The County Times today launched its Free Speech Charter in the wake of the secrecy controversy following Christian Mitchell’s deselection as Horsham District Council chairman-elect.
The newspaper has written to all 44 district councillors along with the leaders of the political groups at West Sussex County Council inviting them to sign up to a simple statement of intent.
It says: “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 indicate their support.
Head of News Mark Dunford said: “It is our hope that out of this story we can achieve something that will really help the electorate re-engage with local politics; and the issue of free speech could not be more timely in the year we commemorate the sacrifice of millions of young men in the First World War. Next year, is the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the cornerstone of modern freedom.”
Political editor Joshua Powling added: “The Free Speech Charter is designed to encourage more open debate in council meetings and eliminate the whipping of votes.
“We believe it will help rebuild the public’s trust in local politics as well as engaging more people in the democratic process at council level.
“I know from my own experience of covering council meetings, how dismayed many members of the public are by the predetermined nature of many key debates.
“Planning committees are a notable exception. It would be excellent if all business was transacted with the same spontaneity.
“Turnout at elections has been falling steadily over many years, especially among a younger generation. There is a real sense that much of the ‘cut and thrust’ of political debate has been lost by the single party cabinet system exacerbated by closed private meetings of political groupings where whipped votes have become sadly too familiar on matters of legitimate public interest and concern.”
The Charter was instigated following a whipped vote to deselect Tory vice chairman Mr Mitchell, who said he had been punished for speaking out on behalf of his constituents over plans for massive housing in North Horsham.
Since then, Mr Mitchell has written in this newspaper to describe the secret meetings of his Conservative Group where key decisions are taken in private, and a ‘secret court’ he faced last autumn for raising matters which he believed were in the public interest.