The Conservative leader of West Sussex County Council Louise Goldsmith today (Wednesday April 9) confirmed that she would be personally signing the County Times’ Free Speech Charter.
It is understood that a number of her Tory county colleagues also intend to do so.
But Mrs Goldsmith’s bold and personal commitment to the principles outlined in the Charter will leave the Tory leadership at Horsham District Council looking even more isolated, remote and out of touch with the mood of the electorate.
The Lib Dems and UKIP opposition at district and county have already committed to sign - with UKIP proposing a notice of motion for this Friday’s county meeting in support of it.
Brad Watson, the chairman of the Horsham Conservative Association, acting in a personal capacity, has done the same - along with his key officers John Bailey and Simon Torn.
Former distinguished leader Liz Kitchen was one of the first to welcome the initiative.
The current council vice chairman Christian Mitchell, the immediate past chairman Leonard Crosbie, and the newly chosen vice chairman Tricia Youtan, have all pledged their support.
A number of other Conservative district councillors have also added their signature - despite suggestions that advice was circulated advising them not to do so.
But leader Ray Dawe, deputy leader Helena Croft, the Tory cabinet at HDC, and a number of backbenchers have ignored the Charter despite invitations to support it.
Council chairman Philip Circus opened the County Times’ new offices in the summer with a passionate speech in defence of a free press and free speech but has not yet replied to an invitation from the editor to support the initiative.
Mrs Goldsmith’s announcement follows a statement by her party group earlier this week making clear the Charter posed no difficulties for them as for many it is a ‘simple reaffirmation of what they are doing and have always done.’
The Charter has been launched in response to claims that the ruling Tory group at Horsham District Council 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.”
Today, Gary Shipton the Editor In Chief of the County Times group warmly welcomed Mrs Goldsmith’s announcement.
“Our Charter is not about party politics. It’s about putting people at the heart of local decision-making, whatever their political allegiances.
“Like UKIP and the Lib Dems, Mrs Goldsmith and her Conservative colleagues at County Hall have demonstrated very clearly and personally the importance they place on free speech and open democracy.
“Sadly, as this Thursday’s County Times’ newspaper will reveal, the ruling Horsham Tory group seems ever more obsessed by whipping and secrecy. It is shameful. The leadership there is now totally isolated even from its core Conservative colleagues and I trust Mr Dawe and Mrs Croft will consider carefully the shining example of good leadership provided today by Mrs Goldsmith.
“I look to them to sign the Charter, to open up the democratic processes to public accountability, and to reinstate Mr Mitchell as the next chairman as a symbol of their good faith.”
This week, a statement from Conservative county councillors, said the group had discussed the Charter.
“The WSCC Conservative Group is a traditional conservative group supporting core conservative principles and values of low taxation, providing value for money services, building strong communities, respecting the individual and free speech.
“Members join the Conservative Party and when standing for election do so on a Conservative ticket. There is a natural loyalty and affinity to the party one has joined alongside the deep respect and duty to represent the residents in a division to the very best of one’s ability.
“The Group does not have a whip.
“Policies, issues are discussed within the Group where all views can be openly aired and are respected.
“Our record of voting, particularly on highly sensitive issues such as Gatwick, is evidence that no whip is applied.
“Abstaining or voting against a particular policy is not easy for any councillor but when loyalties to the Group, the Party the residents or one’s personal or religious beliefs conflict, this is respected by members.
“The Charter simply re-states the above, whether Group members sign or not is their own personal decision, for many it is a simple reaffirmation of what they are doing and have always done.
“At the Group meeting on the April 7 everyone re-affirmed their commitment to the seven Nolan principles which is part of the county council’s constitution.”
The Nolan principles state:
Selflessness: Members should serve only the public interest and should never improperly confer an advantage or disadvantage on any person.
Integrity: Members should not place themselves in situations where their integrity may be questioned, should not behave improperly and should on all occasions avoid the appearance of such behaviour.
Objectivity: Members should make decisions on merit, including when making appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards or benefits.
Accountability: Members should be accountable to the public for their actions and the manner in which they carry out their responsibilities, and should co-operate fully and honestly with any scrutiny appropriate to their particular office.
Openness: Members should be as open as possible about their actions and those of their authority, and should be prepared to give reasons for those actions.
Honesty: Members should not place themselves in situations where their honesty may be questioned, should not behave dishonestly and should on all occasions avoid the appearance of such behaviour.
Leadership: Members should promote and support these principles by leadership, and by example, and should act in a way that secures or preserves public confidence.