LETTER: ‘Sofa government’ rules at HDC

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Your excellent piece of investigative journalism last week (‘Spotlight on secret advisory groups’, 29.10.15, p3) reported how Cllr Connor Relleen (Con, Horsham Park) rightly spoke out for the way that backbenchers have only limited information about the activities of Cabinet Members’ ‘Advisory Groups’ [AG]. Most councillors didn’t know that these AGs even existed it was reported!

Cllr David Skipp supported the keeping and publishing of minutes/notes yet an unnamed council spokesman said, ‘Cabinet members invite members of their Advisory Groups to meetings. The detail of meeting notes are entirely at the discretion of the cabinet member.’

But that’s not what the council’s own constitution says about publishing notes of AGs: they must do it and if they don’t a complaint can be made to the Ombudsman or a Judicial Review lodged at the High Court to force them to comply with their own rules.

Many residents have complained since 2013 about the secrecy at HDC in its relationship with the electorate that it professes to serve.

Attempts to discover the facts through FoIs have been routinely refused by the council. ‘Sofa government’ rules at HDC with the avoidance of notes/minutes, communication between councillors on private phones have enabled staff to say that no records are available and of course made it possible to avoid searching FoIs. Good old-fashioned minuted meetings are a thing of the past.

When Cllr Claire Vickers took over from Cllr Ian Howard in May 2013 (following his sudden and still unexplained departure from the cabinet) Cllr Vickers moved all the meetings of her advisory group (PPAG) into closed session. It has never met in public since.

Holding meetings or part of meetings in secret was against HDC’s own Statement of Community Involvement (SCI) voted by councillors in September 2011. But the cabinet cabal that runs our local council tore that policy up and froze out the public (the very people who elect them) from the Gang’s meetings.

Cllr Vickers told this paper at the time (30.06.13) ‘Since becoming the cabinet member for living and working communities, I have realised that we need to be able to have a more open and frank debate at our Strategic Planning Advisory Group meetings. I have therefore decided that we will no longer be holding SPAG meetings in public, as per other advisory groups of Horsham District Council.’

The importance of PPAG is that it deals with council’s policy on planning and housing matters. Before July 2013, the meetings were open to the public, advertised in the local newspapers and were generally attended by parish and neighbourhood councils, developers and the press.

As the meetings were public, it provided the community with an early opportunity to listen to the debate and discussion before the matters were discussed on a more formal basis through the council. As a result of the change, for which no clear reason was ever given or considered by full council, the public were obviously less well informed as to the basis for planning policy proposals / decisions emanating from the council. Meetings continue in secret and ‘full public consultation’ was denied.

It was during this time that Cllr Vickers shifted the strategic housing from Southwater to North Horsham.

The National Planning Policy Framework (para 69) states ‘The planning system can play an important role in facilitating social interaction and creating healthy, inclusive communities. Local planning authorities should create a shared vision with communities of the residential environment and facilities they wish to see. To support this, local planning authorities should aim to involve all sections of the community in the development of Local Plans and in planning decisions, and should facilitate neighbourhood planning.’

Cllr Vickers’ actions supported by Cllr Dawe were anything but healthy and inclusive.

So well done Cllrs Connor Relleen and David Skipp. A thought – can we have the notes from the PPAG since Cllr Vickers has been running the planning department?

These would tell us how Cllr Vickers justified to other councillors her strategic change to North Horsham.

Dr GEOFFREY RICHARDSON

Tennyson Close, Horsham

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