Horsham District Council’s ruling Tory group this week issued a free speech statement which appeared to suggest it intended to abandon practices of telling its members how to vote or getting advance approval from leader Ray Dawe on what they should write in the press.
But a question and answer session about the announcement with Mr Dawe gives the impression it is business as usual with no change of heart.
Last month, the County Times launched a Free Speech Charter following the unprecedented deselection of Tory vice chairman Christian Mitchell as the next council chairman.
Mr Mitchell said he had paid the price for articulating his residents’ concerns about massive development in North Horsham - and he described a secret court he had been subjected to in the autumn.
Colleague Peter Burgess said the deselection vote was subject to a ‘three line whip’; and it has since transpired that Tories were told that if they voted against the contentious housing plans last July disciplinary action against them would immediately follow.
Mr Mitchell who is also a barrister at law explains in this week’s paper, that such a sanction constitutes ‘whipping’ and could fundamentally undermine the council’s plan.
The County Times Charter 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 Dem and UKIP county and district councillors all rushed to sign it, as have three Independent candidates, and a number of Tory county and district councillors - including Brad Watson OBE, Liz Kitchen, Tricia Youtan, John Bailey, Josh Murphy, Simon Torn, Peter Burgess, and Mr Mitchell.
Louise Goldsmith, Tory leader of the county council, said her group had considered the Charter and said it posed no problems. She has undertaken to sign it as a reaffirmation of what she already does.
On Friday, a UKIP motion - slightly different in wording - was discussed at County Hall, and a Tory amendment was accepted. The amendment contained much of the paper’s Charter.
This Wednesday, HDC issued this statement in response.
“The Conservative motion [at county council] re-states the principles by which councillors run their public lives and received all party support. It was carried by a vote of 58 for with 2 abstaining.
“We thank our colleagues at county for the effort they put into this motion and Horsham district Conservative group members are pleased to endorse the principles and make the following declaration:
“The Horsham District Council Conservative group confirms its continuing principle that all its councillors should undertake to speak, write and vote on behalf of their constituents without fear or favour.
“Inevitably, membership of a political party requires members to respect their party’s values and to honour pre-election manifesto pledges. Not all major issues can be forecast or included within manifestos and these too require resolving by agreement of members.
“However, should party policy ever appear to conflict with the interests of local residents, the Conservative group confirms that local members have always been expected to represent their residents’ interests at both the local and district-wide level.
“This Conservative group reaffirms its adherence to ‘The General Principles of Public Life’ as promulgated by the Nolan report.”
To date, the leader and deputy leader of HDC Ray Dawe and Helena Croft have ignored the County Times’ Charter, along with their cabinet, and council chairman Philip Circus - who spoke eloquently on the importance of a free press and free speech when he opened the newspaper’s new offices in the summer.