The Conservative leader of Horsham District Council Ray Dawe was this week challenged by the Horsham Society as to whether his colleagues were ‘whipped’ in a vote in the council chamber last July about the housing strategy that would see massive development in North Horsham.
In December, following a complaint by the Society, the council’s chief executive Tom Crowley wrote: “I have discussed your complaint with the leader of the council who is, as you know, also leader of the Conservative group. He has confirmed that his members were not subject to a whip.”
Last month, the County Times published private and confidential Conservative group minutes from last summer which illustrated the basis on which they were to vote.
The Horsham Society said this clearly showed that members were subject to a whip, contrary to the earlier reassurance.
They challenged the council again on the point and received this reply from Mr Crowley: “I have discussed your concerns with the leader of the council who has provided the following comments in response to your letter:
“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.”
“If you have any further concerns regarding this matter I would suggest you raise the matter with the leader of the council.
This week the Horsham Society’s John Steele publishes an account of this exchange in his own words.
We offered Mr Dawe a further opportunity to comment.
He said this: “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.”
So were members whipped?
Today we let County Times’ readers decide, by publishing three extracts from the private and confidential minutes of the Conservative group’s minutes.
March 25, 2013: “The leader suggested that we need to consider that once housing sites have been established and agreed upon by the group we may wish, for political reasons, to allow local members to voice opinions against a chosen site that might be in or close to their ward. Rule 9.1 and its sub-sections and rule 9.2 are mandatory rules, therefore thought and consideration will need to be given as to how and in what arena/medium members will be permitted to voice any opinions contrary to a Binding Group Decision (but in any vote within any meeting of council still be expected to abstain) without opening themselves up to criticism for any contravention of our rules.”
June 24, 2013: “The Conservative group were presented with two possible housing strategies - with the current preferred strategy, the ‘second scenario’, chosen at that secret meeting.
“A second scenario was then discussed. This was based around the need to give priority to how we could get economic growth and where new business could be located. The big growth area will be within the Gatwick Diamond, based not only on the proximity of the airport but because of good road and rail links. It was suggested that the North of Horsham site would therefore need to feature very strongly in the strategy. In order to fund the infrastructure and land for a business park there, the strategy would need to include an allocation of 2,500 homes. It would also include a railway station. These homes to be built at a rate of 200 pa though the developers would pre-fund infrastructure so it could enable the business park area to be available at an early date.
“There was considerable discussion about the two scenarios and other suggestions were raised. It was stressed that any sites had to be ‘deliverable’ i.e. could start within five years. A vote was then taken and it was agreed (18 in favour, four against, one member left early) that the council should pursue the second scenario.”
The minutes concluded: “The matter of whether a councillor who opposed the strategy could speak against it but then would abstain on the vote in council was put to a second vote and was agreed (20 in favour, two against).”
July 22, 2013: “ ... On Thursday [the day of the full council public vote] all Conservative group members are permitted under Conservative group rules to:
a Vote for and carry the recommendations under 9 a, b & c
b Speak against any segment of 9 a, b or c - and then abstain
c Members are advised that voting against a Group majority decision is not an option - unless they accept that group disciplinary proceedings will immediately follow.”