A vigorous campaign against whipping the Tory vote on the vexed issue of the massive North Horsham development plan was showing the first signs of victory tonight (Wednesday April 23).
Informed sources were suggesting that Conservative backbenchers will be allowed to vote against the plan if they wish at a crunch meeting next Wednesday (April 30) in the council chamber at 6pm.
But the source added that cabinet members were still being told that ‘collective responsibility’ meant at best they could abstain but not vote against.
If true, despite the concession to back benchers, such a ruling would put at risk the legitimacy of the entire vote.
County Times Head of News Mark Dunford said: “The law is quite clear. In a matter such as this, every councillor must weigh up the material facts on an individual basis.
“Whipping the vote or trying to browbeat cabinet members through collective responsibility will potentially undermine the entire process at an Examination in Public by a government inspector.
“This is not Westminster. It is a small, market town council. Every councillor - irrespective of whether they hold a cabinet position - must be entirely free to vote against the plan if they wish,” he said.
Mr Dunford’s message echoes a comment due to be published in this week’s print edition of the County Times - which has campaigned for a free vote, ever since the initial vote was whipped last July.
Residents and the newspaper have been outraged at the way plans for 2,500 homes and a business park have been forced through in a single-option consultation and a host of secret meetings.
That comment says:
“It would be easy to assume from the robust coverage in recent editions of this newspaper, that the County Times was spearheading a nimby-style campaign against massive development in North Horsham.
That would not be the case.
When the development plans were first unveiled we made many supportive comments. High calibre jobs, a strong economy to sustain our town centre, and affordable housing for local people, are all important to many families.
We gave the council and developer Liberty a strong platform to present their arguments to residents.
In the name of balanced reporting, we afforded a similar courtesy to those who took a different view - including Conservative district councillor Christian Mitchell and half a dozen of his colleagues, who have articulated the concerns of residents with great skill and passion.
Yet today, a week away from the council’s final vote on their planning blueprint, we find ourselves 180 degrees removed from where we began in the summer.
The reason is simple: in a shallow consultation, HDC has failed to give the public any meaningful or honest choice - nor has it listened to their concerns.
The only two significant letters of support have allegedly been faked.
The North Horsham scenario was sprung on councillors as late as last June in a discussion that lasted less than a couple of hours. Filling the council coffers appears to have been the main motivation for the change of heart - and even that based on uncertain and shifting evidence.
A mere four and half weeks later, it was railroaded through full council with a whipped vote that was reinforced with the threat of disciplinary action.
All the critical debate around the plan, both before and after, has been conducted in closed session. The minutes are private and confidential. The public - and the press - has been fed a lean diet of carefully selected information.
It has been left to residents to glean what they can through hard-won Freedom of Information requests and to the County Times to make best use of its reputable sources to uncover the rest.
This is no way for a small council to behave.
To compound matters, it has taken the lazy approach - allowing developers to set the agenda rather than identifying a plan and then finding construction companies to implement it.
Today, the town edition of the County Times proclaims ‘Seven days to save Horsham’ as we count down to a final decision on Wednesday (April 30). We hope as many residents as possible will attend that meeting.
The council has the rare chance to show whether it serves the people or tribal party loyalties; whether, like us, it has considered the facts and determined that this plan is unsafe.
There are better planning alternatives available to it.
No good will come of defending a flawed process on the basis that it is better to have this plan than no plan at all - and then lose another year while a government inspector rejects it for all the reasons residents have given.
Abstaining is not an option.
When we publish a list of how every councillor voted, we and the public will see how many share the courage of Mr Mitchell and his supporters - and how much they value true, local democracy.
After weeks of bad headlines, in seven days’ time all councillors have the chance to make the people proud.”