The Localism Bill: Giving the people of Norfolk and Suffolk a real voice – but at what price?

In many countries around the world, communities have the right to put any local issue to a vote.

The ability to trigger referenda can enliven local democratic debate and give people a way of making their voice heard on the issues that are close to their heart.

Currently, in this country, communities can only trigger a local referendum in limited circumstances and on a very limited range of questions.

However, the Localism Bill wants to give people the right to suggest votes on 'any local issue' that they think is important.

Local authorities and other public bodies will then be required to take the outcome into account as they make their decisions.

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For communities across the region this will give people a real voice over controversial planning applications and apply pressure on the planning authority.

However, there are concerns people will abuse this new power and force referenda on people who don't want them.

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There are also fears over the lack of clarity of who will get to vote in referenda on issues which only affect, for example, a small rural village, and exactly how much clout these referenda will have.

Trevor Ivory, planning lawyer at Howes Percival's Norwich office, said: 'There is huge potential for people to call for a referendum when there is a controversial planning application or issue.

'This clearly will add additional pressure on the relevant authority to consider what steps they will take in light of the outcome and react to it rather than dismiss it.

'An excellent example of this is the referendum that was held over the proposed incinerator in King's Lynn. Some 65,000 people voted against the incinerator and yet the referendum was dismissed by the county council.

'This would not be allowed to happen under the Localism Bill and the county council would have had to react.'

He added: 'I don't think you are going to see entire boroughs vote on whether or not a house extension in a small village should be built under the Localism Bill.

'If it is not going to have an impact on the whole borough, like the incinerator, then I think referendums will be held in the district wards only.'

The county council's cabinet said the poll had asked the wrong question and the literature provided with it was inaccurate.

Cabinet members agreed to award a contract to build and run the plant to Cory Wheelabrator, sparking fury amongst the tens of thousands who voted against it.

The incinerator referendum cost West Norfolk council �80,000 – which council leader Nick Daubney has said was a good use of public money for this 'very important' issue.

He said: 'The referendum gave thousands of people the chance to express their view on this matter and it really hit home what the local view was across the borough.

'It was done at considerable cost and in the future communities will have to bear the cost in mind.

'But what gave cause to this referendum and what will give cause to others under the Localism Bill is if things are not put to people properly.

'We (local authorities) are all going to have to engage with the public more and look at how we take their views on board in the future.'

Another example of how people can trigger a referendum is the ongoing saga over a directly elected mayor for Great Yarmouth.

Some 3,500 people signed a petition last year calling for a referendum to give residents the chance to decide whether they would like an elected mayor but the referendum is yet to be held. It will be very interesting to see the result of this referendum and what action is then taken without the new proposed power set out in the Localism Bill. One concern for many is the government's use of 'any local issue', which is extremely vague and it is felt could be abused.

Mr Ivory continued: 'I do think that there are two groups of people who will try to take advantage of being able to call referenda.

'The first group are NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) who are opposed to any development and could use referenda as a very powerful tool.

'The other group are politicians and this concerns me because it could bring party politics into planning decisions and politicise the process.'

It would not take much to get a referendum held, with only 5pc of electors in borough ward needed to sign a petition in a six-month period – something Mr Ivory is wary of.

He continued: 'What I fear is that people will be able to get to the 5pc threshold because a lot of people will sign a petition to ensure they don't offend a neighbour or a work colleague.

'The trouble the government has is that if the barrier for calling a referendum is set too high then the whole idea becomes pointless.

'We will just have to rely on everyone using this power responsibly although I can see a referendum being called for whenever a planning application is submitted for a new supermarket in Norfolk.'

There are concerns, from the likes of Shelter, that the bill could mean much-needed homes are not built, while the green energy industry fears that wind farms and turbines could be blocked more easily.

We could also end up with scores of referenda on the same subject, with district councils and county councils all asking the same question to different electorates, with different results.

In a sense, the big test will be how both communities and councils embrace this new power.

It is inevitable there will be future tensions over how much weight referenda have but what is clear is that it will give communities a powerful voice which authorities will no longer be able to ignore.

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