“I am Tory and will always be a Tory,” proclaimed Liz Kitchen from the comfort of her Rusper home - but the former leader of Horsham District Council is a Tory increasingly at odds with her party.
Opposed to the 2,500 home North Horsham development plans, she has aligned herself against the district council’s Conservative ruling group, helping to foment a north south schism in the local party.
The long-serving district member for Rusper and Colgate is also adamant that a second runway at Gatwick would ‘destroy this part of the world as we know it’ - a position not supported by the Conservative ruling group at County Hall which voted in favour of a new runway earlier this year.
And yet, at the age of 72, it is this new realm of local politics that Mrs Kitchen looks set to enter, should she win the Warnham and Rusper county by-election for the Conservatives next Thursday (October 24).
But why decide to make a bid to become a county member after more than 25 years as a district councillor?
“To broaden my knowledge, and I am actually a supporter of unitary authorities,” said Mrs Kitchen, hinting at the writing on the wall for local politics amidst ever-shrinking Government grants.
“I used to be concerned about what was known as twin hatting because I thought you couldn’t serve your district as you wanted to,” she admitted, “but now I am always being asked if I can do something about the roads and I have to say its not me, you have to see your county councillor.
“And of course, we have got these two very big concerns; one is Gatwick Airport and the second runway; and the other is North Horsham, which I am totally opposed too.”
Seven Conservative district councillors, including cabinet member Andrew Baldwin and former leader Mrs Kitchen, now publicly oppose HDC’s preferred housing strategy for 2,500 homes north of the A264.
“Good for him, he is standing up for what he believes in” said Mrs Kitchen, on first learning of Mr Baldwin’s decision in the County Times.
“He’ll be out of the cabinet then,” she reflected, adding: “And for a cabinet member to go is quite something.”
But how did local Conservative councillors become so split on strategic planning for the district?
“Bad planing,” said Mrs Kitchen. By whom? “That I couldn’t tell you – it only came once or twice to SPAG [Strategic Planning Advisory Group] and then it all came out of the blue.”
In a damning attack on our democracy and secretive internal workings of the council, Mrs Kitchen also revealed that local councillors were not consulted on the North Horsham plans by their own Conservative council colleagues.
Asked how difficult a decision it had been for her as a prominent Tory to break ranks with her group, Mrs Kitchen said: “The first I knew about the wider area of this was when I read about it in the County Times.
“Now, I’m jolly near a local member for all of that,” she said pointing to an aerial view of the potential development site in last week’s paper, “and the local members didn’t know.
“We didn’t know,” she added. “We weren’t included in the debate or anything.”
She lamented the lack of consultation apparently prevalent in the local authority and said things had changed during her time serving as a councillor.
“When I first came into the council, you got a council policy that you argued before it became a policy and once it was a policy you didn’t only work for the people you represented you became much more integrated.”
Now, Mrs Kitchen who chairs the council’s Development Control North Committee, finds herself has publicly opposing her council’s strategic planning policy.
In recent weeks the senior Tory has been prominently supporting the campaign group RAGE [Residents Against Greenfield Erosion], although not financially she said.
She vehemently disputes the need for a new business park and says she fears ‘the London Borough of Crawsham’ will be created should the A264 northern barrier to the town be breached by development.
Mrs Kitchen abstained on the vote to put the preferred housing strategy out for public consultation, but says she has made it ‘quite clear’ she will vote against it should North Horsham return before councillors as the preferred strategy, following the public consultation which closed last Friday.
The confident councillor gave an emphatic ‘No’ when asked if Liberty Property Trust’s scheme for North Horsham would eventually go ahead.
However, she said she could not be so sure about whether a second runway at Gatwick would be rejected when the Airports Commission publishes its finding after the 2015 general election.
The fact that she will hold a position contrary to most of her Conservative colleagues at County Hall, should she win next Thursday’s by-election, is a certainty though.
Her argument opposing Gatwick’s expansion revolves around the additional infrastructure it would precipitate.
“The unemployment in this part of the world is minuscule, so all these 40,000 jobs they are going to create, where are all these people going to live?
“They’ll build and they’ll build and they’ll build, and we’ll soon have the London borough of Crawsham if we don’t watch out.
“I know we need a second runway and possibly Gatwick would be a good place to put it, but it will destroy this part of the world as we know it.”
However, recognising a need for houses to be built, the member for Rusper and Colagte suggested new homes could be built along the A24 between Capel and the Great Daux roundabout, and also supported the creation of a new town on the A23, different to the current Mayfield Towns 10,000 home proposal for the Sayers Common area.
“We must concentrate on a new town,” she said. “We’ve been talking about it for four years now and we don’t seem to be getting anywhere and I believe there are people at Mid Sussex that we can talk to.”
Are these alternatives being investigated by HDC though? “No,” she said. “I think they are hell bent on doing North Horsham.”
By Theo Cronin | email@example.com | 01403 751 233 | @theocronin | Do you have a story?
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