Last April I signed the West Sussex County Times (sister paper to this title) Free Speech Charter.
Never was it more important than on Monday morning when West Sussex County Council held a meeting to discuss and debate our authority’s response to the national public consultation into additional airport capacity in the South East.
I struggle to think of an issue that has been as emotive as the possible expansion of Gatwick Airport in recent years.
As always, members of my Conservative group had the freedom to vote with their conscience and reflect their residents views on Monday.
Feelings ran very high. Councillors from all parties expressed very serious concerns about the implications that expansion at Gatwick could have on the county and their communities. I know many outright oppose expansion. I also know some support it providing any development comes with the much needed infrastructure. And I know that some councillors still feel that they do not have sufficient information to make a decision one way or another.
So on Monday we officially agreed our response to the public consultation. A document of 20 pages listing a raft of improvements that we believe need to be made by both Gatwick and the government before any bid to expand Gatwick is submitted.
And, following that, it was agreed by a majority vote, that WSCC would no longer support in principle expansion at Gatwick. That’s true democracy at work.
The one thing that united us all on Monday, irrespective of our personal views around support for Gatwick expansion or not, was the fact that we all agreed we need to be at the forefront of the fight to ensure that our county gets the very best deal regardless of the decision that is made by the next government about airport expansion.
It is crucial that we continue to engage with government, businesses, residents and Gatwick. That is our job now.
The decision about whether Gatwick is expanded is not and never was a decision that West Sussex County Council could make. It is a decision that will be made by a future government.
I believe the decision we made in 2013 to support, in principle, expansion worked well and put the County Council to the fore – raising the important issues around major infrastructure, the environment and, more recently, noise.
I do know and appreciate that decision has not sat comfortably with some Councillors and with some residents. That played out on Monday.
However, I believe this position has worked well for this Council, as it has provided a mandate to work with key business and economic partners, to raise issues around the surface infrastructure with the Department for Transport and the Department for Business Innovation and Skills.
And we have had some very, very challenging conversations. We’ve put the voice of our residents right to the heart of Government in a constructive but challenging way.
But now we must move on building on work done so far.
West Sussex County Council must remain at the table, talking to all key partners and authorities to ensure that whatever decision the Government of the day makes about whether Gatwick will be chosen for expansion we continue to fight to ensure that our county gets the very best deal.
Our job now is to ensure that the economic effects of any decision are optimised and that all of the potential adverse effects for our communities are fully addressed.
It is how we respond to the decision that is made about where a second runway goes that will define us as a County Council. It is the legacy for our children, their children and even their grandchildren. Yes, it will take that long.
Some might say that Gatwick expansion will be in everyone’s back yard – my response if it is let’s make it the best backyard possible.
To that end we have agreed with our District and Borough Councils who too have a vital part to play on looking at and planning for either scenario expansion or not.
I am aware that not all of our district and borough colleagues are in favour of Gatwick expansion, in fact many of them are adamantly opposed. But we all recognise that we need to work together so that we are ready and equipped to deal with whatever decision the Government makes following Howard Davis’ recommendations.
It’s an excellent example of collaborative working for the benefit of the residents of the County.