A ‘big-hitter’ on Horsham District Council’s ruling Conservative cabinet today (Saturday March 1) stepped into the growing row over the deselection of the chairman elect - for speaking out on behalf of his constituents.
Andrew Baldwin - who looks after the environment and has served under three leaders since he was first elected in 1999 - today issued a statement in support of vice chairman Christian Mitchell.
He is the first cabinet member to do so since the controversy erupted on Wednesday evening, when the Tory group - under instruction of a three line whip - broke with tradition and said Mr Mitchell would not take over as chairman in May.
Mr Mitchell said it was the price that he had to pay for articulating the concerns of his constituents in Holbrook West against his party’s single option proposal to build thousands of homes to the north of the town.
Mr Baldwin’s intervention today - collective cabinet responsibility forces members to choose their words with great care - signals growing disquiet about the party’s intervention in the chairman role, which should be a politically neutral one.
He said: “I believe Christian would be a very good chairman of council. Christian is a good effective councillor who quite rightly stands up for the people in his ward. I am sorry that a majority of Tory Councillors voted against his nomination. I hope he will get the chance to be chairman at some future time.”
Mr Baldwin’s comments came in the wake of outrage from other party heavyweights like former leader Liz Kitchen who said she was ‘absolutely appalled’ at last week’s outcome.
The decision, although seemingly a public vote, was effectively taken in secret on Monday at a closed meeting of the Conservative group on HDC.
The group is headed by leader Ray Dawe and deputy leader Helena Croft and had they publicly supported Mr Mitchell it is unlikely he would have been deselected.
Mr Baldwin, like Mr Mitchell, has a reputation for fighting for his Horsham constituents.
In October 2013, Just days before consultation on the draft housing strategy closed he became the first cabinet member to publicly oppose proposals for the 2,500 homes north of Horsham.
He told the County Times then: “I can assure you I will not vote for any proposal for development north of the A264.
The big question is whether councillors will be permitted a free vote on the vexed subject of the housing blueprint.
John Steele of the Horsham Society, responding to the County Times’ coverage of Mr Mitchell’s treatment, wrote on Thursday: “I’ve just seen your piece on Christian Mitchell. His treatment is disgraceful but unfortunately par for the course. Democracy in HDC died some time ago.”
He said the society had been pressing for more information from the council on whether the local plan would be subject to a free vote.