A Horsham district councillor who was stripped of his chairman-elect status tonight (Wednesday February 26) in an almost unprecedented move by his Tory colleagues said he had paid the price for voicing his constituents’ fears over plans for the North Horsham development.
As confusion descended on parts of the chamber at a full council meeting, there were claims by one Conservative that the ruling Tory group had imposed a three-line whip to ensure its members could not speak out against the decision.
Christian Mitchell (Con, Holbrook West) has robustly articulated the concerns of his constituents against Liberty Property Trust’s proposals for 2,500 homes and a new business park north of the A264, which form part of Horsham District Council’s current preferred housing strategy.
While past vice chairmen have automatically become chairman at the end of each municipal year, Tory councillors voted to indicate their preference for South Downs councillor Brian O’Connell (Con, Henfield) becoming the chairman for 2014/15, effectively deselecting Mr Mitchell as chairman-elect.
After the meeting Mr Mitchell said: “It is of course unprecedented for the vice chairman of Horsham District Council not to be elected as chairman.
“It is clear that this is the price I must pay for doing the right thing by my constituents in articulating their gravest concerns about the North Horsham plan, which is being railroaded through and in a manner that the public perceives as less than transparent.
“My conscience is entirely clear. My objective has been to only represent - with integrity - the people I am charged to represent namely the voters and the council taxpayers of Holbrook West.
“I shall continue to that with the very best of my ability.”
Despite Mr Mitchell being the incumbent vice-chairman, Philip Circus (Con, Chanctonbury), current chairman of the council, asked for nominations for the new chairman and vice chairman for the next year.
After Mr O’Connell was proposed by Kate Rowbottom (Con, Billingshurst and Shipley), and seconded by John Chidlow (Con, Southwater), several councillors expressed confusion about what was happening.
Frances Haigh (LDem, Horsham Park), leader of HDC’s Lib Dem group said: “I’m slightly concerned by what is happening here. It is customary that the vice chairman automatically steps into the chairman role.”
Mr Circus then told members were free to nominate anyone, and while the situation was unusual, it remained constitutionally valid.
Peter Burgess (Con, Holbrook West) said: “I would like to speak on this but I can’t because I have been told quite categorically by the group secretary this is subject to a three-line whip and I would be drummed out of the brownies.”
Mrs Haigh then added: “I’m very concerned by the point by Councillor Burgess about the three-line whip.”
Philip Circus (Con, Chanctonbury), chairman of the council, answered: “I will not allow this to continue, this is totally improper.”
But Mrs Haigh added: “A three line whip is not democratic and I do not understand what is happening.”
Mr Circus interjected: “Will you please assume your seat. It is normal practice for the councillor to assume your seat when the chairman rises.”
Liz Kitchen (Con, Rusper and Colgate) proposed Tricia Youtan as the vice chairman for 2014/15.
But she added: “She will be an excellent vice chairman and my only wish is in 2015 that she is not subject to these unpleasant shenanigans we have seen in the last few months.”
No other nominations were put forward, but the final decision will be taken at HDC’s Annual General Meeting.
Asked to comment on the election process after the meeting Mr Circus said: “What you are asking me about is the internal discussions of the Conservative Party and as chairman of the council it’s not appropriate for me to comment.”