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COMMENT: A day to celebrate the importance of free speech in Horsham

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  • by Mark Dunford, head of news
 

When the first copies of the County Times’ Free Speech Charter arrived from the printers ready for the signing ceremony tomorrow (Tuesday April 1), I took a second take.

The top sheet actually stated ‘Free Peach Charter’.

Someone in the design studio obviously thought we needed to inject a little fun into an event scheduled for April Fools’ Day.

Or perhaps they thought a free peach would be more popular?

In fact, of all the campaigns we have run in recent years none has gripped the public passion more than this.

No-one should be left in any doubt that democracy remains hugely important to the voters of this district.

Their letters, their phone calls, their texts, and their personal visits have all emphasised the fact that they greatly support our call for more open local government.

They have grown weary of decisions being taken behind closed doors and with votes in the council chamber by the ruling Tory group seeming like a staged show, and a rather second rate one at that.

Issues like the local plan have ignited public concern - and they have been dismayed to find how irrelevant the council has seemed to treat them, with its Hobson’s choice preferred strategy which it has sought to drive through without a backward glance.

Private Conservative group meetings, whipped votes, the vetting of Tory councillors’ letters to this newspaper - none of these is the hallmark of a confident and open democracy.

So we launched the Free Speech Charter.

It’s a very simple document, no more than a couple of sentences. It respects party values, it honours manifesto commitments, but above all else it puts the interests of residents at the heart of decision-making.

It is so uncontentious that two parties at the different ends of the spectrum - UKIP and Lib Dems - had no hesitation in signing up.

But for the Tories is has been a different story.

On the whole they have snubbed it.

Or, at least, a large number of them have - to date.

Christian Mitchell, Josh Murphy, Simon Torn, and the amazing Liz Kitchen, have had the principle and courage to stand up and be counted.

They have committed themselves to it.

Their decision hasn’t quote blown their ruling group apart - but the cracks are beginning to show.

Quite why their party at a local level has been so crass not to embrace the Charter remains something of a mystery. It could have ended our campaign with a swish of the pen on parchment.

Perhaps, in the end, it just underlines the arrogance that has set in after years and years of knowing the people of the Horsham District will always vote Conservative no matter how badly you treat them.

Or maybe they aren’t going to permit a newspaper tell them what to do.

Except, of course, we aren’t.

A local newspaper is merely a mirror. It shines back the views of the only people who count - the electorate.

Tomorrow, UKIP, the Lib Dems, and some of the Tories will sign up and we will hugely celebrate them in Thursday’s printed newspaper.

For the others, well they have demonstrated a different kind of bravery.

It takes a special type of politician to tell the people you represent that you really don’t care what they think at all.

 

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