The Leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Horsham District Council tonight (Sunday March 2) condemned the decision by the Tory group to deselect the authority’s chairman-elect - apparently for speaking out on behalf of his constituents.
She said free speech was fundamental to their party and other opposition groups on the council - but claimed Tory back benchers were ‘gagged’.
Fury erupted last week after a secret meeting of Conservative councillors decided to abandon protocol and strip their vice-chairman Christian Mitchell of the council chairman role in May. They confirmed the decision in a whipped meeting of the full council on Wednesday. Afterwards, Mr Mitchell (Con, Holbrook West) said he had paid the price for championing his residents’ views against plans for thousands more homes in North Horsham.
Today, Lib Dems condemned the move and said the authority needed to return to the committee system, whereby councillors were once again able to represent their communities and give them a voice. Even more importantly, it needed to return to a tradition in which councillors from Horsham Town and the north of the district were given the right to represent their constituents properly.
A statement from the Lib Dems said: “It was an open secret that the Conservatives on Horsham District Council were considering not confirming Christian Mitchell as next year’s council Chairman.
“The role of the Chairman is to support all councillors of all parties, including back-benchers, and to represent the council. The role should be exercised in a non-political manner, for the benefit of all. It is an honorary role, given to someone who has served the community well, by long service or good performance, and Cllr Mitchell meets both these criteria. If he had not, then he would not have been elected as vice-chairman for the current council year.
“So what has happened this year that makes him unacceptable as chairman? He has spoken out strongly on behalf of his constituents, against his party. Surely, though, that should not be a reason for de-selection?”
Liberal Democrat Group Leader Frances Haigh commented: “Before last week’s council meeting, I heard that Cllr Mitchell would not be nominated as Chairman and I asked the council’s Leader [Ray Dawe] for an explanation. I was left none the wiser, being told only that Cllr O’Connell had put himself forward, and the Conservative Group had voted for him in preference to Cllr Mitchell.
“At the Council meeting, I again asked for an explanation, so that the public would be informed. Again, no explanation was given. The Chairman said it was not for discussion. Cllr Peter Burgess spread some light on the matter by saying that the Conservatives were subject to a three-line whip. I asked why this was happening, as in my view the three-line whip has no place in local government. At which point, the Chairman told me that I should sit down and that I should not be standing when the Chair is standing.
“In my party, the Liberal Democrats, we believe in free speech. We debate and discuss issues, but our councillors speak for themselves, on behalf of their constituents. The Independent and UKIP councillors are also able to speak freely. But the Conservative backbenchers are gagged. Some of them hardly say anything.
“Yet they are all there as experienced, capable people, elected to represent their communities’ best interests. Is Cllr Mitchell being penalised simply because he stepped out of line? Surely, from the public point of view, he will have gained more respect for speaking up on their behalf and this should be valued by his party.
“Politics has become less and less popular in recent years, despite affecting every aspect of our daily lives. So much has happened nationally to lose the respect and trust of the public.
“Recent events at Horsham District Council, both over this incident and the retro-fitted Preferred Strategy, have done nothing to help rebuild public confidence in local democracy. Rather, they have made matters worse. The Cabinet system has been shown to be an opportunity for a small cabal to rule, which is undemocratic and has brought the Council into disrepute.
“We welcome the principled action of Gary Shipton [Editor In Chief of the County Times group] in resigning from the Chairman’s Trust in support of the right to freedom of speech.
“Horsham District Council needs to return to the committee system, whereby councillors are once again able to represent their communities and give them a voice. Even more importantly, it needs to return to a tradition in which councillors from Horsham Town and the north of the district are given the right to represent their constituents properly, whatever their political colours. It cannot be right that three senior Conservatives have come out since last week’s meeting to express regret about what happened, yet were silent during the meeting.”