Lukewarm response to petitions plan

SHAUN LOWTHORPE Government plans to get town halls to consider policy changes if they receive petitions with more than 200 signatures have been greeted with a lukewarm response in Norfolk.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

Government plans to get town halls to consider policy changes if they receive petitions with more than 200 signatures have been greeted with a lukewarm response in Norfolk.

Ministers want councils to take more notice of petitions as part of a package of policies to improve local decision making and public involvement.

The proposals appear to follow on from the government's 'community call for action' idea contained in the recent local government white paper.

Under the latest plans, communities secretary Hazel Blears is looking at whether councils should be obliged to respond either by changing policy or giving an explanation of why the petition request was turned down.

Steve Morphew, leader of Norwich City Council, was cool on the petitions idea.

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The city council currently responds to petitions with more than 50 signatures, and representatives are allowed five meetings to speak on the issue at council meetings.

“While it sounds like a good idea, the reality is that for somewhere like Norwich we don't need to have 200 people to respond to a problem,” he said. “We try to respond to every query and complaint we have, whether it's from an individual of groups of individuals.

“The more important debate is how do we get more people involved at an earlier stage so that we can decide what our priorities should be, that's where we should be focusing.”

In South Norfolk the recently elected Tory administration introduced a system of 'community reference' giving parish councils or neighbourhood forums the right to raise issue with the council's scrutiny.

Next weeks sees the first referral following a request from Winfarthing parish council to try and secure a commitment to build a footpath.

Ironically the meeting will hear that the district council cannot take any direct action, but Christopher Kemp, chairman of the council's scrutiny committee, said raising the issue has helped apply pressure on highways chiefs at the county council, which is responsible for roads and footpaths.

“The government's community call for action is excessively bureaucratic,” Mr Kemp said. “We have introduced a much more straightforward and less bureaucratic approach.

“The thing that concerns me is the government is talking about 200 people, but many of our residents live in villages where there only 40-50 people, which again shows the government's urban thinking.”

At Broadland, residents are consulted on a variety of topics and there is a 'have your say' section on the authorities website.

But council leader Simon Woodbridge said the government should practice what it preaches and listen to the hundreds of people who have signed petitions delivered to ministers opposing plans to overhaul local councils in Norfolk.

“I am delighted that government has confirmed it will take heed of petitions - especially as this one demonstrated that a unitary bid for Norwich did not have the 'broad stakeholder support' laid down in the governments own criteria,” he said.

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