COMMENT: Two years is a long time in local politics

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When Andrew Dunlop was elected to Horsham District Council less than two years ago colleagues felt that they had done extremely well to secure the contribution of such a political high flyer.

He had been at the heart of central government for many years and was widely regarded as a gifted communicator and political force at the core of the Conservative political establishment.

At the time of his election to represent the Cowfold, Shermanbury and West Grinstead ward, one council colleague muttered to me: “I’m not sure why he wanted to come here!” Then added “but we’ve done well to get him. He’ll be our next leader.”

Indeed, there was a real sense that here was a political heavyweight who could greatly strengthen the council and when Robert Nye dramatically quit the authority as both councillor and leader later in the year, Mr Dunlop was being tipped at the very least as a cabinet member.

In fact, he never threw his hat into the ring for the top job but he supported the successful candidate Ray Dawe and many thought this would lead to him being offered the deputy role or more particularly a cabinet position with responsibility for communications.

As it turned out, he never had time. Almost as soon as Mr Dawe was in post last year, Downing Street made clear that it had greater need of Mr Dunlop’s expertise as they sought to bring in the very best brains to fight Scottish devolution. One year on, and he has quit the district council entirely - citing business reasons for his decision.

I have no doubt that this is indeed the case.

Juggling the twin demands of stopping the historic fragmentation of the United Kingdom and implementing a £29 green waste charge in the Horsham district was never going to be easy.

And, of course, in the midst of that year came the unfortunate episode when this newspaper revealed that on a handful of occasions he had used his council car parking permit while not on council business.

To be fair to Mr Dunlop, when last March we presented him with the claims made by a local resident he promptly issued a full statement and an unreserved apology and not only did he repay the car parking fees but allowed himself to go forward for training in relation to the council’s rules on car park permits.

He said at the time that he had already stopped using the car park following an approach by a council officer.

“Four weeks ago I started commuting daily to London to attend a new full time job. Generally I park and catch a train from Gatwick, but I have from time to time for other logistical reasons caught a train from Horsham. I can therefore confirm that on a limited number of occasions in recent weeks when I was not on council business my car has been parked in an HDC car park adjacent to the council’s offices.

“When it was brought to my attention by a council officer that car passes should only be used exclusively on council business, I immediately refrained from using this car park. I apologise unreservedly for any inappropriate use of the pass. I will of course make good any loss that the council has suffered as a result.”

Not surprisingly, the story not only made headlines locally. It went national. And some of the pro-Scottish independence media - keen to find any chink in the Government’s armour - made a song and dance about it too. Since the furore, some council colleagues have claimed Mr Dunlop has kept a low profile in the council and his resignation was not unexpected.

But the general view is that this had more to do with his work in London than the local difficulty over parking.

In the meantime, with the departure of himself and fellow Conservative Chris Mason there will be a double by-election in the Horsham District in May to coincide with the county council poll. This will provide the first real test of the strength of the Tory vote in the traditionally true blue heartlands.

By Mark Dunford, Head of News