Why secrecy and the threat of sanctions makes the North Horsham plan unsafe

Green fields north of Horsham where major development is proposed - this area would be the site of a new railway station and business park. Photo by Steve Cobb. Pic ref S12010591a. ENGSUS00120120124105235
Green fields north of Horsham where major development is proposed - this area would be the site of a new railway station and business park. Photo by Steve Cobb. Pic ref S12010591a. ENGSUS00120120124105235

On April 30, Horsham District Council will finally endorse or reject its local plan - a blueprint for massive development in the north of the town.

Everyone will have their own view on the merits of the project.

JPCT S14090288W Horsham. Ray Dawe -photo by Steve Cobb SUS-140319-103102001

JPCT S14090288W Horsham. Ray Dawe -photo by Steve Cobb SUS-140319-103102001

But we believe that the plan is flawed and unsafe because of the manner in which it has been imposed.

Your elected representatives follow the Nolan principles of conduct - namely to behave in an open, honest, transparent way in the public interest.

In essence, that is all our Free Speech Charter requires.

We do not accept that these principles have been adhered to in the case of the local plan.

Horsham District Councillor Claire Vickers - picture submitted by HDC ENGSUS00120130318094655

Horsham District Councillor Claire Vickers - picture submitted by HDC ENGSUS00120130318094655

Why not?

1 The real decision-making has been taken in private, in secret meetings of the Conservative group.

‘Private and confidential’ minutes of the meeting of June 24, 2013, reveal that this is when the real decision was taken for the current preferred strategy.

Eighteen councillors voted in favour.

Horsham District Councillor Jim Rae - picture submitted ENGSUS00120130318095012

Horsham District Councillor Jim Rae - picture submitted ENGSUS00120130318095012

But HDC has 44 members in total, so less than half endorsed the scheme - with about 60 per cent of all councillors either voting against, not participating, or being excluded from this private vote because they were not members of the Conservative ‘club’.

2 With only minority support, the plan was forced through using threats of discipline.

The ‘private and confidential’ minutes of the Tories’ private meeting of July 22 - three days’ before the full council endorsement of the plan - concluded ‘members are advised that voting against a Group majority decision is not an option - unless they accept that group disciplinary proceedings will immediately follow.’

This point was emphasised in an e-mail from deputy leader Helena Croft to vice chairman Christian Mitchell later that evening. He has released it to us.

At 22:57 she concluded a note stating: “At Group this evening after you left, it was clearly stated in the minutes of the June Group meeting, as you will see attached, along with tonight’s group minutes, that there was a strong majority in favour of the proposed Housing Strategy. The Leader at the meeting in June, made an exception to the Group rules in allowing members to speak against this publicly if they so chose, whilst also making clear that at the vote at Council, in line with Group rules, members would not vote against a Group decision but abstain. This was clearly upheld by the Group this evening, and I trust you will uphold this democratic process on Thursday [July 25].”

3 When challenged, the council has not been transparent with the public or the press

In our view, and there is legal precedent for it, the threat of discipline against a councillor to prevent them voting in a certain way is political whipping.

Yet when the Horsham Society wrote to the chief executive about the July vote, he replied in December: “I have discussed your complaint with the leader of the council [Ray Dawe] who is, as you know, also leader of the Conservative group. He has confirmed that his members were not subject to a whip.”

When the Society challenged the council again, in the light of revelations by this newspaper, they received this further response from the leader: “As you know, our group meetings are completely confidential and thus I am not able to comment any further on the query. I add only that unlike many political groups we do not have an appointed group whip and that each councillor knows that when in council meetings he has to weigh up all aspects of the matter when there is a vote and these clearly would include his membership of a particular political group among them.”

And when we offered a further opportunity for comment last week, Mr Dawe stated: “Legal advice is quite clear that this is not a planning but a policy matter. The HDC Conservative group does not have an appointed whip. If a group member feels unable to support a policy agreed by a majority of other members then we follow national group rules. These do not “forbid” any members from voting as they decide. On this particular occasion members knew that they could abstain if they so wished at the council vote on the Preferred Strategy. If members do not want to abstain and vote and speak against any agreed group policy then the rules also say that they should discuss the issue with their group leader before doing this. No one chose to do that. I conclude therefore that each member voted as they wanted. I add that our HDC Conservative group is simply following the normal practice of all three main political parties throughout the country.”

Mr Dawe says no-one chose to discuss the issue with their group leader so ‘I conclude there that each member voted as they wanted.’

The County Times was given a copy of this e-mail written by Mr Dawe to a senior Conservative councillor and opponent of the plan. It was sent on Friday July 19 at 8.32 pm - three days before the private group meeting at which the voting regime was outlined.

Mr Dawe’s letter began: “I am on holiday in France but Claire [Vickers] has been in touch with me! This is a delicate message but one I feel I must put to you in view of her comments to me and [the] letter in the County Times. My understanding both at and following our last group meeting was that as group protocol does not permit a member who disagrees with a group resolution to vote against (only abstain), you would not be coming to the council meeting next week. Claire now tells me that you are intending to come and vote against!”

It concluded: “I am happy to phone you if that makes it easier but I don’t have your number with me here so if needed please could you let me have it. I know this is not easy for you and we have discussed the matter but I am certainly happy to talk again.”

The next day, Mr Dawe wrote to Christian Mitchell in which he concluded: “I also understand from Claire [Vickers] that you have told her that rather than abide by the agreement made at the last group meeting whereby it was specifically agreed that you could speak against the draft strategy and then abstain, you will be voting against it. I hope that this is not correct information. As a long standing Conservative group member you will appreciate that we have group rules for a purpose. If the rules are flouted then an investigation of what disciplinary action should be taken will automatically follow. As I say, I hope that given your considerable council experience and the fact that you are deputy chairman of the council you will not in fact be doing as Claire has reported.”

The letter in the County Times, which had appeared on Thursday July 18, should have left Mr Dawe in no doubt that some members held a different view to the way in which they were being required to vote.

It included the line: “There must be no further erosion of our beautiful countryside in our green belt that preserves the identities of the towns of Horsham and Crawley. We are sleepwalking into the joining of these two towns through an urban style sprawl along the A264 Crawley Road, akin to the style of development seen in the USA.”

It was signed by Conservative councillors Cllr Peter Burgess (Con, Holbrook West) Laurence Deakins (Con, Denne), Liz Kitchen (Con, Rusper and Colgate), Christian Mitchell, (Con, Holbrook West), Josh Murphy (Con, Horsham Park), Simon Torn (Con, Roffey South), and county councillor Peter Catchpole (Con, Holbrook).

At the July meeting, no Conservative member voted against the plan.

4 The consultation was fundamentally undermined by a failure to remove or investigate ‘fake letters’ when the vice chairman raised the matter

In the late summer, two letters abjectly supporting the North Horsham option were sent to the County Times and to the council’s consultation.

Mr Mitchell says he discovered that the names of the writers were fabricated and these letters were fraudulent.

He carried out a number of inquiries himself but was hampered by a lack of full information. The County Times does not print full addresses even though it insists they are supplied. He demanded the council investigate but his request was refused on the grounds of insufficient resources.

Mr Dawe did, however, seem sufficiently interested in the issue of fake letters to write a note to me.

My father had died on Wednesday, September 18, and I was away from the business. But the next day, on Thursday at 9.53pm, he sent an e-mail to my personal account, entitled ‘Letters’.

He wrote: “I understand that you have had a very difficult week and I am sorry to add these questions to your load. Firstly, just to say that today’s paper was a pleasure to read and I say that not because my name seemed to crop up a lot! I assume Claire’s letter will appear next week?

“Secondly, there is some controversy among council members about the letters that you publish. I note that you make a deliberate point re only printing abbreviated addresses and removing any excessively derogatory remarks. The controversy is about whether any letters may be from lobbyists or written under pseudonyms and how you weed those out and under what circumstances you would ever disclose a full address to a third party since one letter in particular that has appeared is under discussion - not that I see any problem whatsoever with it myself. I presume you would do this if the Police asked or if there was a court order but what is the general policy please?”

5 A secret court was used to try to silence the vice chairman from opposing the local plan

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

Writing in this paper, Mr Mitchell explained: “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.”

6 And he was punished

At a special council meeting in February this year, the council ditched Mr Mitchell as the next chairman in what Conservative colleague Peter Burgess described as a three line whip vote.

Mr Mitchell said he had paid the price for articulating the concerns of his residents about the north Horsham plan.

Mr Dawe shrugged off Mr Mitchell’s deselection in his fortnightly column saying ‘councillors’ reasons for preferring one candidate over another are personal to them.’

But he didn’t mention his own involvement in the matter, which he specified in an e-mail to Mr Mitchell last September which 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.’

7 So now to the vote on April 30

At a county council meeting on Friday April 11 at which the Free Speech Charter was referred to, district and county councillor Jim Rae said it was a stunt to sell more newspapers.

“I do not need to be told by an editor how to do my job in representing the people who elected me. Neither of these groups [Conservative Groups at HDC and WSCC] have or operate a whip. They do not now and they never have done.”

Yet Mr Rae would have been aware of the threat of disciplinary action to any Tory who voted against the local plan on July 25. The minutes that contained the threat were written by him.

Our Free Speech Charter will not sell more papers. But it has given us the opportunity to explain to the people of the Horsham District as clearly as we are able some of the key factors behind the north Horsham plan which have been shrouded in secrecy; and to liberate councillors to put the interests of the people first when they cast their vote.

That is what democracy is all about - and holding your representatives to account is our prime responsibility.