Winchelsea councillors cleared

An open letter to Rother Council.

You will be aware that an appeals tribunal in London has thrown out the judgement made by Rother’s Standard Committee against three Winchelsea ward councillors, including myself. Rother had ruled that we had brought Icklesham Parish Council into disrepute by criticising and lobbying against the way in which that council tried to implement a Local Action Plan in Winchelsea in 2010, using Rother’s inadequate “once-size-fits-all” parish questionnaire. We were also accused of making misleading and untruthful statements and of using intemperate language (the words “ambush” and “sham”).

The tribunal’s judgement utterly and comprehensively discredits a process managed by Rother that has dragged on for almost two years and cost Rother’s tax-payers over £10,000. It has achieved nothing more than providing employment for lawyers.

The result has a much wider significance. Rother’s judgement posed a real threat to local democracy. In effect, it would have stifled the exposure and criticism by councillors of poor or improper decisions by local councils, and outlawed political campaigning against such decisions. It is worth repeating in full the reasons given by the appeals tribunal for dismissing Rother’s judgement.

“The Tribunal has determined that the three Appellants did not fail to follow the provisions of the Code because:

They were legitimately exercising their right to free speech.

The language employed by them had not been hostile, intemperate, ill-judged or misleading.

They were entitled to write to local residents informing them of matters they considered of particular relevance. The councillors’ actions were within the legitimate boundary of a local councillor defending local interests.

Residents had not been instructed to do anything unlawful and it was open to recipients to accept or reject the guidance issued by the councillors as to how to show their opposition to adoption of a parish-wide questionnaire.

The Code does not preclude a councillor from opposing council policy provided he uses legitimate and reasonable means. Local councillors are often involved in, or indeed lead, local opposition to locally sensitive issues. For instance, a planning matter which has a far greater impact on a defined locality than the rest of the district. This will, of necessity, bring councillors into opposition with local or party policy.”

It is very worrying that Rother could have misinterpreted so completely such fundamental principles of law as freedom of speech. Where did you get the legal advice to pursue the clearly vexatious complaints made by other Icklesham parish councillors? And how do you imagine that a democracy can operate without open debate and fair criticism? Has Rother been a virtual one-party state for so long that it has simply forgotten how democracy works?

Cllr Richard Comotto