We need to focus on what matters to people - and do it openly

Stop secrets
Stop secrets

On Monday our Conservative Group at Horsham District Council will meet.

Key decisions which potentially affect the lives of all our district residents will once again be sealed.

But there will be no reporter from the County Times present. The Press is barred. There will be no public in attendance - even though it will be staged in the council chamber at Park North, a building owned by the people, for the people.

Its agenda and its minutes are strictly private and confidential and the web of rules that govern this Conservative Group and everything it decides are dedicated to keeping its decisions secret.

You might have thought given the public outcry in recent weeks since I shone a spotlight on some of its activities that the Group might feel shamed into being more open and publicly accountable.

But it appears not.

Next week’s agenda is dominated by a need for a further reaffirmation of its Rules and ‘discussion and agreement on any action regarding any agreed breach’ of them.

No doubt my explaining them to the public, describing the secret group ‘court’ I was subjected to in the autumn for campaigning on behalf of my constituents over the North Horsham housing plan, and my criticism of the way our group whips vital public votes, will have placed me at the epicentre of all this.

And this comes at a time when we as a council and we as a Conservative group have a burgeoning ‘in-tray’. There simply isn’t the luxury of time to devote to such machinations which would be more at home in a Students’ Union.

The fate of the bowls club under the otherwise commendable Broadbridge Health leisure plans is of vital interest to hundreds of residents.

They have written to this newspaper in their droves. They have my wholehearted support.

However, bowls club members will be denied hearing the real decision-making debate about their future under the status quo where decisions are taken by the cabinet – a broken system for local government - and presented to members in the group as a fait accompli. And like the debate over the future of the green fields in North Horsham the result is that real public debate is extinguished and those that vote against a decision at a council meeting face the threat of expulsion from the group.

The future of the cinema and theatre at the Capitol; the future of the Horsham museum; ensuring that we have a sound housing plan that commands public support across the town and district in the remaining six weeks to the key vote on 30 April, are other more weighty issues, to name but a few, that need quality time to be devoted to them.

For democracy to prevail, it must not just be done but it must - like justice - be seen to be done.

There is nothing that a collective of councillors of one political party or another should discuss in private that they should not be equally happy to have heard in public.

Only in this way will the electorate, the people we are privileged to serve, ever believe that all the options have been properly explored and that their concerns have been honestly and sincerely considered.

One senior colleague bemoaned to another only last week that the publicity surrounding my deselection as chairman-elect had done the Conservative party ‘huge damage’.

It’s not the publicity that’s achieved that. It’s the actions of the council which have been exposed to the searching light of the media.

A local party member who worked for a former Conservative Prime Minister wrote to me last week saying that: ‘the whole affair is a disgrace and reflects no credit on the majority party on the Council, and their adherence to rigid discipline and suppression of Member’s views on matters of public concern.’

Frankly, I care not whether I am the next chairman.

I do, however, care very much that as a councillor I pledge my true allegiance to all the people of my ward, as best I can, and irrespective of who they voted for.

It is clear from the overwhelming number of letters and messages of support that I have received in the past fortnight, that that is the aspiration of the people of this district too.

Group meetings of councillors from the same political party is a sensible way to agree areas of common purpose.

But it should be no more than that.

Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis MP spoken recently on the role of councillors. He said: ‘Councillors are volunteers undertaking public service; they are not and should not be employees of the council dependent on the municipal payroll. They are not professional, full-time politicians, nor should they be encouraged to become so.’

A councillor must always be free to speak, write, and vote as they believe their constituents would wish - and until all my Conservative colleagues appreciate this point I fear their endeavours will all remain deeply unappreciated by the people who count the most.

There’s a trend to deal with serious questions from the public through Facebook.

That’s fine. But the best way is always face to face.

I am always happy to meet residents who have a point to raise.

If you have a genuine concern and think I might be able to help, drop me a line or call me at 260491 or christian.mitchell@horsham.gov.uk.