Free speech campaign launched in wake of Horsham housing vote controversy

Stop secrets
Stop secrets

Private Conservative group minutes have revealed the extent to which the party tried to control the debate on housing development in North Horsham.

The County Times today publishes an extract from them as it launches a major campaign seeking a new culture of openness at Horsham District Council.

The announcement follows two weeks of controversy when Conservative councillors ditched their own chairman-elect Christian Mitchell in a whipped vote.

Mr Mitchell - a Conservative member for Holbrook West - said he had paid the price for articulating his residents’ concerns about massive development in North Horsham.

In last week’s paper he outlined his treatment at the hands of his group which included a secret ‘court’ hearing which he claimed was designed to effectively silence him.

On Monday, the leader of the minority Lib Dem group on Horsham District Council Frances Haigh said: “I welcome the stance taken by the County Times in supporting the right to free speech in the council chamber. I hope that as we move towards elections in May 2015, the WSCT will continue to support all councillors who stand up and speak out on behalf of the people they represent.”

Today, the Editor In Chief of the County Times group Gary Shipton said a secrecy culture was ‘simply unacceptable’ in a modern, local democracy.

“The electorate has a right to expect that their Conservative councillor will be free to speak on any matter in the council chamber and vote accordingly. It is there that the debate should take place.

“Councillors must also be free to write on any subject in the media, in a personal capacity, without requiring their leader to check it first.

“I fully accept that councillors of the same party will form groups and discuss items of common purpose between them and there is nothing wrong with this - but the Conservative group operates like a private club working to its own set of rules.”

Mr Shipton said that to the best of his knowledge neither UKIP nor the Lib Dems used a whip at council level and encouraged free expression even if it slowed down the decision-making process.

“Time and again, residents are amazed and depressed to attend a public council meeting about an issue in which they have an interest, only to find what seems a pre-determined and sterile debate and vote. The only exceptions are planning meetings where whipped votes are banned.

“No wonder young people are turned off politics!”

As an example he quoted from the private and confidential minutes of the Conservative Group of March 25, 2013 which referred to members’ approach on the controversial housing plans.

The minutes stated: “The Leader suggested that we need to consider that once housing sites have been established and agreed upon by the group we may wish, for political reasons, to allow local members to voice opinions against a chosen site that might be in or close to their ward. Rule 9.1 and its sub-sections and rule 9.2 are mandatory rules, therefore thought and consideration will need to be given as to how and in what arena/medium members will be permitted to voice any opinions contrary to a Binding Group Decision (but in any vote within any meeting of Council still be expected to abstain) without opening themselves up to criticism for any contravention of our rules.”

Mr Shipton said: “The phrase ‘for political reasons’ is significant. My translation of this would be that councillors at risk of losing their seat at the next election due to a lot of opposition from residents were permitted to speak out about it in certain controlled circumstances - but not vote against it. The best they could do was abstain. This would ensure that the plan would still be approved but the party would protect its majority and its grip on power after the poll in May 2015.”

The County Times understood that when the housing strategy was subsequently debated in full council, Tory councillors were permitted to vote in favour, to speak against and then abstain, but not to vote against. Voting against the plan was not an option unless they accepted that group disciplinary proceedings would immediately follow.

Mr Shipton made it clear that the paper’s criticism was not directed at general Conservative policy - nor at all Tory councillors, some of whom had spoken up strongly in Mr Mitchell’s defence.

“I don’t care what party people vote for. That is entirely a matter for them. The County Times supports no political party and nor do I.

“We have applauded a number of the actions of the Conservative administration in the district and will continue to do so when it is warranted.

“But it is our job to fearlessly hold decision-makers to account and I am passionate about freedom of speech. The cabinet system of local government which replaced the committee system is stifling public debate.

“Many Conservative voters have told me in the past week that they have been horrified to read of Mr Mitchell’s treatment. His former leader Liz Kitchen said she was ‘absolutely appalled’. The deputy chairman of his association John Bailey said it was ‘grossly unfair’.

“A political party should not be a private club with a set of rules. It is there to serve the people with honesty and transparency - and we will campaign to ensure that it does just that.”