LETTER: Public’s right to challenge council

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It was with some interest that I read the Leader of Horsham District Council (HDC) councillor Ray Dawe’s views, ‘Ordinary people balancing conflicting pressures’ (County Times 14.11.13, p.37).

At the end of the half page piece I could almost have felt sorry for him. He writes, ‘So who would be a councillor?’ If he finds it all too stressful perhaps he should hand over to someone else and spend more time enjoying the company of his neighbour in France of whom he wrote about this summer (13.08.13).

We live in a democracy whose freedoms our forefathers fought for in two World Wars. Part of that freedom is the right to free speech and an unalienable right to criticise through a free press the actions of those in power over us (paid for by our taxes).

Councillor Dawe wants members of the public to stop challenging HDC’s decisions and seek election to the council.

But those that succeeded could well lose their freedom to disagree with a particular party line, if elected to Ray Dawe’s Conservative Group, and according to councillor Liz Kitchen’s interview face sanction (17.10.13, p35).

It would simply be a way of shutting us up and stifling truly free debate.

At the last local government elections in 2010 the Conservatives won 34 out of 44 seats. Having such a large majority and a whipping system in operation (councillor Roger Arthur, 03.04.13) there is always the danger that a majority leadership might assume it could do anything without challenge.

Conservatives at HDC had a majority of one between 2004 and 2007 and many believe that was far better at representing the whole electorate of the district.

Issues had to be fully aired, faced rigorous scrutiny from both political parties and the two Independent members and the merit of a case was more likely to figure in decision-making criteria.

Compromise would be required rather than the larger group simply enforcing its political will.

At present, with such a large majority, the temptation must be great for individual councillors to find solutions that avoid angering their immediate ward electors by dumping problems (such as where to put thousands of houses) elsewhere in the district in wards served by the minority.

Councillors may face the possibility of various sanctions if they don’t adhere to ‘the group line’. It must take some courage to stand firm against such pressure.

But councillors need to be fully aware of their legal obligations if they knowingly vote in favour of a scheme they know to be flawed to keep in line with the party whip. And abstentions could be counted as not opposing a proposition.

The danger of such a large majority in any governing board is that the style becomes ‘authoritarian’ (A. W. Halpin, Theory and Research in Administration, 1966, Collier-Macmillan) defined authoritarian leadership as, ‘dominating and directive… allows little flexibility… insists everything has to be done [a certain] way… aloof… dogmatic when members of the group do not conform…’ An old reference but still true.

The cabinet system introduced in 2002 (Local Government Act 2000) leaves many ordinary councillors feeling one step removed from the decision-making process.

The system allows small cabals of senior councillors to take decisions without holding debates in public and with the press on hand.

This authoritarian style is evidenced recently in council meetings all or part of which have been held in secret.

The Strategic Planning Advisory Group (renamed PPAG) under the chairmanship of councillor Claire Vickers; part of the Scrutiny and Overview Committee meeting, held on 11 November 2013, dealing with the Planning Department’s re-organisation and meetings between HDC, Crawley Borough Council and Mid Sussex District Council about housing (07.11.13, p21).

There may of course be others – but who knows?

It must be tempting for councillors who are not comfortable with a participatory and democratic decision-making style to want to stop critical debate and steamroller big decisions through adopting a more authoritarian style.

But in 2014 this cannot be. The decision-making process must be absolutely transparent but recent revelations at HDC, in this paper, suggest this is now not the case.

As long as this continues, interested members of the public will use their right to challenge and criticise through this paper’s columns and for that we thank you.

Dr GEOFFREY RICHARDSON

Tennyson Close, Horsham