Key council decisions are ‘made in private’

JPCT 130312 Park North, Hosham District Council office. Photo by Derek Martin
JPCT 130312 Park North, Hosham District Council office. Photo by Derek Martin

There is concern among opposition members of Horsham District Council too many key decisions are being made behind closed doors.

Leader of the Liberal Democrat group David Holmes (LDem, Horsham Park) said that although he is briefed by the Conservative leader Ray Dawe about council business, he felt less is being discussed in public.

Horsham district councillor David Holmes.

Horsham district councillor David Holmes.

He said: “The fact is there’s a very large Conservative group and there’s a consequential problem that there are always going to be discussions in the group about policy. This is not good for democracy because there is no transparency.

“Debates at meetings are a fait a complit. There’s not much discussion and that has to be addressed. For example there was a meeting for all members about possible housing numbers that we want built, but there’s another, a meeting just for Conservatives, about where those houses might be.

“We will get a briefing on that, but key decisions are being made in private.”

Sheila Matthews (Ind, Henfield) felt the advisory groups - private meetings where cabinet members discuss business with councillors with specialist knowledge or an interest - are a good place for backbench members to have their say and raise residents’ concerns, but they must be used well.

She said: “Anything that affects the whole decision-making of the council should be open to all members.

“Not all cabinet members make wide ranging use of their advisory groups. We depend on them to report back to council.

“The man on the street likes to think their member is involved. To make that work we have cabinet members and other members working together.

“I’m not saying it’s across the board and I’ve not come across it, but I do understand there’s a lot of concern.”

Leader of the council Ray Dawe (Con, Chantry) said: “The democratic nature of the council is that its members are elected by the public every four years to represent them.

“If the public choose to elect a council where nearly 80 per cent are from one party that is their democratic choice and since the Conservative majority considerably increased at the last election it would seem reasonable to me that the public must be very satisfied with the way things are being done.

“Equally, it would seem sensible and logical that in the formation of policy, any administration of any political colour will naturally primarily seek the views of its own members to help inform that process.

“No council decisions can be taken outside of the mechanisms stipulated in the council’s constitution. All significant decisions are made by members of the council sitting in public - the only exceptions being matters of such sensitivity (e.g appointment and dismissal of staff) that the law allows the exclusion of the press and public from that process but even here opposition members are always present.

“It may well be that the opposition party does not agree with a decision that has been taken or wants it changed but each one comes to a meeting of the full council for debate and is put to a vote. It is also inevitable that given the very high number of Conservative councillors, their view will be the prevailing one in any decisions the council takes.”

He said in recent years there had been action to increase the number of advisory groups and added that he regularly meets with Dr Holmes and Mrs Matthews and George Cockman (Ind, Steyning) so they can ‘air their views on any subject’.