COMMENT: Time to sign Free Speech Charter and make peace

Stop secrets
Stop secrets

The Tory leader of Horsham District Council is mired in controversy over a simple piece of paper. And yet he digs himself deeper into a hole of his own making.

Ray Dawe and a core of colleagues won’t sign a Free Speech Charter, produced by the West Sussex County Times, after the unprecedented deselection of popular Tory vice chairman Christian Mitchell as the next council chairman.

So why should this matter to you and to me?

The whole thing stems from contentious, and truly massive, housing plans which are being forced through, with any Tory voting against when the scheme was unveiled last July immediately facing disciplinary action.

Dawe denies councillors were whipped, telling me: “Any member who doesn’t want to vote in favour of an agreed group policy is asked to abstain and failing that see the group leader.”

…Ie “if you even think about going against us, see the headmaster first.” A blatant whip.

Mitchell’s only crime was speaking out against the plans on behalf of his constituents, and – according to fellow Tory councillor Peter Burgess - was subsequently the victim of another whip when in February he was denied the next chairmanship.

I believe Mr Burgess, given the previous revelations.

…Oh, and because, after four months, the public have still been denied sight of a document about the proposed new railway station for North Horsham.

Mr Dawe insists he adheres to the ‘Nolan principles’, for officials in public office.

The first of these is to act ‘solely in the terms of the public interest’. To my reading this is all the Free Speech Charter is saying.

Nolan also says councillors should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.

That does not mean acquiescing to minority pressure groups, and still gives councillors the freedom to interpret the public interest as they feel best.

The Free Speech Charter is simply designed to encourage this - more openness, transparency, and honesty, in and from the council.

I have spent my life working in top-level public relations, including national politics, and can clearly see the chaos and public mistrust which Mr Dawe has brought on himself. He is a would-be emperor without clothes.

From the sacking of a highly respected chairman-to-be, to hiding everything behind a veil of secrecy, to surrounding himself with ‘yes’ men (and women), his public relations are a total disaster.

Failing to sign a perfectly simple Free Speech Charter sends completely the wrong message and has given his political opponents a huge opportunity.

…It says that he and his other ‘old guard’ cronies feel smug and arrogant enough to get away with it, because they take their Tory voters for granted.

Nolan concludes that holders of public office should promote Nolan principles ‘by leadership, and by example’, and should act in a way that secures public confidence.

Isn’t it time Dawe started putting some of this into practice and leading by example - or is he happy for UKIP to continue to gain ground? As one of his voters, or perhaps former voters, I’m not.

Mr Dawe, you and your colleagues should join the ranks of those – in HDC and West Sussex County Council – who are signing up to the Charter.

Make Mitchell the chairman, and make peace with the press. Be a true leader, and win the battle.