chamber where the issues of the day affecting Romsey can be fully aired and where the general public and town organisations can, through the Forum Chairman, question officers of the County Council and Borough Council."
The average attendance over the years has been over 40 in contrast to the one or two residents who attend parish or town council meetings. The largest attendance was 115 for the Test Valley Local Plan on 28th March 2013 followed by 105 on the Tesco issue on the 19th September 2012. The lowest attendance was 17 on the 1st March 2000 and 19th September 2007.
From the start there was a tension between those who were more comfortable with constitutions and rule-books and those who have a more relaxed view. A memo from Mark Cooper to the Town Mayor of the day, Alan Marsh, who chaired the remainder of the 1994 forums, illustrated the point:- "I'm not being prescriptive - the Forum must decide its own structure - people who thrive on rules and structures may find this concept difficult."
The Forum has met at least four times a year ever since: the 100th Forum was on Thursday 29th March 2018 and the circulation list of individuals and organisations is now electronic. The most important characteristic of the Forum is that any citizen of Romsey Town's three Wards who attends the Forum is automatically a member and, if they leave their email address on the attendance sheet, they are added to the circulation list.
All local town, parish, borough and county Councillors are on the circulation list but they are encouraged to listen rather than lead in the context of the Forum although cross examinations and up-to-date information are appreciated.
Funding where needed comes from Romsey Town Council to cover photocopying and the hire cost of the Court Room. The only rules are those laid down by the Chairman at the beginning of each meeting; the Chairman and the Secretary are elected by the Forum annually usually at the September meeting. There is a tacit convention that the Chairman and Secretary are changed every four to five years and overtly political candidates are discouraged.
Over the 24 years of the Romsey Forum there have been ten Chairmen, the longest serving being John Parker with 19 meetings between November 2013 September 2018 and then Mike Richardson and Phoebe Merrick with 18 meetings each. There have been six secretaries. Since 15th March 2006 (Forum 51) Carolyn Nixson and Sandra Smith have shared the secretary role with 60 meetings clerked (as at 29th June 2023; Forum 111) and then Ruth Wilkins and Mark Cooper with 21 Forums each. The current Chairman is Mark Edgerley. Each agenda is set by the Chairman and the Secretary after consulting the previous Forum. Sometimes, if a meeting is well attended, a vote at the discretion of the Chairman, may be taken. The vote has no force nor power. It only reflects the opinion of that Forum at that particular time.
So, with no constitution and no rulebook the Forum's success relies on the ability of the Chairman and Secretary to find good topics and to charm Council officers into attending and submitting themselves to scrutiny.
The movers and shakers in the town usually turn up.