Localism Bill

Memorandum submitted by Dr Michael Macpherson (L 40)

Contents

– Pre-amble

– Opinion: Over-cautious steps towards democracy by the people: Better than no steps at all?

– Further reading

Pre-amble

The people’s representatives have spoken but what is the will of the people?

To date the function of democracy in the Localism Bill has been marginal in parliamentary debate and in the mass media, whereas matters of finance, planning and development have been more dominant.

For some years there has been wide agreement on the desirability of improving public participation in political and planning processes. For young people, more estranged from politicians than are older generations, this is especially urgent and crucial for the future of civic life. Surveys have shown that most citizens of the UK judge themselves to be poorly represented by local and central government and many would like to have more say in public affairs, not only at elections but more often, on a range of issues. Ways to enable better public participation have been studied by academics and other experts, an example being Professor Graham Smith who concluded (ca. 2005) that a most effective method is partial direct democracy, involving the citizens’ proposition or law-proposal which can lead to binding ballot of the electorate.

British people have in repeated surveys shown that they embrace the principles of a participative democracy which goes beyond consultation, panel or citizen-jury systems. These principles cover the citizen’s right to initiate a binding referendum on any public issue and to be given the choice to decide directly about vital international treaties, in plebiscite.

The Conservative and Liberal Democrat party leaders in coalition have clearly promised to devolve power to citizens as well as to local government.

I will now briefly answer the question of how far the Localism Bill goes towards achieving such a shift.

Opinion

The Localism Bill 2010.

Over-cautious steps towards democracy by the people: Better than no steps at all?

With some recommendations for improvements.

This is a rapid evaluation of a Localism Bill presented in the House of Commons, December 2010 http://services.parliament.uk/bills/

Referring to: Part 4, Community empowerment, Chapter 1, Local referendums

Positive features

1. Citizens will be able to demand and obtain a referendum on any local issue "economic, social or environmental". One in twenty members of an electorate must endorse the referendum proposal.

2. All levels of local government are to be involved, e.g. the Greater London Area, cities, towns, counties and districts.

3. Electronic collection of endorsements can be used.

Negative features

Design of the direct democratic procedure appears to be rudimentary and not "state of the art" participatory democracy. The Conservative/Libdems have not heeded errors made during long experience in other countries.

1. Deliberative components are lacking

1a) A referendum demand can go directly from proposal to ballot without formal debate of the proposal by the council. This weakens the "agenda-setting" aspect of the citizens' initiative and reduces the time and opportunity for public information and debate.

1b) There is no provision for the council to put forward an alternative proposal. An alternative proposal may bring the advantage of leading to negotiation between council and proposers. If no compromise can be reached and the council rejects the original proposal then both proposal and alternative can be put to the electorate in a ballot containing a "preference" question.

2. The requirement of 5 percent for electors' endorsements could be made fairer by having a sliding scale from, say, one in ten for small villages to one or two percent in large cities.

3. A veto or "facultative" referendum should be explicitly introduced with its own rules. This requires "rapid response" by the electorate, so rules need to be different, e.g. the number of endorsements to be gathered in order to trigger a referendum may be fewer and an embargo on the disputed council policy should be included.

4. There is no provision for public organisational or financial support of a referendum campaign (which can be very costly to the proposers) although councils are encouraged to campaign for their own position.

"Power to the people" and democracy are not fully achieved because

5. The citizens' referendum shall not be legally binding but must only be taken into consideration by the council.

Further reading

Season for change in Britain? Citizen-led democracy and the Con/Libdem government 2010 http://www.iniref.org/index.html

Citizens’ initiative and referendum in Britain and Northern Ireland: Prospects for reform. Available with several other relevant papers at http://www.iniref.org/latest.html

January 2011