Former Tory leader ‘absolutely appalled’ by her party’s treatment of their vice chairman

Liz Kitchen, pictured in 2012
Liz Kitchen, pictured in 2012

A former distinguished leader of Horsham District Council today (Thursday February 27) said she was ‘absolutely appalled’ by the decision to remove the chairman-elect by her own party.

Conservative heavyweight Liz Kitchen - the second longest serving councillor on the authority - robustly condemned the attack on Christian Mitchell (Con, Holbrook West) after he was effectively stripped of the chairman-elect role at a Full Council meeting last night.

He said he had paid the price for voicing his constituents’ fears over the proposed North Horsham development - which has generated widespread public opposition in the town.

Mrs Kitchen (Con, Rusper and Colgate), who is chairman of the council’s northern planning committee, has served as a councillor since 1987 and was leader from 2001-2009, said today: “I’m absolutely appalled about what was going on and I do not understand the reason for it.

“When I was told I quite seriously did not believe it, I thought they will never never do that. It has never happened [before], he has not done anything wrong.”

While past vice chairmen have automatically become chairman at the end of each municipal year, Tory councillors voted to indicate their preference for South Downs councillor Brian O’Connell (Con, Henfield) becoming the chairman for 2014/15, effectively deselecting Mr Mitchell as chairman-elect.

Although the decision appeared to be taken at the full council meeting, in reality it was taken at a private Tory-only group session earlier in the week.

According to fellow Tory Peter Burgess (Con, Holbrook West) the issue was subject to a three-line whip which meant all Tory councillors had to support the decision in public, and if he spoke out he would be ‘drummed out of the brownies’.

Mrs Kitchen added: “I was told if I speak against it as Peter Burgess said that it was a whip. If I thought I could have achieved anything I would have defied the whip but I knew that I could not see any point in defying it.”

Like Mr Mitchell she said she remained 100 per cent opposed to Liberty Property Trust’s proposals for 2,500 homes and a business park north of the A264, which are included in HDC’s preferred housing strategy.

After Wednesday’s meeting, Mr Mitchell said: “It is of course unprecedented for the vice chairman of Horsham District Council not to be elected as chairman.

“It is clear that this is the price I must pay for doing the right thing by my constituents in articulating their gravest concerns about the North Horsham plan, which is being railroaded through and in a manner that the public perceives as less than transparent.

“My conscience is entirely clear. My objective has been to only represent - with integrity - the people I am charged to represent namely the voters and the council taxpayers of Holbrook West.

“I shall continue to that with the very best of my ability.”

Frances Haigh (LDem, Horsham Park), leader of HDC’s Lib Dem group said: “I’m slightly concerned by what is happening here. It is customary that the vice chairman automatically steps into the chairman role.”