Council rejects greater voice for public

North Herts District Council last week ignored statutory guidance for a “low threshold” for the number of petitioners necessary to guarantee a debate on an issue by the full council.

Although the government recommended councils should debate petitions signed by one per cent of the population - the equivalent of 1,200 people in the district - the council voted on Thursday night for a minimum of 5,000 signatures.

Labour’s Judi Billing, chairman of Hitchin committee, who opposed the Tory-led move, said it was “kicking the public”.

“It will make it virtually impossible for citizens to have there say. Twelve hundred signatures guaranteed that the council must debate the issue. The Tories said that it would save time and money if you weren’t constantly debating issues. It’s kicking the public,” she said.

But leader of the council, Lynda Needham, said the whole scheme was overly bureaucratic and unnecessary.

She said: “When considering the petitions system a number of councillors felt that whatever level of signatories agreed upon, the whole process seemed overly bureaucratic and unnecessary. Upon receiving one of these petitions, there would be significant officer administration time and cost involved in verifying the identity of signatories.

“We do however want to hear what our residents have to say, and there are many consultation exercises and other mechanisms for residents to get in touch or even to ask for a debate in council.

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“We also have our own petition system which only requires 20 signatures to be considered. These are usually passed from the council to the relevant officer or portfolio holder for a direct response. On bigger issues, if residents don’t feel that our normal methods for communicating are adequate, then they will now have the option of forming one of these larger scale petitions to ensure a debate in council.”

Elsewhere in Comet country councils were more receptive to the idea. Stevenage Borough Council approved the one per cent guideline at the end of last month, and Central Beds councillors backed a threshold of 1,250 signatures.