Horsham cabinet member to sign Free Speech Charter

Andrew Baldwin pictured in 2011.
Andrew Baldwin pictured in 2011.

Andrew Baldwin today became the first Conservative cabinet member at Horsham District Council to ask to sign the County Times’ Free Speech Charter.

Mr Baldwin, who has responsibility for the environment and is a long-serving councillor, said that at a meeting of Horsham Conservative Association on Saturday he had been unanimously confirmed as a candidate for Holbrook East in the forthcoming May district council elections.

“Now that I have been adopted I would like to sign the Free Speech Charter,” he wrote.

“With me, what you see is what you get. I always, and will continue to, speak my mind and say what I think. I do believe in the Nolan principles [the ethical rules governing councillors], in particular those of integrity, honesty, openness and accountability.”

Mr Baldwin’s intervention comes after two Conservative district councillors were deselected at the same meeting. One was Jim Rae and the other, whose name is still to be confirmed, both had cabinet responsibilities. Neither had signed the Free Speech Charter.

The Charter was unveiled a year ago, following public outrage at the way in which Horsham District Council’s Tory group whipped its members into launching a Hobson’s choice housing plan for North Horsham in July 2013.

The newspaper argued that while there were never any easy answers to where houses should be located, there was no place in local councils for elected representatives to be coerced on party lines irrespective of the views of their residents.

The Charter simply stated: “I undertake to speak, write and vote on behalf of my constituents without fear or favour of party discipline. If I am a member of a political party, I will respect its values and honour its pre-election manifesto pledges - but I will always put first the people I am elected to serve.”

Lib Dems and UKIP opposition councillors as well as Independents at Horsham district and county council literally queued up to sign it when it was launched.

Senior Conservatives, including county council leader Louise Goldsmith, were also determined to add their names.

Brad Watson, chairman of the Horsham Conservative Association, acting in a personal capacity, did so - along with his key officers John Bailey and Simon Torn.

Former distinguished leader at HDC Liz Kitchen was one of the first to welcome the initiative.

The then Horsham council vice chairman Christian Mitchell, the immediate past chairman Leonard Crosbie, and the newly chosen vice chairman Tricia Youtan, all pledged their support.

But HDC leader Ray Dawe, deputy leader Helena Croft, the Tory cabinet at HDC, and a number of backbenchers ignored the Charter despite invitations to support it.

Mr Baldwin’s decision to sign is therefore significant and he is expected to be the first of a number of new Conservative candidates who wish to do so.

It followed the unprecedented deselection of Mr Mitchell as the next chairman in what one of his Tory colleagues described as a whipped vote. Mr Mitchell said he had paid the price for articulating his residents’ concerns about massive development in North Horsham.

The Editor of the County Times, Gary Shipton, has previously said: “We live in an environment where political spin has never before been more prevalent; where politicians on councils even as tiny as Horsham’s seem contemptuous of public opinion.

“You cannot please all the people all the time but if the processes you follow are transparent you can demonstrate that you approached the issue fairly and with an open mind.

“Whether it is here or on the global stage - the Charlie Hebdo outrage is still fresh in so many minds - that fighting for free speech and open government is of paramount importance to the democracy we hold so dear.

“Our Charter is not party political - politicians of all parties and none are welcome to sign it, and many have done so.

“We hope that when they campaign for your vote in May, they will wear their Charter mark with pride, that very same pride exemplified by Mrs Goldsmith in a landmark article she wrote this month.”