A local council is nothing if it is not seen to put the people it serves at the heart of everything it does.
Horsham District Council can be a tremendous force for good in the community but it is my personal view that much more of the debate we have in closed session within our Conservative group needs to be conducted in public.
After all, we are not debating Matters of State or the Defence or the Realm but how often the bins are emptied and what we do to keep the area a pleasant place in which to live and work.
The ‘cabinet system’ plays a real part in the problem. Before its introduction, all councillors sat on a number of powerful committees which ran the council. This system drew together ‘wise heads’ across political parties. The meetings and decisions were conducted in public. Now, effectively all decisions are taken by a group of seven councillors and often by the leader and cabinet members without reference to council.
Two examples have taken place in recent months. I learnt from a Crawley Borough councillor that Horsham District Council, through its leader, had written to the Sir Howard Davies Commission before Christmas regarding his enquiry into anther runway in the southeast but particularly a second runway at Gatwick. This letter wasn’t sent to councillors, neither in draft nor before it was sent. It wasn’t discussed at a meeting of cabinet in public and wasn’t brought to council to discuss. Upon learning of the letter I immediately wrote that night to the chief executive raising my concerns. I was told that the decision to send the letter had been under ‘delegated authority’. By Monday morning the letter was published to councillors on the weekly internal bulletin.
Another example is the decision to hold meetings of the cabinet member for planning advisory group in private. A council policy voted on by 44 councillors in September 2011 set out good reasons why the meeting should be held in pubic – in short, for transparency. However it is possible under the cabinet system to again use ‘delegated powers’ and that policy decision was changed without reference to council or cabinet in public but announced to the press.
Since I wrote last week about my treatment at a secret ‘court’ - for helping my constituents articulate their concerns into local government language about the local housing plan and navigate them on the council’s confusing planning portal website - culminating in my sacking as chairman-elect of Horsham District Council, I have been genuinely humbled by the lovely letters of support that I have received from residents across the district.
One, who wrote to me and other councillors, summed up the main concerns like this: “I have always been opposed to the system of cabinet. If the different parties want to have meetings outside the council chamber to discuss matters coming before council, that is fine, but not to the extent where once a decision is made there, all members have to vote in favour or face the consequences.
“When it comes to the vote in the council chamber I do not consider there is any place for the whip structure, every vote taken by council members should be free and reflect what the councillor considers is the view of the majority of their constituents. This is not the Houses of Parliament it is Horsham District Council and should be by the people for the people.
“I find it absolutely outrageous and cannot believe that in this day and age we have a court run in secret presided over by leader Ray Dawe and deputy Helena Croft, to censure Christian Mitchell for doing precisely what he was voted in to do. Surely you and your other elected members cannot allow this type of local government to continue.
“Please get together with other like minded councillors and stop these procedures and the cabinet structure before it is too late and the North Horsham Development and any other item the clique wish to push through happens.”
I will not name the writer as he did not send his letter to the press, but I do share entirely his sentiments.
Turnout at elections has been decreasing year after year. A whole generation now feels disengaged from the process. When residents have concerns about a specific issue being debated they are often appalled to find public council meetings are all but stage-managed because the entire outcome has already been decided in private, and Conservative councillors who break ranks face party discipline within their group.
It is time for a change - and in exactly the way this writer suggests.
As Tories we should meet and discuss issues so we can form a collective view.
But that should not preclude us from speaking or voting in public as we believe our constituents would wish - especially on something as momentous as the local housing plan. We should also be free to write to the County Times about our personal views without requiring advance approval from the leader, just as a Member of Parliament doesn’t have to have his or her letters and articles approved by the Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition.
The current planning committee system is a good model for all our business. Here we are not permitted to predetermine an application nor to be whipped. We sit in public, listen to the evidence and the range of views, and speak and vote as we feel benefits the public interest.
So today I am pleased to support a campaign led by the County Times for a more open approach to council decision-making.
There are some really good Conservative councillors at Horsham but I am sure the public would have even greater confidence in the decisions that they reach if the process was more open.
Councillors are required to declare their personal or prejudicial interests in any matter at the start of a meeting but we should go further than that and learn best practice from our neighbours at Crawley Borough Council where councillors have to declare as an interest at the start of all committee meetings and council meetings if the group whip has been applied on any agenda item.
In addition, in the name of transparency, there needs to be an independent inquiry set up into the fake letters I revealed last week on the local plan consultation. These letters, which abjectly supported the council’s position, came from fabricated names yet they have been included on the consultation website despite my flagging up the issue months ago.