Two of the most respected figures in Conservative politics in Horsham, today signed the County Times’ Free Speech Charter.
Brad Watson OBE a distinguished West Sussex county councillor and Chairman of the Horsham Conservative Association and fellow county councillor Liz Kitchen, who is also a Horsham District councillor and former leader, both signed the Charter in the presence of the newspaper’s Editor In Chief Gary Shipton.
Mr Watson made clear he was supporting the Charter in a personal capacity rather than as association chairman.
His deputy chairman (political) Simon Torn had also made a personal commitment to the Charter and was expected to sign it later in the day along with the party’s youngest councillor Josh Murphy, and Peter Burgess.
The council’s Conservative Vice Chairman Christian Mitchell was the first to add his signature in the morning.
Earlier, the County Times offices had been awash with politicians.
Lib Dem councillors at both county and district have made the Charter pledge along with all UKIP councillors on both authorities.
Their representatives turned out in force for huge signing sessions in the newspapers’ offices at 10.30am.
They were joined by Independent candidates Nik Butler, who hopes to win a district seat for Roffey North in May 2015 and Martin Dale a parish councillor who wants to represent Pulborough and Coldwaltham.
Mr Watson said: “I represent the people of my division to the best of my ability in their best interests and that’s why I’m there to make a difference and hopefully over the years I have made a difference for the better.”
Mr Watson has served on West Sussex County Council since 2001 and was a Horsham district councillor from the mid 1970s to 1991.
He is also the chairman of WSCC’s North Horsham County Local Committee.
Mrs Kitchen, a councillor for Rusper and Colgate, said: “I have no problem with signing it.
“You have laid down the challenge and I’m more than happy to pick up that challenge.
“I fully support what you are doing but personally I’m only doing what I have always done.”
Mr Shipton said today’s signings marked the beginning rather than the end of the campaign.
“I hope that many more councillors will sign this simple document, not just in the Horsham district, but across Sussex and maybe nationally too. We have a golden opportunity to re-engage the public with local decision making - a process which has been all but extinguished by single party cabinets, whipped decisions, and secret meetings.”
Mr Shipton is not only the Editor of the County Times’ group but Editor In Chief of all its many sister titles across East and West Sussex.
Nationally, he is editorial director and deputy chairman of the parent company’s governing editorial board which is responsible for titles across the UK including the Yorkshire Post.
He congratulated all those who had supported the initiative.
“It is tremendous to see so many different political views united in a single cause of free speech and more open local government. It gives me great hope for local democracy.”
But he said it remained a huge disappointment that many more members of the ruling Conservative group had so far decided not to respond.
“It has been suggested to me that they have been instructed not to sign the Charter. But why is a complete mystery to me. What is there to object to? All the Charter states is that councillors will respect their party’s values, honour its manifesto commitments, and put first the people they are elected to serve.
“More than that, this is not a legal document. It has no status other than symbolic. It simply sends a message that those who sign believe in the common principles of transparency and public accountability.
“In these very offices only six months’ ago, the Chairman of the district council Philip Circus gave an excellent speech in defence of a free press and free speech. It was my hope he might have been able to join us today, but it seems not to be. Perhaps there will be another occasion when his diary will permit him to do so.”
He said that if any Conservative councillors wished to have their support recorded in this week’s newspaper then they were free to e-mail him by 11am tomorrow (Wednesday).
“What a great way to end this local campaign it would be if they chose to do so,” he said.
The Charter - which already has the backing of the Lib Dem minority group on the district and county councils as well as UKIP nationally and locally - has been launched in response to claims that the ruling Tory group at Horsham whip votes, make key decisions in secret group meetings, and vet letters and articles sent to the County Times.
It follows the unprecedented deselection of Mr Mitchell as chairman elect in a whipped vote. He said he had paid the price for articulating his residents’ concerns about massive development in North Horsham.
The Charter states: “I undertake to speak, write and vote on behalf of my constituents without fear or favour of party discipline. If I am a member of a political party, I will respect its values and honour its pre-election manifesto pledges - but I will always put first the people I am elected to serve.”
Future candidates of any political party and none are also invited to be signatories.
Political Editor Joshua Powling welcomed the announcement by Mr Watson, Mr Torn and Mrs Kitchen.
He said: “The public has become increasingly disengaged from local politics because so much of the real decision-making is held in secret.
“Single party cabinet meetings, often with informal private sessions, have added to this sense of public disquiet.
“When you have major issues like determining the Preferred Strategy for local planning unless you debate everything openly and frankly, the public rightly become suspicious of how contentious decisions are achieved.
“In the end, it is wholly counter-productive. Even if there is no cause for concern, privacy breeds both contempt and groundless fears.
“The vast outpouring of public support for the County Times’ Charter and our STop Secret campaign demonstrates that residents want to be treated better.”
He congratulated all those who had signed, especially Conservatives against the tide of opinion in their local groups.
“They are courageous and honourable trail blazers - and the County Times enormously respects their principled statements.”
He added that respect for Mrs Kitchen and Mr Watson was such that their comments could prove enormously influential in bringing about the kind of change the public clearly wanted to see.