Christian Mitchell: Fake letters, a secret court hearing and a profound matter of principle

Last October, I was summoned before a ‘court’ run in secret by my own Conservative group and presided over by leader Ray Dawe and deputy leader Helena Croft.

Saturday, 8th March 2014, 1:26 pm
JPCT 040314 S14101000x Christian Mitchell -photo by Steve Cobb SUS-140403-171118001

My crime?

I had helped explain to those of my constituents who opposed the desecration of North Horsham under the council’s only-option plan how to object in a way that would be acceptable under narrow planning guidelines.

Most people simply do not know the correct form of words that are and are not permissible in responding to a planning consultation - why should they? - and as their local councillor I helped them, as I would expect any of my colleagues to do.

But I was accused by Ray Dawe of making ‘public pronouncements, which appear to be a breach of [Conservative] Group rules and an attempt to undermine the council’s democratic process by advising the public how to circumvent the council’s vetting procedure for the current public consultation’.

Very specifically, they wanted to censure me for giving residents this piece of advice: “Object to two open consultations (draft and sustainability). Register on the website, and then you can upload. Here is a long, but comprehensive objection. Read it and you can take points from here. I suggest not to copy this in part or in whole word for word, or the council might not count your objection. Please put it into your own words, even if you cannot cover all the points mentioned”.

It was also claimed that I had ‘publicly endorsed a website that made personal and highly derogatory comments about Claire [Vickers] as the cabinet member leading this policy.’

What, in fact, I had done was refer people who wanted more information to one of the local campaigning websites which, unbeknown to me also contained some criticism of Mrs Vickers. It was no different from referring people to the County Times’ own website which itself contains a lot of criticism of our councillors! But I had already apologised to her personally and made clear I was not in the business of attacking my colleagues - so I believed a line had been drawn under this and that this was her view too.

As a result of this ‘hearing’, I faced suspension from the Conservative Party if found guilty - which would have dashed any final chances of a political career in the future. In the end, it was ‘adjourned indefinitely’ with the clear intention of silencing me.

If I spoke away from the group’s script on the housing plans again - irrespective of what my residents wanted - I would be punished.

The sword of Damocles was left hanging over me.

This hearing was the culmination of some robust e-mail exchanges between me, Ray Dawe and council officers.

I had discovered at the end of the summer, in September, that two letters, apparently written by Horsham District residents and abjectly supporting the council’s plans, were fakes.

The writers didn’t exist and were uploaded to the official consultation website where they still remain.

In my view, this made the whole consultation unsafe and required full investigation.

But I was told that there were not sufficient resources to pursue the matter. In an e-mail of Saturday, 21 September 2013 at 7:24pm, Mr Dawe resoundingly criticised me, after I had raised this issue of the two letters once more.

He said I had broken group rules having ‘openly encouraged and aided strong opposition to the policy and endorsing criticism of another member’.

And he concluded: “I am not willing to support any nomination for you as Council Chairman next year. I will over the weekend be deciding on an email that I will be sending to the HDC Conservative Group about this matter.”

He did just that two weeks later writing on Saturday, 5 October 2013, at 5.52pm.

So my fate was sealed.

Without the support of Mr Dawe and Mrs Croft it was almost certain that the longstanding protocol of the vice-chairman becoming chairman would be abandoned - and someone else would be helicoptered in.

I had never sought being chairman. In many ways it is merely a symbolic role. Being denied it is not the end of the world.

But nor, in my view, should this politically-neutral and independent role be withdrawn because a councillor has had the audacity to be politically-neutral and independent.

Planning should not be a party matter. It should be debated freely with proper engagement of the electorate in a transparent way, otherwise the outcomes will never command public respect.

Indeed, guidance from the Secretary of State has made clear that councillors should assist their residents in the way I believe I have done.

I am proud to be a Conservative. There is no other party under whose banner I would wish to stand.

Yet there is nothing more important than democracy - and representing the wishes of the people in a real way rather than merely paying lip service to their concerns should be the first responsibility of every politician.

I know some of my colleagues - but not all - will say I can be ‘difficult’, of asking awkward questions about the preferred strategy, of being ‘single-minded’ and more concerned about getting at the truth of an issue rather than playing by a set of gentleman’s draconian rules, which also mean that everything we write has to be approved by the leader first (so this article breaks another one of them).

I am grateful to a significant number of our Conservative group for their support. Former leader Liz Kitchen who said she was ‘absolutely appalled’ by my treatment, Peter Burgess who praised my contribution to the council, and cabinet member Andrew Baldwin who issued a statement in my support.

I would single out the editor of this newspaper too, Gary Shipton, for robustly defending my right to speak for my residents.

This year, on the centenary of the First World War, we remember the millions of young men who gave their lives for our freedom - the most important one of all being freedom of expression.

If that means anything at all, it means speaking fearlessly in the public interest without seeking any personal gain or advantage - and whatever other faults I may have, that remains my guiding principle in life.

See also our County Times comment

See also Ray Dawe’s column