Headlines: September 9th, 2009

A think-tank has raised doubts over Conservative plans for local referendums. The New Local Government Network says they could lead to councils facing unmanageable financial commitments.

In a new report it says that while it supports the idea of citizens having more say in local decision making, the plans could undermine councils and might even lead to the rights of minority groups being diminished.

The NLGN says that instead of the referendum proposals in the Conservatives’ ‘Control Shift’ document, it favours a Community Proposal, which would allow residents to demand that an issue is debated at a full council meeting if they can show support for the idea. Under these proposals the issues would also have to be voted on. It argues that such a system would lead to more engagement in local decision making without jeopardising the democratic mandate of elected councillors.

Under the referendum plan people would be allowed to hold a referendum on any issue if five per cent of the local population signed a petition within a six month period. This follows the American system of Citizens’ Initiatives, allowing local residents to trigger referendums. The report accepts that this model could lead to higher voter turnout and increased engagement.

It identifies pitfalls, however, in the referendum plan including the potential for minority rights to be suppressed, concerns about the quality of decisions and the danger that this version of citizen engagement would be quickly tarnished by so-called ‘deferendums’ that put off decisions by months or even years.