COMMENT: Horsham council - the bigger the majority the greater the need for openness

Park North, Horsham District Council office. Photo by Derek Martin ENGSUS00120121227161019
Park North, Horsham District Council office. Photo by Derek Martin ENGSUS00120121227161019

When the Conservatives secured their outright victory in the general election this month, Tory councils across the land shared in that success.

Local authorities that went to the polls on the same day also saw a lift in their blue vote - with the Tories winning nearly 500 more town hall seats.

That was especially true across Sussex.

The Conservatives strengthened their grip in Chichester, took absolutely every district council seat in Mid Sussex, and were triumphant in Horsham - reducing the Lib Dem opposition to just four.

The Conservative support did not distinguish between policy positions. In Horsham itself fierce Conservative opponents of plans for development north of the town were as well supported as southern Tories who wanted to put the homes there.

Only the controversial deputy leader lost her seat having first been rejected by the Horsham Conservative Association as a candidate and then the people of Henfield.

But a huge majority does not always make for great local government.

From the ruling party’s perspective, a large group of members with a diverse range of views can be extremely difficult to manage.

From the public’s point of view, a lack of opposition means there are simply not enough people to challenge and scrutinise decisions as democracy demands.

In the last two years Horsham District Council has been dogged by complaints about secret meetings and councillors being whipped over decisions.

The council’s Scrutiny and Overview Committee is an important democratic bulwark within the council where decisions should be non-political and free from interference from both the leader and the cabinet.

The council’s constitution currently stipulates that the chairman of this committee should be from the non-majority party, so in this case not a Conservative councillor.

Up until the election independent George Cockman chaired it - taking over from David Sheldon, who was a Lib Dem at the time.

However a report has been prepared that proposes deleting the requirement for the chairman of scrutiny to be from a non-majority party, and will be discussed on Wednesday.

It argues that the ‘current arrangements are likely to be unworkable in practice’ as the Conservatives now have a greatly increased majority after the election, with just four Lib Dems and one independent left out of 44 councillors.

Although on the face of it the thinking seems perfectly reasonable this newspaper believes changes would both set a dangerous precedent and send the wrong message to voters by potentially allowing a Conservative to be put in charge of scrutinising their own party’s decisions.

This person could be effectively picked by the Conservative Group in a secret meeting, before being put forward in public by the party’s backbench councillors.

In an era of single-party cabinets and private group meetings, scrutiny of decision-making needs to be enhanced within the council, not diminished.

In the last three and a half years only a handful of reports could be described as great examples of scrutiny. One was a damning report on the cost of the acorn plus bin collection project in early 2012, and another was the extensive look into how HDC’s planning department was operating.

And to give credit where credit is due, the latter was led by a Tory councillor, Brian O’Connell, chairman of the Business Improvement Working Group, a sub-committee of scrutiny.

But in recent months its meetings have been dominated by outspoken councillors using it as a talking shop for their pet issues, sometimes ones that are not even related to functions that HDC carries out.

When deciding what topics or decisions to scrutinise in the last year councillors have even been warned off looking at current projects, such as how strategic housing sites were chosen for development.

A new council and a new batch of councillors gives HDC a clean slate, an opportunity to learn from past mistakes and embrace open and transparent governance of this fine district.

Councillors will have to ask themselves on Wednesday if the proposed changes are the best way for a new council to ensure the public interest is seen to be upheld.

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